One thing that some applied linguistics textbooks recommend is taking a language class before or while you teach one, to help you to empathize with your students and to get some insight into the language learning process. I think this is a great idea, although I haven't taken a language class since one quarter of college Spanish that I barely even remember attending. (I took Spanish in high school.)
On the language/culture tip, though, I must say there is nothing quite like actually being in a foreign country to help with the whole "empathy" thing. I swore I'd be above all the China cliches, that I wouldn't write about the same stuff that everyone seems to, that I was better prepared. But the reason people write about that stuff is: it's in your face, all the time. When I go out in public, I am painfully aware that I am often the only non-Chinese, non-Chinese-speaking person within, say, a one-mile radius (probably more - though it usually feels like I am the only one in the world). I know that this country being what it is, "foreigners" are more of a novelty, more notable (we don't really have much of a concept of "foreigner" in the US nowadays), but I will say that I have a whole lot more respect and admiration for the "foreign" English language students I worked with in the U.S. Being a foreigner is hard work.