Sustaining Community: the importance of teacher councils during the age of COVID-19

This article is a contribution by Julia Phelan Sylla to the language magazine. You can find this article here

While no one was prepared for the pandemic shuttering of physical school buildings, K–12 teachers of less commonly taught languages were perhaps the most accustomed to having to find community beyond school walls. Unlike with other subjects taught in schools, there may not be an Arabic teacher in the same building, school system, or even the same county. It has therefore been no surprise that the network of Arabic Teacher Councils throughout the U.S. has not only stepped up to provide invaluable support to Arabic educators during this unprecedented time but also banded together more broadly to form a robust online network of support, training, and perhaps most importantly, community.

Qatar Foundation International (QFI) currently supports Arabic Teacher Councils in New York, Chicago, Detroit, New England, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Starting last year, our network of teacher councils expanded to include several Arabic Teacher Councils in the UK and Germany following several years of QFI’s work to support teachers and schools there. After Arabic educators from the UK and Germany attended the ACTFL convention and met other teachers from the U.S. who shared how their teacher councils operate, they asked for opportunities to establish networks of their own. During “normal” operations, each council organizes activities throughout the school year, including conducting outreach to current and prospective teachers of Arabic, holding meetings and conducting workshops, arranging professional development events, organizing local mentoring systems, and sending out newsletters, as well as building collaborative relationships between schools and other organizations, organizing events to educate the community about Arab culture and language, organizing events for students of Arabic, and developing shared libraries of resources and materials. Because of the decentralized nature of education in the U.S., some regional teacher councils have also developed ways to help teachers navigate the certification process and take advantage of programs to help teachers meet continuing education credit requirements.

QFI began working with U.S. public and public charter schools when it was founded in 2009 and quickly found that teachers longed for a community to share ideas, challenges, and best practices with each other. Given the geographic spread of Arabic programs in K–12 schools across the country, local professional development opportunities specific to the teaching of Arabic were few and far between. The Arabic Teacher Council program started in 2012, providing support to self-directed organizations through universities, schools, or educational organizations. This took form through working closely with Arabic teachers nationwide to provide relevant programming and opportunities such as workshops, seminars, and events to engage their students and communities. The professional development opportunities that teacher councils provide have always been open to educators from all schools and levels, allowing teachers to learn from each other’s experiences and also serve as a gateway to professional opportunities and development. Involving Arabic instructors from K–12 and higher education also allowed for natural conversations and opportunities to break down the barriers between secondary and higher education language education, which enhanced the pipeline of students continuing Arabic in college. Teachers have traditionally loved their involvement with teacher councils because it allows them to form close bonds with other teachers in their general regions and networks. A natural result of the teacher councils aside from the support and relationships is the opportunity to collaborate, build new skills, develop curriculum, and share innovative teaching approaches.

As the pandemic bore down on the global community this spring, the network of Arabic Teacher Councils mobilized. At first, like so many of us who had planned events, conferences, and workshops this spring, Arabic Teacher Councils found themselves trying to pivot to hold professional development events in a virtual format. QFI began checking in with our grantees and community as we all regrouped from home, and perhaps not surprisingly we started hearing common themes from all our teacher council partners. Everyone was motivated to provide as much support as possible to the teachers, schools, families, and students who found themselves suddenly thrown into a new normal. They not only wanted to draw on their individual teacher council experiences and expertise to provide this support but also looked to each other for inspiration and coordination.

After making it through those initial few weeks of rescheduling and reworking previously planned events, QFI gathered the leaders of the Arabic Teacher Councils for a (virtual) meeting to discuss ways that we could collectively expand our outreach and support to teachers. The teacher council leaders traditionally gather once a year at the annual ACTFL convention as both a family reunion and a chance to share accomplishments and tackle larger topics and challenges in teaching the Arabic language. Similar to so many of us who have taken the sudden time at home to reconnect with friends or networks that may have been neglected through the busy nature of 21st-century life, it didn’t take long for the teacher council group to say, “why haven’t we done this more often?” The group quickly decided to coordinate online workshops and panels to cross-promote as many opportunities for teachers as possible to extend the traditional regional offerings to everyone. The anxiety of the pandemic and the uncertainties facing us all quickly transformed into action, ideas, and plans.

From those initial planning meetings came a truly robust set of online workshops for Arabic teachers across the U.S., UK, and Germany (for any of our intrepid U.S./UK-based Arabic instructors who also happen to speak German!). These remote teacher council workshops have included “Synchronous Learning: Getting Started with Zoom,” “Collaboration through Google Classroom,” “Designing Tasks for Final Assessments,” “How to Design an Engaging Conference Proposal,” and “The Student-Centered Arabic Classroom.”

The New York Arabic Teacher Council webinar on April 29, “Teaching Arabic through Stories,” reached teachers from six different countries, 17 states, and 52 different schools or organizations. And while our teacher councils are designed to particularly support Arabic teachers in K–12 schools, this webinar attracted 25 attendees from colleges/universities, in addition to over 40 educators from preschool through high school. Another session hosted by the Southern California Arabic Teacher Council was “Language Assessment in Distance Learning,” focusing on performance- or product-based tasks, as well as technology tools that teachers could use to facilitate learning and assessment according to the needs of different age groups. Workshops were open to Arabic teachers across the world (time zones permitting), and they were offered for free.

Trying to recreate workshops in a virtual environment is far from perfect, of course. Satisfying time zones, finding time amid school and homeschool responsibilities, and everything else putting pressure on educators during this unprecedented time make it nearly impossible. It is also a difficult balance to know whether to focus solely on professional development to help teachers trying to teach online or to also provide topics that allow teachers to think (hope! dream! plan!) for the day that we are all back in classrooms working with students in person again.

Another challenge that networks face in providing professional development for teachers across multiple districts, states, and countries is that every school system has approached learning and teaching during COVID-19 closures differently. But regardless of the format of lessons, teachers in the teacher councils are constantly learning and sharing methods, resources, and tips for keeping students engaged, supported, and connected.

While none of us quite knows what the next year will look like, and as some areas of the country and world reopen while others remain locked down, one thing we know perhaps now more than ever is that an amazingly resilient and supportive group of Arabic language educators continue to be there for one another and for the collective professional advancement of the teaching of Arabic worldwide, no matter where they are located. And for this, QFI remains grateful and inspired to continually improve and learn from our community of educators.

Julia Phelan Sylla is the director of programs at Qatar Foundation International (QFI) in Washington, DC.

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