Exploring the Complex Ideas of Teachers and Teaching in South Asian Academic Culture  

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By Dr. Nasreen Sultana, Consultant, Teaching and Learning

South Asia has a collectivist society, which is a fascinating tapestry of interconnectedness where individual threads weave together to form a cohesive whole. The concepts of education and life are layered and complex. For example, faculty members in a Canadian classroom are always mesmerized by how polite and respectful South Asian students are. However, the same students may not follow the Professor’s expectations and that may look disrespectful to the Professor.  

This article explores how students’ culturally influenced academic backgrounds may impact their ability to adapt to the Canadian college classroom environment.  

Role of Teachers  

Teachers are usually seen as someone highly respected in South Asian societies- they are known as “gurus” (Sarangapani & Pappu, 2020). In the classrooms, teachers can exercise some power over the students. Scolding and shouting at the students are not regarded as uncanny. Being strict is considered a vital teaching quality.  

My first full-time teaching job was at a reputable high school in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The first advice that I received from my colleagues was, “Do not smile at the students. Once they know you are gullible, you will lose control.” Later, I was praised by the school principal because I demonstrated my strictness to the students.  

Nasreen shares her experience

In South Asia, students are expected to demonstrate visible respect to the teacher. A few examples include:  

  • Get up when the teacher enters the classroom.  
  • Ask permission to go out of the classroom and come in.  
  • Not to disagree with the teacher.  
  • Nodding positively when the teacher asks something.  

Generally, Indian parents believe that kids learn through hard work, and teachers are the well-wishers of the children who should guide and discipline the students (Tiwari, 2010). Teachers serve as catalysts for change, entrusted with the vital task of guiding students toward growth and understanding (Ramavath & Prakash, 2012). Both teachers and parents are considered responsible for guiding the students until they are adults. This could shed light on why South Asian students struggle in a North American classroom in the absence of the sense of strict guidance. The faculty’s friendly demeanor may give the students a sense that the person does not have enough authority.   

Some of the helpful tips could be:  

  • Establish the classroom expectations with a firmer tone (ensure you are not mean to the students).  
  • Follow the expectations once you set them. For example, it is important to follow the policy regarding academic integrity.   
  • Try to create a positive physical presence in the classrooms. Walk around the back of the class if students sitting in the back are talkative.  
  • Be flexible whenever needed. However, constant flexibility may create a wrong expectation in students’ minds. If you are confused, please contact the program manager, chair or one of the Teaching and Learning consultants.  

Prior Complex Experiences 

My parents used to tell to my teachers, “She is yours… do whatever it needs to do well in the exam”.   

Nasreen’s personal story

Until a few years ago, corporal punishment at school was acceptable in some South Asian countries. For example, in 2010, governments in India and Bangladesh banned corporal punishment in all educational institutions across the country (Ethirajan, 2010; Tiwari, 2014). In countries such as India, teachers are equated to God, who cannot harm a disciple (Ramavath & Prakash, 2012). Even though currently physical punishment is illegal, we cannot say with 100% conviction that it is not happening in some parts of the region.   

South Asian students may think classroom expectations are only met if there are consequences. For instance, many academic institutions in South Asia have a mandatory attendance system. Students may only be allowed to sit for the exam in the university if attendance expectations are met. Many parents actively monitor whether the students are attending the classes or not. In collectivist societies, individuals place great importance on their interdependence within groups rather than viewing themselves as independent beings. Mutual obligations based on status play a central role (Schwartz, 1994). Students feel obligated and accountable to the teachers and their parents. These roles are accepted and celebrated.   

So, when students come from a background where the parents and teachers guided them, they may find themselves in an unknown situation, which may lead to some of the following behaviours:

  • South Asian students may choose not to attend classes because there is no one to guide them.  
  • Students also may attend the classes because they think faculty have noticed they are not attending them.   
  • Students could be resistant to asking questions. Indian students tend to use the word “doubt” instead of questions because asking for doubts may not have the same sense as asking a question. Based on their cultural background, asking a question may have a sense of challenging the Professor. Also, sometimes students may have punitive experiences about asking questions in their previous classrooms back home.   
  • Students can expect the faculty to go way and beyond to help them.  
  • They may not realize that faculty do not have power to pass or fail them.  
  • Students may share confidential information because they think it is always safe to share with the teachers (the role of teachers in their mind).  
  • Students may struggle to follow the expectations because they may not see these as “must-do” things. 

A few Ideas for supporting the South Asian students:

  • Consider having a few minutes in the classroom to discuss the value of attending class to learn.  
  • You can do regular check-ins to help and support the learning process by sending emails and announcements, but I encourage you to consider the values of adult learning as well. Consider briefly discussing how students are responsible for their own learning and grades.   

In conclusion, I encourage you to understand the layers and complexities of interacting with people from other cultures. The more we interact with honest curiosity, the better we learn about intercultural communication techniques.  

Disclaimer: I wrote this article with the help of research studies and my personal understanding of South Asian societies and cultures. Please use this as a general reference point while you generate a more nuanced understanding of South Asian cultures.   


Ethirajan, A. (2010, August 9). Bangladesh bans corporal punishment in all schools. BBC News. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-10921139 

Ramavath, P. & Prakash, R. (2012, October 4). Discoursing discipline in Indian schooling system. Regional Seminar on Philosophy of Education. Conducted from Azim Premji University, Puducherry. Retrieved March 5, 2024 from http://www.azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/node/717 

Schwartz, S. H. (1990). Individualism– collectivism: Critique and proposed refinements. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (21), 139–157. 

Tiwari, A. (2014). Teachers, Discipline, and the Corporal Punishment Ban in Delhi, India [Doctoral Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University]. https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/files/final_submissions/9822 

Dr. Nasreen Sultana

​Nasreen Sultana, PhD, has been working in the post-secondary education for more than 14 years. Prior to joining Conestoga College, she taught in the teacher education program at Queen's University from where she completed her PhD in Education with a concentration on curriculum and assessment. In addition to her doctorate, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and language teaching, a Master of Arts in language teaching, and a Master of Philosophy in Education. In addition, Nasreen is a qualified administrator of IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory), a certified ISW facilitator and also earned a certificate in intercultural studies from UBC. Nasreen brings international experience and exposure to the role of the Teaching and Learning Consultant and invites discussions and learning regarding various aspects of diversity in faculty and in students. Her areas of research include intercultural communication, assessment and classroom instruction. Recently Nasreen has started learning about anti racism pedagogy and its implication in the classrooms. Please visit her profile to know more about her: https://tlconestoga.ca/about-us/nasreen-sultana/

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