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  • Writer's pictureChristina Mesk

So How Was Colombia?? Five Ways My FTGC Field Experience Has Changed Who I Am As A Global Educator

It's been almost two and a half months since I returned from my field experience with Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms, and tomorrow, my new class and I will have shared 20 days of learning together. In that time, I've had the opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues who were eager to hear about my field experience. I've enjoyed sharing my experiences, inspirations, questions and reflections both in conversation and through my blog. However, there are two questions that have been difficult to answer and they have been repeated by a variety of well-meaning friends and colleagues:

How will your practice change? What is different about you now that you have participated in this field experience?

I find these questions difficult to respond to for many reasons. The first is that the answers are not simple, and in conversation, I get the sense that some of my friends and colleagues think I can summarize my field experience in just a few sentences. I can't do that. My field experience was two-weeks of 12-hour days with amazing educators and students. My time in #Colombia just can't be summed up in a few sentences. Additionally, it takes me extra time to process experiences and reflect. The required written reflection and blogging really did help me to process so much of what I experienced in #Colombia. However, as much as I have written, I believe that I have barely scratched the surface of my own feelings and realizations from my time in #Colombia. Finally, I am not in #Colombia anymore and the way I transplant the experiences I had in Bogotá is going to grow and change as I take root again in Brooklyn.

But because these questions have been repeated so frequently, I find myself reflecting on me and they ways that I have changed since returning to room 307 approximately 20 days ago. I fully expect to keep evolving, but maybe the list below helps to answer these questions about my practice and who I currently am as a global educator.

#1 - This is a Season of Gratitude

Upon my return to Brooklyn, I found myself smiling for no particular reason as I walked around Bay Ridge and Sunset Park. Not that I was an unhappy person prior to my field experience, but female New Yorkers have the innate sense that smiling as you walk down the avenue can bring you trouble you didn't ask for. I thought that smile would fade as I acclimated to being back at sea level, but it didn't.

After some evaluating, I realized that my smile and general sense of happiness is rooted in my gratitude. I am so appreciative that I was able to participate in this fellowship and develop such wonderful relationships with educators and students both here in the U.S. and in #Colombia. The educators I traveled with were amazing and I am beyond grateful that we are still communicating and collaborating. Although we were only together for two weeks, we established a strong community. I love my colleagues within my school community, but I miss my cohort members and the many dedicated Colombian teachers we were able to collaborate with while in Bogotá. Of course, that sense of community would not have been established without our host, Yani Romero. She had the immense task of immersing us in Colombian culture and helping us each address our guided research questions. Not only did she meet those goals, but she went on to develop relationships with each of us. Yani was the glue that held us together. I went into this trip with some Imposter Syndrome. Even on the flight down, I questioned why I would have been chosen to travel with this impressive group of educators. Listening to their individual stories about their students and their practices as we traveled through the streets of Bogotá was one of the best parts of this field experience. I learned so much by listening to each of them. Two months later, I still feel so appreciative that I crossed paths with them and I hope that we continue to maintain our relationships for years to come.

I also feel so grateful that I was able to lose myself in Colombian culture. As Yani says, "Colombia is passion!" It is the second happiest country in the world, only to be out ranked by Iceland. I feel like Yani would tell me that I brought a piece of #Colombia back to Brooklyn with me. She might be right, as I find myself frequently employing Colombian hospitality in conversation with everyone, instead just getting down to business as is commonplace in New York. I hope that this season of gratitude doesn't have an expiration date, because I really like looking at the world through a lens of appreciation, positivity and friendliness.

#2 - Not Everything Is An Emergency

Within my school community, I have the reputation of someone who is responsible, always prepared and always willing to lend a helping hand. However, a lot of that reputation is rooted in my fear of not being enough. Those roots didn't take hold within my professional sphere, but they definitely influence many of my professional decisions. Angelica Guevara Bernal, one of the teachers we met in #Colombia and an alum of Fulbright TEA, shared that when she was in the U.S. she observed that U.S. teachers never stop working. She observed that U.S. teachers don't take time to enjoy their lunches and spend a lot of time working before and after school. She could have been describing me and her comments really hit home. If I am supposed to be modeling the Seven Habits for my students, how does overworking show them the importance of having balance in their life (Habit 7)? Am I really prioritizing (Habit 3), if I treat everything as an emergency? I realized that if I want to increase my impact for my students and their families, I have to get better at experiencing and modeling both of these habits for my students. I know that it's only our 20th day of school, but by prioritizing and building my identity outside of work, I am so much happier and I feel much more prepared for my students and their families. So far I'm eating lunch everyday and taking time after school with friends, family and my own passions like reading, writing, running and cycling. I don't want to be less responsible, prepared or dependable for my colleagues, students and families. I just have to remember that less can be more and sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. I am not the most significant part of our school community; I am part of a team (Habit 6) that must work together to support our students and their families.

I hope to maintain this focus throughout the school year. On the second day of school, my principal asked me if I wanted the dates for graduation or did I want to wait until I met with the COSA (Coordinators of Student Activities) team? I politely told her no thank you. I explained that I could wait until I met with the team. She seemed surprised and I explained a little bit about my increased gratitude, happiness and sense that not everything is an emergency. In reply she said, "That's great. The Christina from last year would have been color-coding these dates on a calendar right now. I'm so glad you are feeling so balanced." Of course, these dates will be color-coded on a calendar, but I didn't need to do that on the second day of school.

#3 - Keep Listening & Speaking To Students, Families and Colleagues

The best part of my field experience in #Colombia was visiting schools and speaking with students and teachers. During our first school visit to Manuela Ayala in Facatativá, I was very nervous because my conversational Spanish is not strong, and as a result, I held myself back a bit. During that visit I watched my colleagues in admiration as they interacted with students in Spanish without any care for grammar and vocabulary mistakes. My colleagues inspired me to leave my insecurities in the hotel room and the next day I jumped into conversations with students and teachers at our second school visit. With each school visit and panel discussion, my confidence increased.

On our last school visit to Colegio la Concepción IED, I was left alone in a classroom with middle school students and one high school student who was assigned to be my interpreter. This was unexpected, but it turned out to be one of my favorite school visits. The students had tons of questions about life in New York. They were excited to see pictures of my classroom and asked me to teach them some English phrases. In return, they taught me children's song in Spanish called "Los Pollitos Dicen." I was with these students for a long time before Yani came and asked me if I wouldn't mind moving onto the next part of the visit. Later on, Lynn, our representative from IREX, shared that they checked on me a few times, but each time they passed by I was surrounded by students and fully engaged in conversation. Before we left the school, three of the girls in that class, Luisa, Lili and Yeni, gave me a beautiful handwritten note thanking me for visiting. The girls must have immediately written this note after I left their classroom. When Luisa handed me the note, she had to push through a crowd of students blocking the entrance to the teachers' lounge where we were gathered for some light refreshments courtesy of our hosts. I was very touched by this note and it led me to pause and reflect. I don't think I did anything very special in their classroom, but somehow or another, our brief exchange helped to build a connection. Our conversations were simple and completely student-led. For both the students and myself, there was some risk in engaging in conversation, but we put that risk aside so we could recognize each other's perspectives.

As I reflect, I realize that my colleagues and I also put risk aside when we spoke with teachers, administrators and each other. We may have been conversing mainly in English, but the same principles applied. Our conversations were rooted in our shared interest in helping students succeed and the questions we asked each other were the result of active listening. Through our conversations we learned to view larger educational concerns like equity, accessibility, progress monitoring and standardized testing through the lens of local culture and individual perspective. They were very honest conversations through which we often wound up with more questions than we did answers. So often professional conversations are lost in educational acronyms and busy policy language. When we step outside that language and honor the human elements, our conversations become so much richer. For example, another very impactful experience for me was our conversation with a panel of student teachers. These student teachers were young enough to remember being students, but were also beginning to see education through the lens of educators. It was their words that reminded me that families often provide our students with more motivation to succeed than grading policies and school staff do. It was their words that revealed that our students are seeking an education that addresses both their academic needs and their social-emotional growth. It was their words that revealed that students are very aware of implicit bias within educational systems and that those biases often impact the professional ambitions of our students. Without this panel discussion, a unique perspective would have been missing from my field experience.

I am a good listener. Building relationships with students, families and colleagues has always been a priority for me. However, I am going into this school year with a greater zest for conversation with all community stakeholders. When we have honest and respectful conversations, in which we put risk aside, we learn so much more about each other. When we have a fuller picture of our students, their families and our colleagues, the daily decisions we make in the classroom take on greater importance and will make a greater impact on the success of our school communities. Everyday I intend to actively listen to my students, families and colleagues whether we are discussing the assessment policy, a word problem, the latest movie release or Pokémon cards. It's all relevant to gaining the perspectives of all community stakeholders.

#4 - Identifying Success and Next Steps Starts At The Local Level

It was important to me that I went into this field experience without a colonialist attitude or perspective. I recognized that the educational jargon and expectations I experience in the U.S. for students with disabilities could feel, look and sound different during my field experience. I wanted to learn and observe. I did not want to push my own expectations and experiences for inclusion on the schools that I visited. As a result, when I did come across programming that responded to needs of students with disabilities, I was more open than I might have been had I been visiting other schools within my own school district.

Although I didn't find services for students with disabilities during every school visit in #Colombia, there was a common thread within all the school sites that did provide these services: the existence of these services resulted from the request of community stakeholders.

For example, at Manuela Ayala in Facatativá, my colleagues and I were introduced to a group of deaf students in a small, self-contained class. The teacher explained that these students would remain with her until they had mastered sign language and then would be moved into a general education class with support from an interpreter. When I asked our tour guide, an alum of Manuela Ayala, why the class had been created, he shared that five years earlier when he was a student, the class had not existed. He explained that the local community requested the class due to the increasing minority of students with full or partial hearing loss in the community. At another school visit to Aquileo Parra in Bogotá, we learned that inclusion was at the heart of the school. Not only did the teachers and administrators make every effort to include students with Aspergers, Intellectual Disabilities, Low Vision, Blindness and Multiple Disabilities while they were in attendance in primary and secondary classes, but at the request of community stakeholders they also provide transitional services so that students have access to SENA or the vocational school that is available to Colombians as an option for post-secondary education. The staff at Aquileo Parra also invites their former students with disabilities to come back to the school to mentor their current students with disabilities.

Both of these examples demonstrate that when we are looking for success criteria, we need to turn to the families of our students before we turn to educational standards or grading policies. Both of these school communities created programming that matched what local families felt would help their children to become successful, and independent adults. When I combined this with what I have learned about the importance of listening to families and students, I started to ask myself some difficult questions:

  1. Am I clearly messaging to my families and students what success looks like in my classroom?

  2. Am I clearly communicating to my families and students that I want all my students to leave elementary school with agency and independence? Does this come across in my language and classroom culture? Is this clear within our school grading system?

  3. Do my students and families see that their identities are not tied up in a single grade, reading level or test score?

  4. Am I really leveraging the importance that families play in educational growth?

  5. Am I unintentionally teaching my students and families that I value complacency over risk-taking?

  6. Do my students and their families have a voice in what success looks like in my classroom? How can I manifest this in my classroom?

My intention over the next four weeks is to speak to each of the families I am working with this year. I don't want to ask them what their child needs support with. Instead, I want to ask them what success will look like for their child at the end of fifth grade. I am also going to ask the same question to each of my students. With that knowledge, I am going to make sure that the success criteria in all my lessons carry the voices of my students and their families. This is important because as a colleague used to frequently say, "I am one year in a 12-year project." However, the families of my students and our community stakeholders will be with my students for most of their lives. By including student and family perspective in success criteria, I will be able to actively release any implicit bias and expand my own perspective within the classroom.

#5 - Maybe these Roots Weren't Meant for Brooklyn

Leaving #Colombia was very difficult. Two weeks just did not feel like enough time with my cohort members, our host communities and to fully immerse ourselves in Colombian culture. This fellowship has left me wanting more and this is first time that I can picture myself being happy somewhere else. Prior to this field experience, I had collaborated with educators and explorers in Colombia, Mongolia, Scotland, the Weddell Sea, Bolivia and Mexico. I enjoyed all those experiences, but now I feel like there is a fire in me to continue this type of collaboration and that might mean making my home somewhere else. The conversations I had with my cohort members and our host teachers expanded and profoundly changed my perspective on education. For my own professional growth, I need to continue participating in these conversations. This doesn't mean I am leaving Sunset Park tomorrow or any specific date in the near future. This doesn't mean I feel less committed to the students and families at PS 1. If anything, my field experience has deepened my commitment and service to our families and students because I had the opportunity to view education through a wider lens and I see the important and powerful role teachers play on a local level. However, this realization does mean that I will be actively looking for similar fellowship and professional learning opportunities that allow me to connect with like-minded educators both in the US and abroad.

Of all the realizations on this list, this last one was the most surprising, especially considering how I went into this fellowship. I had no faith I would be chosen for this opportunity and I told maybe three people I had filled out the application. When I received my notice of acceptance, it took me days to tell anyone about it. I carried this imposter syndrome with me on the flight down to #Colombia, but somewhere on the streets of Bogotá it fell away. During this field experience, I found a version of myself that is happier, more balanced and understands the value of international exchange in education on a local and global level for all kinds of students and families. I need this work to continue being part of my story no matter who I am teaching or where I am teaching. When I think about the future, I'm excited to envision myself continuing to engage in international exchange.

So that's it. Those are the five ways I have changed as an educator due to my Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms fellowship. It's still not a brief response to the questions posed by my friends and colleagues. I don't know how to pare my experience down to less than the words and ideas I have expressed here. Of all the blogs I have shared, this one took me the longest to write and I hope it sums up how those 14 days in Colombia have impacted me. However, I don't expect my evolution as a global educator to stop here. It's only our 20th day of learning and I am sure that as the year progresses more lessons from my field experience will reveal themselves in room 307.

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