In a recent essay in the Harvard Business Review, Dorie Clark and Andy Molinksy write about the difficulties American business people have when it comes to promoting themselves in countries where self-promotion is seen as something negative. It’s an interesting piece that isn’t just about giving solid advice, but about how culture affects business practice:

In India, it’s crabs in a bucket — the one who tries to escape is pulled down by his compatriots. In Australia, it’s tall poppies — and the tallest one gets its head whacked off. In Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Almost every culture has its own metaphor about what happens to people who are judged by their peers to be overreaching.

In the U.S., known for its embrace of assertive self-confidence, it’s a different story, however. Personal branding is seen as a positive way to differentiate oneself in the American workplace. But for foreign professionals who grew up with a vastly different set of cultural mores and who now need to succeed in the United States or other contexts where personal branding is important, this can be quite a difficult adjustment.

It is clear that America has a slightly different idea of self-promotion. Not everyone is a Babbit, of course, all self-confidence and salesmanship. But Americans, by and large, have a different conception of how to make themselves heard and to achieve success. This can make things tricky for a teacher of international students. In many American classrooms, participation counts toward a significant portion of a grade. But how to teach a student who is taught to keep their head down?

Class participation

This class participation grading rubric, typical of many schools, might not take into account cultural differences, leaving international students behind.
Image from

First, don’t assume

I admit this is a bit contradictory, but it is important to not assume that any issues an international student has come from their culture. It is easy and understandable to do this, but also could set you backwards when it comes to getting to know them. Some students aren’t participating because their culture teaches them that raising your hand and showing off your knowledge is negative, and some kids are just shy by nature. It’s important to start by treating everyone the same- after all, you don’t know if the quiet American student is having trouble learning, or is quiet and reserved by nature. Identify whether or not students are simply shy; if you feel that your international student isn’t merely a quiet kid, then there may be additional things you can do to help them out.

Make it clear what is expected

One of the most important things you can do is to make it clear to all of your students what is expected of them. You probably already do this, but since so many American students are most likely already aware of the expectations (whether or not they choose to care is a different story), that first-day-of-school lecture tends to wash over them- and they tend to be somewhat rote by many educators, as well. If you have international students, though, it is important to be very clear that participation is not just encouraged, but expected. After all, the teacher is in charge, so if you make it clear that you have certain expectations of participation, it can help to overcome culturally-bred reticence.

Make your classroom a positive learning environment

There are a number of things a teacher can do to increase participation, like rearranging the desks, having students take turns leading the class,and breaking off into small groups, in which international students may be more comfortable in participating than they might be in front of whole class. It is also important to remember to give your international student some time if you call on them to participate. The cultural barrier combined with the linguistic challenge increases the pressure, and additionally they may have the normal high-schooler fears of being embarrassed. Don’t rush things.

When you’re a hammer…

Since we started this article with a whole slew of global clichés, here’s one more: when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. You may start to see everything as an issue that you can solve. But remember, your international students aren’t always problems for you to solve- they’re just kids from the other side of the world. In a previous article we talked about avoiding the Dead Poet’s Society syndrome, in which you aim to shake the dusty conformity off students from traditional culture. Avoid the desire to do this with international students. Focus on how you can inspire, influence, and educate. You’re good at that.

But while international students must adapt, they need to do so on their own terms. You probably aren’t going to be able to encourage a student from a reserved culture who may already be shy by nature, to suddenly become a self-promoting paragon of American values. And that’s fine. You can certainly help them to adjust to their new environment, and share in our culture in the same way their classmates will learn from theirs. Recognizing cultural differences and working with them, rather than attempting to change them, is the best way to ensure that your international student has the strongest and most meaningful school year possible.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.