By Julia Phelan Sylla*
COVID-19 brought about a huge shift in education, including a seismic challenge for educators who prioritize global connections and ties. Last fall, a group of practitioners and academics came together for the annual International Virtual Exchange Conference. Due to the pandemic, the conference was held online, perhaps the least challenging virtual convening for a group of professionals dedicated to making meaningful connections through synchronous and asynchronous exchanges. However good this group of educators were at conducting virtual exchange, 2020 forced all of us to think about the intersecting crises of a global pandemic that has forced most international travel to a halt, and the racial justice movement that has brought us to our knees in reflection of whether we’re doing enough to promote and live the values of equity in every aspect of our lives and work.
As part of the IVEC conference, QFI led a panel with two inspirational educators who have both participated in and helped shape critical virtual exchange partnerships to connect classrooms and students from different countries and cultures. Together our panel explored the importance of building strong and equitable teacher partnerships as a fundamental element of building successful virtual exchange experiences.
First, Jennifer Geist discussed the “equity iceberg,” using the iceberg image to examine the dimensions of culture that are only visible to some and those more hidden elements that we have to unpack to truly become culturally competent. This iceberg analogy can also be used to examine the factors of virtual exchange that we may take for granted as teachers trying to work with a partner teacher from a different country, educational system, and their own set of pressures and parameters. Understanding the realities a partner teacher is facing such as the pressures students and teachers face at certain grade levels, the timetables and schedules they follow, the standardized testing they may be administering and when, are all crucial to building fundamentally strong teacher partnerships.
Loudoun County High School teacher Jennifer Rodgers then shared the story of her continuing partnership with her partner teacher from Qatar Academy Al Wakra, Mr. Abdirahman Handule. By working together through a formal sharing of educational goals, and through frequent communication about logistics and what was working for their classes, Jennifer and Abdirahman developed a successful virtual and in-person exchange of their high school classes. For them, sending WhatsApp voice memos throughout the day when they have a free moment also allowed them to communicate effectively while overcoming the challenge of the time difference between the US and Qatar. Their students were able to navigate cultural differences, strengths of their individual classes, and a strong drive to connect with their peers across the world. Having the strong teacher-led partnership allowed the students to feel that they had guidance in their virtual exchange experience and that their questions, excitement, and fears were supported and guided in a way that promoted equity between the two classes.
The QFI community of practice on the Participate.com network allows educators to learn about virtual exchange and ask questions in a safe space. Through videos, guided readings, discussion boards, and action plans, teachers are able to build the fundamentals to set them on a course for successful partnerships with fellow teachers. They can also implement strong plans for integrating virtual exchange into their classroom teaching in a way that enhances their learning objectives rather than detracting from their classroom learning time.
Equity cannot be a buzzword. It takes commitment and work. It takes self-reflection. And it takes resources, tools, and moderators available to assist educators in creating meaningful partnerships that make a difference in their teaching practice. If the world has learned anything through the crises of COVID-19 and the racial justice movement, it is that education matters, and teachers matter. But we cannot hand teachers the responsibility for creating change overnight without the tools, resources, and support that will allow them to be successful. Similarly, virtual exchange isn’t a buzzword, and although it’s quickly grown in popularity since physical travel isn’t possible, it also takes preparation, resources, training, and hard work to make the experience worthwhile and educationally valuable. Through our community on Participate.com, QFI aims to provide teachers with the tools and support necessary to make strong partnerships with other educators and therefore more successful and meaningful virtual exchange experiences.
*Julia Phelan Sylla is the director of programs at Qatar Foundation International (QFI)