A Journey in Community Involvement and Educational Leadership from the Middle East to Texas

Khalid Arar, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at Texas State University and an Associate Editor of the International Journal of Leadership in Education. For the past two decades, his research has focused on both K-12 and higher education policies through the lens of equity and diversity. His commitment to challenging injustices globally and studying the plight of refugees in diverse settings has led him to the topic of his recent book School Leadership for Refugees’ Education, Social Justice Leadership for Immigrant, Migrants and Refugees as well as other publications.

My first contact with education was through teaching kids karate. From this experience I realized that I liked to teach and nurture others which prompted in me studying two Bachelor’s–one in physical education and one in English literature. After graduating, I started to teach first at the elementary and then at the secondary level. After teaching for six years, I started to promote community-based projects in the school, such as establishing a library and a basketball team. I got the first sports projects started with my own money, purchasing the equipment that was needed; however, due to the program’s success I was able to secure financial support from the parents’ association and Coca Cola as a sponsor. At this point, and due to different community-based projects I ran in the school, the principal at my school approached me with an offer to become vice principal. I knew nothing about educational leadership and asked him why he chose me for the position. He responded, “You are the first one to arrive at school and the last one to leave. Your commitment and attachment are clear. The students look up to you and your colleagues connect with you.” That is how my decades-long journey in educational leadership began. 

As vice principal, I became interested in learning more about educational leadership and I decided to study for a Master’s that focused on educational leadership at Tel Aviv University and then started my Ph.D. in the UK while I conducted my research on educational leadership in Israel.  Next, I was offered a principal’s position for a new experimental high school. The high school was located in a suburb and served four small villages. We started out with 18 teachers and 185 students, growing to over 625 students in five years. I was responsible for creating our science, computer sciences, humanities, communication, and sports majors. As principal, I believed that engaging in constant dialogue with my colleagues and the students was essential, giving them a say in how the school was run. For example, we decided on the school’s name and mascot design together in collaboration with various community members.

Throughout my time as principal, I had the privilege to work with many individuals who were very motivated and I supported them in continuing their post graduate studies and professional ambitions. Seventeen teachers I worked with went on to get their Master’s and 6 pursued a Ph.D., with 6 of the Master’s theses and 2 doctoral dissertations focusing on the experimental school. For us, this admission to higher education and graduation were a celebration for the entire school.  In addition, to helping prepare my colleagues to take on these leadership roles, I found it important to provide teachers opportunities to lead grade levels, empowering them to oversee the budget, class allocations, and teacher evaluations––all of the skills they would need for other leadership positions. To date, six teachers have been offered positions as principals for other schools, one has been appointed as a superintendent, and another is the head of the national assessment exams department. 

At the school, I also worked hard to increase opportunities for girls, and change the male-dominated status quo. For example, I developed a partnership with two computer companies that sent 21 engineers to the school once a week to teach girls mathematics and English, preparing them for college and future career paths. The companies have also funded 6 bachelor’s scholarships for the girls so that they can continue their post-secondary studies. 

What I have learned through all of these experiences is that education is about nurturing and empowering, and you cannot divide educational leadership from the community. When you lead a school, you mobilize the whole village. If you teach students to dance, you will have dancers. If you teach students chemistry, you will have chemists. However, if you do not provide students with the space and empowerment, you will not have dancers or chemists.

Currently as a professor of educational leadership and policy at Texas State University, a position I started last fall, I am teaching students remotely from Israel. To create a sense of connection with my students at a distance, I spent the entire first class getting to know their names and stories, while emphasizing that their presence was more important than that of the text I picked to discuss. I also always arrive early to every class and put-on music to welcome my students which I chose to call educators and scholars. I try to make my course interactive and inclusive by including activities and group discussions that give students the chance to use their voice and international speakers to offer diverse perspectives in addition to the academic literature.

Students–– rather than text–– make up the core of my class. In one class, I wanted students to learn about public and private education, so I decided that the best way was for them to engage in a debate. I assigned them academic papers and the roles of superintendents, principals, and teachers so we could have different perspectives in each team. I played a video about public and private charter schools in South Carolina and then opened the debate between the two teams. 

In another class, I gave my students names of five thinkers who shaped the U.S. education system and assigned students in groups of two an educational leader. Each group had to present a map of that person’s thinking in two minutes or less, and then had to present about his or her scholarship and the change he or she delivered to the field. This turned into a group activity with students picking out key words, actions, and strategies, and collectively they came up with a strategy that collects the five thinker’s voices and blending it with their own voices and personal experiences into one mosaic of ideas. 

In addition to these interactive activities, my students ––many of whom are principals or other practitioners–– also found it refreshing to hear different perspectives from countries, such as China, UK, Turkey and Canada, and they helped them see topics in a whole new light. I assigned the quietest students in the class to be the moderators for our guest panelists, and they thrived as they facilitated the discussion.   

Forming close relationships with my students and taking the time to meet with them about their work and lend a hand when one of them needs additional help is important to me, as I see education as a developmental process. Showing up for my students makes a difference, especially during the pandemic. One student commented that he was often very tired before our class due to long days working at a school, but he tried not to look tired and be active, because he saw how committed and passionate, I was. Another student remarked that he could not miss the class because he knew that I was getting up at midnight to teach due to the time difference between Israel and Texas. Remote learning from across the world has certainly had its interesting moments. One night, a student chose to start a presentation she was leading in class with a participatory dance exercise. Since it was much later in Israel, I was already in my pajamas bottoms and did not want to stand up to participate, but I could not say no since she was the instructor. I joined while trying to hide my pajamas and all. I believe that I couldn’t make this successful without the constant support of my colleagues in the CLAS department, especially as we meet each week to discuss our teaching experience and to share different successful practices, which enriched and gave us constructive feedback. 

Here is what a few of Dr. Arar’s students had to say about his teaching:

“Dr. Arar truly provided me with an international foundation for school improvement. His network of researchers around the globe and his deep and wide knowledge provided me with a new perspective on reform and renewal of our educational system here in the U.S. I have been able to directly apply his guidance in equity, community involvement, and refreshed philosophy on accountability on the policies in my own local and state educational systems.”

“Working and learning from/with Dr. Arar was a wonderful experience.  The information he shared was timely and actionable.  As a current high school principal, I was able to take some of the theory we were unpacking and working with and apply it directly to my campus.  What I found most beneficial and insightful was Dr. Arar’s use of international guest speakers.  It was refreshing to hear and discuss thoughts and ideas on education from a completely different viewpoint that had not been influenced by American ideals and politics.  We were able to take the same topic and see it in a whole new light.”

Thank you for inspiring us all Khalid to lead innovative and exciting courses in school leadership especially during remote instruction. To learn more about Dr. Khalid Arar’s work please visit: https://scholar.google.co.il/citations?user=UdxgwPoAAAAJ&hl=en or https://khalidarar.com/