Teaching at a Bilingual School: A Multicultural Approach

emphaSIS 2021

Approximately 80 students aged six to twelve attend the SIS Swiss International School in Schönenwerd. On alternate days, school subjects are taught either in English or German by a native mother tongue teacher. These two languages play equal roles in the school community. Classrooms are designated as either “English” or “German” so students are immersed in the language environment both through written and spoken language.

When teachers teach in their mother tongue in a monolingual school, they immediately recognize and feel comfortable in the social, academic and linguistic context for instruction. But in a bilingual school, this context becomes surprisingly nuanced, layered and diverse for every teacher, no matter what their first language is. At SIS Schönenwerd, teachers instruct classes every other day, and must remember that on the previous day, their pupils were receiving instruction from a colleague in a different language (either in English or German). Such “team teaching” by teachers hailing from backgrounds, mother tongues and cultures, as different as those of the diverse pupils they face in the classroom, means that teachers must work hard to align their visions, goals and methods with those of other teachers – and with those of students.

Although all SIS schools follow one curriculum for both English and German teachers (based on the British national curriculum and the Lehrplan 21), there is flexibility in how the curriculum is delivered. It is important for teachers to be aware of minor differences in instructional methods that could confuse primary school children. For instance, in mathematics, integers are separated from the fractional part either by comma (in Europe) or by period (in the United States), and nouns must be capitalized (in German) or may be capitalized (in English). Teachers must themselves be aware and comfortable with such differences in order to effectively work with students. A mistake in one language is not necessarily a mistake in another; and yet gentle correction with an explanation is required. Weekly team meetings are not a luxury but crucial in a bilingual learning environment.

In addition, team teachers not only need to align their outlook and expectations with their colleagues’, but also need to understand their students’ Weltanschauung, or world view. On the one hand, teachers must be aware of local cultural events, celebrations and values that differ from their own. On the other, teachers must preserve students’ cultural and linguistic identities. For example, students from Asian cultures might immediately recognize that the colour white is associated with mourning, while others might associate it with purity, or a new beginning. Such cultural differences provide unique and enriching opportunities for multicultural exchanges. Such opportunities should not be left to chance, but rather encouraged, or even constructed through classroom discussions, intercultural activities and projects.

Teachers in bilingual classrooms therefore face complex, ongoing challenges, but are also in the enviable position of encouraging and celebrating “natural” and unforced diversity, and thus promoting adaptability and open-mindedness.


Article by Dr. Ora Melles, Head of Preschool and Primary