December 24, 2020
When We Can’t Go There To Compare: Why Teachers’ International and Intercultural Education is More Important Than Ever
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much about our daily lives that it is sometimes hard to remember what life was like before social distancing and mask-wearing were the norms. Keeping people safe from infection and transmission has also transformed the way that we work. For many schools - even those serving communities with technology and infrastructure at the ready - the shift to remote learning came fast. Without time to prepare teachers for online instruction challenges, COVID-19 has complicated how teachers are professionally developed to meet their students’ needs. I contend that these needs eclipse traditional school-based professional development that narrowly focuses on classroom-based instruction and test-readiness. Instead, this moment calls for an intercultural approach to teachers’ professional learning that catalyzes international cooperation and pedagogical collaboration.
Since 2018, I have worked with the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research to study how Emirati teachers are professionally developed through their participation in a short-term international exchange program. The Teacher Exchange Program (TEP) is a professional development model that primes teachers’ intercultural pedagogical transfer through travel to another country. The Foundation’s TEP began in 2012 as a reciprocal exchange between teachers from the UAE and Switzerland. Vietnam was identified as the location for the second TEP and was initiated through a partnership with the Foundation, the UAE Ministry of Education, and the Institute of International Education (IIE). With support from the Foundation’s Faculty Research Grant program, I studied how comparison - as teachers’ reflection and sense-making of education policy and pedagogical practice - can support and sustain their professional learning. Through interviews, focus group conversations, and participatory observation with teacher participants in the Vietnam TEP, I have seen, first-hand, the power of international comparison on how teachers think about their teaching, and the ways they conceptualize teaching outside of their local contexts. And while future international teacher exchange programs like the TEP are on pause due to COVID-19, there is still much to take from teachers’ international exchange experiences regarding to how schools can support educators’ intercultural professional development.
All of the teachers I’ve worked with while studying the TEP have incorporated what they learned while in Vietnam in their classroom practices, but the professional community they developed along the way has been the most impactful. Through WhatsApp group chats and the online TEP alumni resources provided by the Al Qasimi Foundation, the Emirati TEP participants have sustained an online community that has lasted exponentially longer than the one-week they spent together in Vietnam. The WhatsApp group started as a way to stay connected during their study-away and evolved to become a safe space for teacher-to-teacher communication, collaboration, and friendship. These relational ties are crucial for educators in ‘normal’ times, but even more so during the pandemic. As the 2018 TEP cohort’s activities indicate, when teachers have easy access to tech tools - like WhatsApp, in this case - they can troubleshoot instructional challenges by crowdsourcing strategies within a community that shares their same needs and interests. Teachers’ shared needs and interests extend from solving teaching-related challenges to accessing self-care supports that are essential during these unprecedented times (Mahfouz, 2019) . The 2018 TEP cohort’s use of online tools evidences how international comparison enables collaboration in ways that promote teachers’ professional learning by privileging self-care within teachers’ education and training. And, maybe, more importantly, reminds us of the power of teachers collaborating to solve complex problems through communication, creativity, and a commitment to lifelong learning.
So, until we can again ‘go there to compare’, let us learn from teachers’ international exchange experiences to better take care of ourselves and each other during these unprecedented times.
Emily Anderson, PhD is an Assistant Professor of International and Intercultural Education in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Florida International University.
To learn more about Emily's research with the Vietnam Teacher exchange, read her open-access policy paper.
 Mahfouz, J. (2019). “Make Mindfulness A Habit”. The Learning Professional, 40(5), 27-27.