There are three primary cultural and religious issues with which I must deal almost on a daily basis. Thankfully, I have wonderful students who understand and agree that a big part of their reason for moving to another country to learn English is to interact with people of other languages and cultures, primarily English. Because of this mindset, they are amazingly tolerant and open to other cultures and religions.
My morning class consists of Protestants, Catholics, Atheists, one Muslim, and one Buddhist. So it is a literal panorama of different religions. There are gay and straight students as well as students from five continents. They must therefore be tolerant of one another, and I must be sensitive when broaching certain subjects. I'm not one to shy away from the taboo subjects of sex, politics or religion, because when the students are passionate they use their new English passionately. Part of my job is to unite their passionate souls with their target language, so I'm willing to risk wading into dangerous waters to accomplish this. I make them feel comfortable and reduce conflicts by creating an atmosphere of acceptance, love, tolerance and mutual understanding. I set the example for this by literally loving everyone in the class and making them feel as though their individual journey is important to me, which it is.
Religion is the most divisive issue of all. Having a Muslim in class is fantastic. Devout yet open-minded, Abdullah is a fantastic representative of his religion. For example, one of my students recently did her presentation on feminism. In my mind, I thought "Oh no. Here we go." When she opened up for questions at the end, I was silently anticipating the debate of the century. Abdullah spoke first and said, "Tell me people...tell me one thing that a woman cannot do which a man can do. Women are the fabric of society, and the ones who bring life into the world. Tell me if you think I am wrong, but are women not more important than men?" You could have knocked me down with a feather.
Second to religion is sexual orientation. This is particularly difficult for Muslims, Eastern Europeans and to a lesser extend South Koreans. Their cultures are very intolerant towards homosexuals. In Russia it is still illegal, and in Saudi Arabia, well, shall we just say they frown on it even more. This intolerance is juxtaposed against many South Americans and Brazilians who are raised in strict Catholic homes by strict parents. Many of my students used their cultural exchange to Ireland as an opportunity, and some as an excuse, to come out of the closet and live their lives independent of these cultural and societal restraints. Ireland had a referendum legalizing gay marriage on a national scale, the first country to do this in a referendum. Irish people pride themselves on being open-minded. This comes from their wholesale rejection of Catholicism on the heels of a string of legitimate allegations of impropriety in the priesthood. So you have newly liberated gay students sitting beside Muslims. Imagine.
The third most prevalent cultural challenge is with speaking style. My school is dominated by Brazilians. They talk constantly, fast, and over top of one another, and sometimes over top of me. This is considered very rude to my Asian students, especially when they speak over the teacher. Unthinkable in South Korea and Asia. Also rude is when they speak to one another in Portuguese, leaving the other students in the dark. I deal with this by clamping down ruthlessly on it. I can tell the difference between using their L1 to help another student and using their L1 to gossip about other students right in front of their faces. The only time I have ever ejected a student from the class was over this issue. He did not want to complete an assignment I had given to the class, so he mumbled something, I assume curse words, about me behind my back in Portuguese. I went over to his desk and asked him to repeat what he said in English. He said something quite mundane in English, which I knew was not the translation of what he had just said before in Portuguese. So I told him to leave. He refused, so I called the Director of Studies to come in and remove him.
With patience and understanding, these cultural and religious land mines can be navigated in such a way which is not only non-threatening but beneficial to the students.