Classroom Culture

banner of four images of Wichita State classes

To many international instructors, the American classroom may seem quite informal. Some of the major differences are allowing eating and drinking in class, poor posture, putting feet up on furniture, offering incomplete thoughts or answers to a discussion, and asking questions that appear to challenge the instructor. Most of this is due to the American college classroom culture being more egalitarian than authoritarian. Eating and drinking in class is rarely a sign of disrespect and more often a sign of a student’s busy schedule. This may be the only time for the student to eat breakfast or lunch during a busy day. Also, many American instructors are not surprised by poor posture or feet on a chair. This is only occasionally a sign of disinterest on the part of the student.  Note however, that in certain classrooms, such as science and computer labs, food and drink are not allowed, and students will comply with that requirement if it is clearly stated.

The instructor’s role in the American classroom is to not just teach the best and brightest students, but to ensure all students get a chance to do well in the course. The challenge in this is being flexible and patient while varying the classroom instructional strategies to maximize their chances. Although the classroom may be quite informal, this does not mean the student and instructor have equal status. The instructor is still the authority figure with the responsibility of managing the classroom and designing and implementing the learning activities. Always maintain some professional distance between you and your students, but treat them with respect. In return, you should expect your students to treat you and their classmates with respect.


Students in American universities and colleges are like business customers. Students pay a lot of money for tuition, housing, meals, and other fees. Therefore, they will expect instructors to satisfy their needs. It is common for students to challenge instructors about missed classes, grades, deadline extensions, and many other issues. You need to address these issues fairly. To keep track of your teaching, take advantage of evaluations, both formal semester-end ones and informal ones. Student evaluation is a very important part of your work. When reading their feedback, be prepared for the informality of American students, and, do not consider it a lack of respect or as an attitude.

The “W” Curve

Transplanting yourself into a new country and culture is fun and exciting and scary and confusing. You’ll typically find yourself going through ups and downs in your emotions and happiness. Most international newcomers experience the same thing in a “W” pattern, going through stages of honeymoon, culture shock, initial adjustment, mental isolation, and acceptance and integration. If you are planning to return to your home country, it is quite plausible that you will experience a similar “W” curve of emotions upon your return.

The W curve
Image from ThExchangeStudent


Upon arriving in the new country, you may have feelings of excitement, optimism, and confidence. Your new campus is welcoming and intriguing. You are eager for your fresh start.

Culture Shock

The newness wears off and reality sets in. You may feel lost as others withdraw with their busy school schedule. Your expectations are not matching up to your experiences. The changes start to feel overwhelming.

Initial Adjustment

You begin to find balance and routine to your life. You see the differences between the old and new, but a gap still exists. You begin to feel connected to your new life.

Mental Isolation

The differences between the old and new are not reconciled yet.

Acceptance and Integration

You are feeling well-adjusted, genuinely connected, and at home in the university community.


Your students are not your friends; however, it is acceptable to attend student events and socialize. It is best to find friendships outside of the courses you are teaching and even outside of the campus bubble. Americans tend to have different levels of friendships: close friends and secondary friends. Once the school semester starts, people tend to prioritize their work and will only have time for their closest friends. Secondary friends are kept in case of networking needs. If you are a GTA, don’t forget to prioritize your own studies over having time for your friends. If you are invited to a party or dinner and do not have the time, it is perfectly acceptable to simply decline or say you’ll have to come the next time.

Professional Life

American classrooms are typically informal with hierarchy; instructors and students are often on a first-name basis. It is also acceptable to require your students to refer to you as Prof., Dr., Mr., Mrs. or Ms. Make sure to tell your students how you wish to be addressed early on and in the syllabus. Be friendly with your students, but have a boundary with that relationship. They are not your friends; you are their teacher. You have the power to give grades and therefore should not ask favors of them or have a relationship with them that goes beyond amicable. The relationship should never affect your grading, positively or negatively. Avoid conflicts of interest and always stay professional. Remember you represent your department and the university.

Personal Life

You need to be careful of your public displays of affection. Most American millennials tend to see dating as casual and open-ended. Exclusivity is not required nor the norm. Your norm and value for dating might be different from people around you, including your students. It is always important to understand the binding rule: yes means yes and no means no in all situations.


Building credit is one of the most important elements of the American lifestyle. If you plan on staying in the United States long term, it is better to start building credit early. Find help from your university’s money management office. At Wichita State, the Office for Student Money Management will assist you with establishing good credit.

Be Aware of Cultural Differences

Be aware of cultural differences. American classrooms are more diverse than classes in most other nations. Make sure your classroom is a safe space for all learners. Consider the diversity of your students and recognize their identity and historical traumas whenever necessary. Acknowledge students representing themselves or their groups.

They Chose You

Always remember the university chose you for a reason. GTAs, do not forget that you are here first to earn your degree. Even faculty have more responsibilities than classroom teaching. Put your work first, but don’t let your students down. There are different opportunities in the university to build your career: training, workshops, support groups and the like. Try to learn about them, and get engaged in the ones that suit your interests. Also, there are awards, and fellowships that you could compete for. Seek out information about opportunities, and prepare yourselves to compete in the ones that are appropriate for your field. Department offices, dean offices and the graduate school will have relevant information about such opportunities.

New instructors and faculty, although your job has a lot to do with students, YOU have other responsibilities such as research and service. Put your work first, but don’t let your students down. Make the most out of the resources available on campus, as well as the new opportunities headed your way!