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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

An International Education

By Peter DeWitt — May 01, 2012 5 min read
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In the U.S., we talk a great deal about diversity because we have so many students entering our schools that come from diverse backgrounds. The diversity we see may be economic, cultural or academic. Working with diversity can be an incredibly enriching experience. The educators who know that best are the ones who work in international schools around the world. With diplomatic parents or parents who are ex-patriates (ex-pats) working on international contracts, some of these students move to other countries after a couple of years.

With the increased use of the internet and social media in education teachers are able to connect with other educators around the world. One such educator who I connect with often is Tania Ash a teacher at the Rabat American School in Morocco, who reads this blog as well as facilitates #elemchat on Twitter.

PD: Tell me about your school.
TA: It has a student population of about 420 students, about 1/3 Moroccan, and 2/3 US and International. There are many aspects of teaching in such a diverse setting that I cherish, not the least of which is the fact that many of the students speak multiple languages, have often been to places you may refer to in class, and have such incredible experiences. For example, in fifth grade, we are currently doing a writing unit on Memoirs... and we have a student who witnessed the Egyptian revolution firsthand, others who have lived in places most of us have only dreamed of.

PD: What is the culture of the school where diversity is concerned?
TA: With such a diverse student body (40 different nationalities represented in our school, 9 nationalities in my class of 15), students are often very accepting of students who are new to English (as many of them have been in that situation). English is the mother tongue for about one quarter of our students; other students speak English as a second, third, or fourth language, and their skill levels differ widely. Diversity isn’t just celebrated on a special day (though we still do celebrate diversity through activities such as Peace day, international luncheon, etc...) it truly is a part of everyday life.

It doesn’t come without challenges, though. For example, we have to have “language courtesy” rules. For example, the language spoken at recess must be understood by all. So, if two kids who speak the same language are playing together, they are welcome to speak whatever language they please. But if a student joins them who doesn’t speak the same language, the lingua franca must switch to something they all speak - usually English. This can, at times, be difficult for some students to remember.

PD: Many of these students do not spend their whole academic career in your school. How do you prepare for that?
TA: With such a transient community (many diplomatic families), there are many transitions that can be challenging for some students. Some families, for example, don’t stay beyond 2-3 years before moving on. Host nationals, (Moroccans) end up seeing many of their friends come and go. With today’s communication possibilities, there is always the opportunity to keep in touch, but sometimes the transitions can still be hard on the kids.

As a school, we also have the challenge of trying to prepare our kids for the various directions they will all take. We face the challenge of being a small school trying to “do it all”... we have the IB program at the High School level, but for elementary and middle school we end up writing and adapting curriculum to best serve our population. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. It is very stimulating professional activity as a pedagogue to study curriculum, we can be picky about what we adopt, but it also means a lot of committee work for studying and reviewing standards, benchmarks, assessments and materials.

We also follow a challenging Accreditation Program by the Middle States Association, “Accreditation for Growth”, whereby the entire school is involved in selecting, implementing, and assessing school-wide goals for a 7 year cycle... It has the fantastic advantage of uniting the school under common goals, but it also involves more committee work. Needless to say, our teaching staff is spread pretty thinly, as there are many other ambitious initiatives that also take place. We are fortunate to have a supportive administration and a very professional and energetic faculty

PD: What are some of the issues you find working in an international school?
TA: Being an English language school in a non-English speaking country, it can be difficult sometimes to find services in English (such as a speech therapist, or occupational therapist) for kids who don’t speak French or Arabic. We do have a fantastic full-time school psychologist, but students requiring further evaluations must travel in order to obtain them. Also, reaching out into the community involves the language barrier for many students - so, with some form of community service mandated K-12, it can be a challenging but enriching prospect.

Another challenge is the fact that with such a diverse community, some of our families come from school systems with approaches that are very different from ours. In many cases, the parents’ own school experiences are vastly different from the experiences their children have in our school. It requires a certain amount of parent education in order to help some families understand our philosophy and methods.

That said, there are also some undeniable advantages to being in an international school. Our school is a member of the MAIS - Mediterranean Association of Independent Schools, and as such, we have opportunities for faculty and students to participate in exchanges with, and even travel to, schools in incredible places such as Lisbon, Barcelona, Tunis, to name a few...

We also have the luxury of living in a fascinating, welcoming country such as Morocco, which is what brings us together. Living in Morocco offers pretty incredible opportunities for learning... particularly since Morocco is at a crossroads between modernity and tradition. It is a unique blend of rich cultural traditions and forward thinking development, and as such, it is a showcase for yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This provides great material for hands-on experiences and field trips.

In the End
The power of education is that it connects people from around the world. Those who take the initiative to connect can share their educational experiences with one another. Through those relationships we can bring what we learn back to our own schools to make them better. In the long run, and through these collegial relationships, we continue to be lifelong learners and are students reap the benefits.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.