Working across Cultures – Issues in Managing a Teacher's Association

by Alan S. Mackenzie, Senior Training Consultant, British Council India & Sri Lanka & Amol Padwad, President ELTAI

English Language Teaching Association of India has been running for the past 40 years. It has shown particularly strong growth in the past ten years in terms of increased membership, launch of several new branches across India and high attendance at its annual conferences. It applied for and won funding from the IATEFL-Hornby Trust Teacher Association (TA) Development Funds Scheme to undertake a "Chapter Leadership Development Project" last year. The project aimed at providing training in leadership and management skills to the (largely novice) chapter leaders, identifying ways of networking and mutual support among them and initiating mechanism and practices for leadership development and continuity. As a part of the project, two leadership development training workshops were conducted in Delhi and Chennai by George Pickering, a renowned consultant and trainer from the UK. The project was supported by the British Council India, with the active participation of and inputs from some of its staff.

Among the organisational and management issues addressed in the workshops were issues like marketing, membership, communication, fund-raising, leadership succession, etc. Comparing the inputs and training by the UK trainer and the BC participants with the responses, comments and observations of the Indian (i.e. ELTAI) participants, it appeared that there were two culturally different undercurrents.
One represented the 'western' or the 'UK' perspective on these issues, while the other represented the Indian perspective, though it is certainly premature to make such a 'national' generalisation. This comparison hinted at the different ways the 'two sides' looked at TAs and various aspects of managing TAs. This warranted further investigation.

What is Culture?
A culture is what you have in common with others in a group and how these qualities interact. Each of these qualities (see Figure 1) can be seen as cultural plates or bubbles that change in level of influence over time depending on various contextual issues and the response of the individual themselves. Individuals coming together in similar contexts tend to have similar cultural identities. Geographic location is one important influence but organisations spread across geographic locations can also build and maintain their own internal cultures.


One useful way of viewing cultures is Edward T. Hall's categorisation of them as either high or low context. The basic characteristics of these types is listed in Table 1.

High Context Cultures Low Context Cultures
• Less verbally explicit communication, less written/formal information.

• More internalized understandings of what is communicated.

• Multiple cross-cutting ties and intersections with others.

• Long term relationships.

• Strong boundaries - who is accepted as belonging vs. who is considered an "outsider".

• Knowledge is situational, relational.

• Decisions and activities focus around personal face-to-face relationships, often around a central person who has authority.

• Dense, intersecting networks and long-term relationships, strong boundaries, relationship more important than task.
• Rule oriented. People play by external rules.

• More knowledge is codified, public, external, and accessible.

• Sequencing, separation of time, space, activities, relationships.

• More interpersonal connections of shorter duration.

• Knowledge is highly transferable.

• Task-centered.

• Decisions and activities focus around what needs to be done, division of responsibilities.

• Loose, wide networks, shorter term, compartmentalized relationships.

• Task is more important than the relationship.

Table 1: Characteristics of high and low context cultures

It's all relative…
There is nothing inherently good or bad about high/low context. All organisations tend to be internally relatively high context. There are unwritten rules of working that may differ from stated policies. Strong feelings of 'us' and 'them' may exist between branch-offices or even departments within the same office.
However, when two organisations come together in a common endeavour they are in a low context situation and need to adapt together. The context is low because they have never done this before together and must define roles and responsibilities, aims, priorities, targets and strategies. Treating a joint endeavour as a high-context situation quickly leads to cultural conflict.
The situation becomes more complex when you take into account the background effect of the parent culture of the organisation. Background cultures affect organisational operations in that they influence their day to day workings and their behavioural norms. Figure 2 illustrates the cultural milieu of the British Council/ELTAI relationship.


The British Council is internal high context, but comes from a low context culture. It expresses itself in a highly low context manner. Policies are highly codified, targets concrete and set, manuals and rules abound. Because of its organisational set-up with members changing country every 2-4 years, the nature of the personal relationships it develops are short-term, although it promotes deeper, long-term organisational relationships. The personal relationship our two authors have is considered less important than the organisational ties between their member organisations.

Table 2: Perceptions of ELTAI and British Council members of each other's operational norms

General View of Organisation
Point UK trainer’s/ BC members’ Perspective ELTAI members’ Perspective
How is a TA viewed? Professional organisation Charitable trust
Community of professionals Social gathering
How far ‘commercial’ interests are important? One of the top priorities Not so important
Attitude towards records-keeping, documentation Serious, professional Liberal, lenient, lax
Should the TA be profitable? Yes Making surplus not highly important, essential to break even
What are success indicators for a TA? Large and diverse membership, Membership loyalty, Range of products and services, economic viability, potential for expansion Number of members, number of events, attendance at events


Marketing of the TA
Point UK trainer’s/ BC members’ Perspective ELTAI members’ Perspective
How far is marketing important? Marketing extremely essential Not so important
Ways of marketing Range of channels from flyers and website to peripherals (the handout lists 17, to be added to by the participants) Focus on ‘conventional’ ones (basically events and website), not keen on peripherals, advertising, etc
How much to spend on marketing? Should form a significant part of the budget No need to spend much on marketing


Point UK trainer’s/ BC members’ Perspective ELTAI members’ Perspective
Assuring membership loyalty Involve members in TA activities planning and implementation It’s the job of the leaders/ ‘core teams’
Need to develop a sense of belonging Not recognised
Need to highlight personal and professional growth Not recognised
Ways of attracting new members (Aggressive) Marketing Soft promotion at events, depend more on word-of-mouth publicity
What brings members to the TA? Chances of PD, networking and personal advancement Personal relationship, social bonds
Who should count among members? Teachers, teacher educators, policy makers, institutions, publishers, ELT companies, NGOs, educational authorities, freelancers Mainly teachers and institutions


Point UK trainer’s/ BC members’ Perspective ELTAI members’ Perspective
Frequency of communication with members Higher the better Only needs-based and limited
Nature of communication Personalised communication more valuable General impersonal communication seen as normal
Channels of communication Range of channels from letters and newsletters to website, SMSs, emails, social networking sites General newsletters and website announcements
Direction of communication Both TA-to-members and members-to-TA communication important More attention on TA-to-members communication
Communication with non-members Importance given to regular communication with non-members (like other stake-holders, sponsors, etc) The need is not fully recognised


Point UK trainer’s/ BC members’ Perspective ELTAI members’ Perspective
Location Impressive, high-quality, in keeping with brand image. 5-star hotels = expensive; imposing to delegates not used to such spaces. Impressive institutions: PR for location volunteering services. Solidifies institutional ties btw school and organisation.. Cheap. Normal to teachers = real school context.
Information Web-based, high quality positive PR-value. Paper-based, officially sanctioned,

Brief opening ceremony. Large # presentations in short time: attracts more presenters, increases range of presentations in conference.

Short breaks to enable more presentation time

Long opening ceremony (expected). Fewer presentations over longer period to increase audience attending each one. Most people at conference are attendees not presenters. Longer breaks to enable socialising.
Timing Tightly controlled. Dealt with as necessary.

There is no point in categorising any one perspective as better/ worse than the other. They are just different and require acceptance. There are a number of ways in which we can help ourselves accept 'foreign' organisations (whether from your own shores or overseas!). Here are a few guiding principles:
• Awareness of differences may lead to acceptance of diversity and help fine-tune expectations from each other, understand each other's ways of working, develop better collaboration.
• Understanding these differences may help identify potential areas of conflict/ friction so they can be compensated for in advance and communication gaps avoided.
• Identify common ground and areas of matching interests on which to base collaboration.
• Increase understanding of where and how the models and frameworks from one context may be adapted/ modified in another.
• Participant perspectives influence how they understand and interpret what organisers and trainers present. This affects what they take back to be acted upon and how. Pay close attention to the image you are presenting to the other.
There are also some specific issues in moving from one context to another. Table 3 summarises these:

Table 3: Adapting between contexts

High to Low
Low to High
Low context cultures demand more independence, and expect many relationships, but fewer intimate ones. Higher context cultures expect small close-knit groups, and reliance on that group.
A high context individual is more likely to ask questions rather than attempt to work out a solution independently, and the questions are likely to be asked from the same few people. Groups members rely on each other for support. It may be difficult to get support outside of your group.
A low context individual may not be happy to be approached outside office hours. Professional and personal lives often intertwine.
The high context person may be frustrated by people appearing to not want to develop a relationship or continue to help them on an ongoing basis. The term 'Hand-holding' might be used in an unintentional derogatory sense. A lower context individual may be more likely to try to work things out on their own and feel there is a lack of self-service support or information, rather than ask questions and take time to develop the relationships needed to accomplish the things that need to be done.

Working together

Making information conscious, systematic and available to those who need to know is very useful when working together on a new endeavour. Doing this in a culturally appropriate manner is a more likely to foster success. Table 4 itemises a number of tools that could useful be employed in this regard.

Table 4: Culturally appropriate communication tools

More High Context More Low Context
Mentoring Manuals
Regular meetings Rule books
Telephone calls E-mails
Focus groups Surveys

As the ELTAI member during the presentation said to Alan,
"We have to write more things down and do more of what you said in the presentation. I'll write you an e-mail with our plan!"
To which he replied, "I'm glad you liked it. Maybe we can have a meeting with the other ELTAI member and discuss it first?"
Research, whether British Council or other-lead, could be usefully directed at how the 'local' culture affects or conditions the management and leadership of a TA. British Council managers could usefully build deeper relationships with local TAs through cultural enquiries like the above to discover what their TA really thinks of them and how they could operate in a more culturally sensitive manner.

Hall, Edward T. (1990). Understanding cultural differences. London: Intercultural Press Inc.


Alan S. Mackenzie - Alan is a Senior Training Consultant in English and Education for British Council India. Originally from Aberdeen in Scotland, he has spent over 20 years in Asia, working on large scale teacher development projects in most countries in East Asia and particularly with education ministries in Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan and with SEAMEO. He is now based in Delhi, responsible for projects across India and has worked closely with West Bengal, Punjab, NDMC and Bihar governments. He has been a director of the Japan Association for Language Teaching and holds a Masters degree from Teachers College Columbia University in TESOL. To view Alan's blog

Amol Padwad is currently Head, Department of English, J.M. Patel College, Bhandara (India) and has 27 years of teaching experience at different levels. Until recently the National President of English Language Teachers’ Association of India (ELTAI), he is also a teacher trainer and ELT consultant and has successfully managed some innovative ELT projects. His areas of interest are teacher development, translation, Marathi Grammar and bird watching. He has travelled to several countries including the UK, Sri Lanka, Russia, Uzbekistan, Germany, USA and Japan for ELT-related work. 

Alan S.Mackenzie
Amol Padwad

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