The 10 comandments of working with newcomers

Commandment n°1: Stop thinking about newcomer students in terms of cultural difference only!

“Upon meeting others and during interactions with them, first ask: what is it that I have in common with these other people?” (Moghaddam, 2012). Let us put an end to differentialist biases, a common vision in education with newcomers which focuses exclusively on differences, especially in relation to the ‘tired’ and generalizing concept of culture (Abdallah-Pretceille, 1986). One such bias is the typical dichotomization between individualistic and collectivist ‘cultures’, which is often used to explain encounters between people from the ‘West’ and ‘East’ or the ‘North’ and ‘South’. Holliday (2010) has analyzed forcefully the ethnocentrism and moralistic judgments that such differentialism can trigger. The risk in continuing using these elements in such a loose and a-contextualized way is that they can lead “easily and sometimes innocently to the reduction of the foreign Other as culturally deficient” (Holliday, 2010: ix). We are all different and similar at the same time!

Commandment n°2: We share the responsibility of what is happening between ‘us’ and ‘them’!

Discourses on the self and the other – identity constructions – are always co-constructed between people. An identity is created and exists because there is another identity that can be compared or opposed to it (Bauman, 2004). Who you are in the classroom depends on who is in this classroom. The same goes for students in relation to you. Therefore, when we experience interculturality, our stereotypes, representations and ideologies inform and influence encounters and thus identities (Holliday, 2010: 2; Dervin, 2012). My identity is based on the presence of others, and vice versa. We thus need to include all those involved in intercultural encounters to explain and understand them instead of just one of them. The way interculturality takes place in the classroom depends on interaction between people rather than the presence of single individuals.

Commandment n°3: Accept failure and learn from it!

The idea that not everything can be explained as far as the ‘intercultural’ is concerned and thus that it is often impossible to exhaust results when researching it, has not gained much ground in education yet. However, many phenomena that we examine or teach about, derive from the playful, the imaginary and the dreamy and cannot thus always be rationalized (Maffesoli, 1985). We need to accept that not everything is understandable and that we should sometimes just let go and get back to it when and if needed!

Commandment n°4: Live with ‘ups’ and ‘downs’!

A lot of work has concentrated on structures and on describing how a certain group of people (usually determined by ‘nationality’ or ‘ethnicity’) communicates with another (Piller, 2011) – leading to the equation ‘the more you know about their habits, thoughts, etc. the more able you are to “control” them and thus interact in a proper and unproblematic way’. Many scholars argue that this does not reflect the complexity of human beings (Pieterse, 2004; Wikan, 2002) and urge researchers and practitioners to look instead at exceptions, instabilities and processes, which are ‘natural’ parts of sociality (cf. Baumann, 1988; Bensa, 2010). It is important as teachers to steer away from placing NAMs into ‘nice’ cultural and linguistic boxes and to look into their individuality which cannot but be unstable and processual. Accepting that working with NAMs leads to ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ is essential!

Commandment n°5: newcomers are complex too!

The idea of intersectionality, “the interaction of multiple identities and experiences of exclusion and subordination” (Davis, 2008: 67), is thought-provoking for education. It is already a very much common practice in the field of intercultural education, influenced highly by critical multicultural education (Banks and McGee Banks, 2009; Sleeter, 1996). Many scholars argue that it is not just ‘culture’ that guides interactions but the co-construction of various identities such as gender, age, profession, social class, etc. All these intersect in intercultural interaction and thus need to be taken into account (Sleeter, ibid.). Interculturality is not a synonym for different cultures but for interaction between complex people and newcomers also experience complexity!

Commandment n°6: Promote social justice!

I would also like to put forward the idea of justice: “a commitment to combat inequality, racism as well as sexism, and all other forms of prejudice, oppression and discrimination through the development of understanding, attitudes and social action skills” (Räsänen, 2009: 37). A few examples have been identified in the literature: For example, in his critical cosmopolitan paradigm, Holliday (2010: 48) suggests increasing the awareness of institutional and cultural racism and power structures. As a teacher working with potentially vulnerable children (NAMs) I have a responsibility to support their well-being, inclusion and equal treatment.

Commandment n°7: Be systematically and critically reflexive!

When dealing with interculturality in education, let our own feelings, experiences, and history, enter and support our work. Reflexivity can both enhance understanding and interpreting by adding a new source of knowledge.

Commandment n°8: Be modest in front of newcomers!

The concept of power should be central to engagement with NAMs education. Nolens volens every intercultural encounter depends on power relations related to language use, skin color, nationality, but also gender, social status, etc. Typical of intercultural encounter are relations based around the idea of hospitality. Jacques Derrida (2000) has argued through the concept of ‘hospitality’ that hospitality can easily turn into hostility. There is in fact an inherent power imbalance between a host and a guest – the latter being hostage to the former. As teachers we need to be aware of the power differentials between us and newcomer students and try to lower them as much as we can. We need to show modesty when working with newcomers!

Commandment n°9: Use language effectively!

Working on and/or with interculturality requires the use of a language or different languages, as well as non-verbal forms of communication (mimics, silence, gesture, etc.). Disregarding the importance these play in our field is problematic. For instance, when we translate e.g. interviews or excerpts from a book, it is important to explain the choice of certain phrases, words, pronouns, etc. The use of words is never innocent. We also need to bear in mind that language use is very political and that it usually translates power differentials and symbolic violence. Teachers are professional speakers and we should learn how to use language in such a way that it leads to e.g. inclusion.

Commandment n°10: Go under the surface of appearances

This is probably the most important message of the tool. We are all influenced by specific visions of interculturality, what it entails, how it should occur, for what reasons, etc. What we see as intercultural, or are presented with as being intercultural often hides elements that we need to deconstruct, criticize and, if possible, reconstruct to create meaningful interaction. As such if I hear the words culture, community, value, the name of a country, I start reflecting on their use and on what these words do to my interlocutors and me. I then try to go under the surface of what is said and appearances. As a teacher, I must be some kind of a detective that examines what people say, how and why in order to ensure well-being, justice and fairness.

10 commandments - Checklist