Guest post from Kelly Lyman who is the Superintendent of Mansfield Public Schools in Connecticut. Through her work as an instructor in the University of Connecticut’s Administrator Preparation Program, Kelly has been supporting school leader development in Jordan.
We hear much today about the importance of preparing our students for a rapidly changing, global world. A world where many of them will be employed in jobs that are not yet invented. We know world conditions necessitate citizens whose skills in communication and critical and creative thinking are more important now than ever. As superintendent, I have been working with my staff to develop our vision of learning for our 21st century children. What I didn’t realize was that I too would be a student of those skills. In addition to my work as a school leader, I serve as a professor of practice in the Educational Administration department at the University of Connecticut (UCONN). In 2013 UCONN began a partnership with the Jordanian Ministry of Education, the Queen Rania Teacher’s Academy (QRTA), and the University of Jordan to provide advanced training to Jordanian principals. As soon as I heard about the opportunity, I signed on to help develop the program and serve as an instructor to the Jordanians. The program’s foundation is the University of Connecticut’s Administrator Preparation Program, a two year, thirty credit, cohort graduate program for aspiring administrators. The core elements of this graduate program are presented in a four-module sequence to Jordanian public school principals. The course work addresses the Jordanian standards for school leaders and the expectations identified in Jordan’s Continuous Professional Development for Leaders Framework. Each module is taught in a single week with assignments and collaborative experiences as a follow-up. In addition, the program uses a gradual release trainer of trainer model to prepare QRTA staff who will continue the program on their own after year three.
There have been many challenges in this work and I have utilized every one of those 21st century skills that have become part of my district’s vision for learning. My first challenge was not a surprising one; it was communication. Our UCONN course materials all had to be recreated. We had to meet the standards and expectations of the Jordanian Ministry, we had to design assessments that the University of Jordan would accept as they were providing a certificate to the participants upon completion, and we had to limit our print materials as every reading, every Powerpoint slide, and every handout had to be translated into Arabic. I learned to be concise and to stay focused on learner outcomes.
But these communication challenges were nothing compared to what I experienced when I arrived in Jordan for the first instructional week. The first cohort of principals were hand selected and identified as some of the best public school principals in the capital area. It was hoped they could manage instruction in English with some support, however, within the first ten minutes it was clear that full translation would be needed. No professional translation services had been secured for this first week so I had to quickly adapt and learn to teach with a QRTA staff member providing side-by-side translation. I would speak a few sentences and then hold my thoughts while the QRTA staffer repeated my words in Arabic. Similarly, when the principals spoke, the QRTA staffer would stand next to me and whisper the words to me in English. As the week went on, I found there were many phrases and concepts that did not translate well. This certainly caused me to carefully consider the message I wanted to send, to conserve my language, and to listen carefully. I experienced what it meant to communicate, not just across languages, but across cultures.
Using critical and creative thinking skills went without saying. Our first challenge was the redesign effort. Together, a group of four instructors, a director, and coach carefully articulated the outcomes we sought, considered the on-going support that could be provided to principals in Jordan, and created a program held together by a clearly articulated logic model, detailed learner outcomes, and practical performance assessments. We learned all we could about the Jordanian education system so that our work fit within their context.
What surprised me most was how this experience stretched my teaching skills. The language barrier meant I was at the mercy of the translators (professional live translation delivered via headsets was provided after that first week’s experience). Gone was the easy give and take of teacher-student interaction and circulating around the room to converse with students required that a translator follow me. I did not always know immediately what the participants were saying in response to my teaching making monitoring and adjusting a much slower process.
My students also wanted to be actively engaged, not just cognitively engaged but physically active. Sitting for more than 15 minutes was met with pleas for “more activities.” Each evening that first year I revamped my plans for the next day, carefully balancing providing foundational information with the request to be active. Strategies to do this came from my observation and analysis of effective instruction in my own schools. My repertoire of effective practices grew as I was determined to provide the Jordanian principals with learning experiences that they could take back to their own schools.
Collaboration was a necessity from the start. Those of us on the American side worked closely with each other as the modules were designed. We traveled with a coach who became our instructional partner. The coaches, whose primary purpose was training the QRTA instructors, demonstrated the coaching process by coaching us after each day’s instruction. We debriefed after each week of instruction and engaged in a thorough revision after the first year. Collaboration with the Jordanians did not end after the instructional week either. In between we used video conferencing to stay connected, discuss revisions, and review student assignments.
Perhaps the greatest expansion of my own 21st century skills was learning what it means to be a citizen of the world. Jordan was a country I knew little about before this work. I came to understand the challenges this nation and region face in a new way. The nomadic nature of its indigenous people, the strong identification with tribes that still exists, and the impact of living in a place where water, the most basic of the natural resources is in short supply all took on new meaning. Jordan has no oil resources. They are not a wealthy country but they are founded on the belief that people who come from different backgrounds can live together peacefully. They recognize that with good education they can keep radicalism at bay. So their public schools accept all students. For one elementary principal I met that means 1000 students in the first shift and 700 Syrian refugee students in the second shift. Classrooms of 40 students are the norm beginning in first grade. English is taught beginning in kindergarten and they devote significant attention to building strong character. They are facing enormous challenges but they are determined to build a better world for their children while promoting respect and acceptance. The children of Jordan are taught that they hold the future in their hands.
It is this last ideal, the belief that we must educate today’s children to be the stewards of the future, that has taken on new meaning for me. As school leaders in the United States we have an obligation, now more than ever, to instill in our young people an understanding of what it will take to live in harmony with others, with the environment, and with the politics at home and abroad today and tomorrow. I am grateful for the experience of this work and the opportunity to be both a student and a teacher in the 21st century.