Why are Global School Partnerships Important?
By Heidi Steele
I envision a global school partnership as a relationship between two schools in different countries that brings widespread benefits to both school communities and is not limited to travel. At the risk of preaching to the converted, I think it’s useful to begin by articulating the core reasons why I believe these partnerships are extremely valuable to students and educators.
Global partnerships can bring a wealth of benefits to every member of a school community. Americans are often viewed in other countries as being ignorant about the world outside of the U.S. Indeed, many of us have an unarticulated (and often subconscious) sense that the U.S. is sitting at the center of the universe with other countries revolving around it. In this view of the world, there is no reason to expend energy learning about the rest of the world because it is incumbent on everyone else to learn about us. I was a case a point: It wasn’t until I was seventeen and living abroad for the first time that I suddenly became aware that the U.S. was actually just one among many countries. At a fundamental level, a school partnership can help American students, teachers, and administrators explore the misperception that the world revolves around us. This “making right” of our sense of how the U.S. fits into the international landscape can open the door to new learning for all members of a school community, including students, teachers, and administrators.
Here are some of the learning opportunities available in a partnership:
- Have an opportunity to hear views and approaches to problems that may differ widely from what they consider to be the norm.
- Form friendships with students in other parts of the world that continue into their adult lives. These relationships always enrich the students’ lives and those of their families, and sometimes provide valuable professional connections.
- Gain insights into their own lives once they are able to make comparisons with other parts of the world and uncover hidden assumptions they have held.
- Actively practice observing differences without immediately jumping to judgement, an essential skill for assuming an eventual place in the global workforce.
- Learn concrete factual information about other parts of the world, enlarging and deepening their knowledge base.
Teachers and Administrators:
- Learn about best practices used in schools in other parts of the world, share information about methodologies, classroom management, educational philosophy, curriculum, and more.
- Gain first-hand knowledge of another culture and bring this experience into their work.
- Share expertise and perspectives with colleagues in foreign countries and gain exposure to potentially interesting approaches that are not commonly in use in the U.S.
- Internationalize the education offered at their institutions to meet the needs of students entering a global work environment.
- Develop collegial relationships and friendships with fellow educators in other parts of the world.
What Do Successful Partnerships Look Like?
Traditionally, international programs (typically referred to as “exchange programs”) focus on sending a small group of students to a sister school, usually annually or biannually. Some programs conduct two-way exchanges, hosting student groups from the sister school on a regular basis. Travel is certainly an incredibly rich and exciting experience for students, and it an absolutely wonderful part of any program, however, it has two major limitations:
- Travel is an expensive proposition, which often makes programs infeasible during hard economic times. Depending on the economic status of the families at your school, the cost of travel may be prohibitive to all but a few. The financial hit is also significant for schools and/or districts. If grant funds are not available, which is often the case, educational institutions may not be able to cover such costs as substitutes for chaperone teachers, teacher airfare and visa fees (sometimes families are asked to cover teacher travel, but this is not always possible), transportation and activity costs for hosting student groups, compensation to the staff member(s) organizing the program, and so on.
- By its very nature, travel brings the greatest benefit to a very small number of students at both schools. Much can be done to ameliorate this problem — asking students to share presentations about their experience in the school community after their return — and so on. However, there is no escaping the fact that the travel/hosting is a first-hand experience for a very limited group of students.
After coordinating two programs that were focused on travel and encountering both of these issues, I have radically rethought my approach to international programs. This is reflected in way I describe our program. It is a “partnership,” not an “exchange program.” I deliberately use the term “partnership” to take the emphasis off of student travel as the primary component of the relationship and refocus our perspective to view student travel as one piece of a broad and multi-faceted relationship that benefits the entire school community at both schools. As I see them, partnerships have a broad set of characteristics that distinguish them from traditional exchange programs:
- The partnership can engage students and teachers across the whole school community, not just those who are able to travel.
- It includes collaborative projects throughout the school year and during the summer that take advantage of Internet technology to bring students, teachers, and administrators together.
- Under most circumstances, student travel between the schools is two-way.
- The student trips, if they occur during the school year, are focused on an educational goal and are tied into a collaborative project. They are not focused on seeing the sights, although these types of activities are fine too.
- Peer-to-peer language coaching between students (between students of Chinese in the U.S. and students of English in China) is ongoing and takes a variety of forms.
- The contract between the two schools is flexible enough to allow the program to scale based on available resources at both schools.
- The program is self-sustaining through family contributions, and community support, and possibly grants.
With these characteristics in place, a partnership can become a vital part of your school community that generates formative changes in the lives of students and educators alike.