Kay is a Middle School Spanish World Cultures Teacher. She first traveled with EF to Costa Rica in 2009 and has been leading student groups every summer since. Kay believes that students should experience travel to help broaden their perspectives and allow them to see firsthand how tolerant, global and open-minded we should all strive to become.
One of the first topics we always discuss in my World Cultures class is: “What is culture shock?” To me, culture shock is the feeling of surprise, uncertainty or disorientation that can be felt when people find themselves in a new or unknown environment.
As a group leader, it is important to prepare your students for this prior to heading out on tour. This way, rather than spending time hung up on questioning the cultural differences experienced on tour, your students can focus on remaining open-minded and appreciative.
One of the biggest culture shocks I experienced as a group leader was traveling to China for the first time and seeing the bathrooms, which we affectionately nicknamed as the “squatty potty.” Rather than resting on a toilet, the toilet seat sits right on the floor. Luckily we had done our research and were prepared ahead of time so it wasn’t as shocking as it could have been. Sometimes students can get so hung up on a shocking experience that it takes away from other much more valuable learning experiences. Since we had planned for the “squatty potty” we were able to embrace it and add it to our ever-growing list of cultural differences.
So how can you best prepare your students for culture shock?
- Research – The more you know about your destination before you travel the better prepared you will feel. Travel guide books are a great place to start – your local library will likely have the newest versions on hand. Read up to find out as much as you possibly can about your destination. Gather information on the different sights and things that you will experience on tour and make sure your group has some knowledge about different foods and customs you will encounter while traveling. It is such a great experience for students to see their research come to life when finally abroad.
- Have conversations with other travelers – Have your students “talk to their peeps”- their family, friends, and teachers who have traveled before to gain knowledge and understanding before heading out. If your school has taken tours before it can also be helpful to invite previous travelers to come in and talk with your current group of students.
- Discuss and reflect the information as a group before departure – have regular meetings with your group of students to share everyone’s findings and help guide setting proper expectations. Expectations are key for overcoming culture shock. I always try to “front-load” my students with as much information as possible so no matter what they may encounter on tour on their own, they won’t be completely shocked.
- Encourage questions and patience on tour – Encourage students to ask questions and talk directly to the EF Tour Director and local guides. Have them explain differences, from a local’s perspective. This will help students understand why things may be done differently in certain countries. In addition, patience is a virtue when traveling, especially when coping with culture shock. Encourage your students to have patience and ask for help when they need it. It is important for students to talk to their fellow travelers and discuss any differences they may notice while on tour. Sometimes those become the best teachable moments.
It is normal to feel some level of uncertainty when traveling abroad for the first time, but following these steps to prepare your students ahead of time will help your group’s experience be more focused and enjoyable.
You’ve taught your students about the world—now make the world their classroom. Take your students abroad and you can travel free!