The letter I got in the month of June 2011 from the J William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, besides congratulating me for my selection also went on to inform me that, as a Fulbrighter, I joined the ranks of some 261,000 alumni of the programme who have gone on to become heads of states, judges, ambassadors, CEOs, journalists, educational leader, etc. and have been awarded 34 Nobel prizes. My sense of achievement and elation was at its peak!
There was no way we were going to be sent to U.S.A. unprepared. We had rigorous, exhaustive and extensive Workshops and pre-departure orientations. Online discussion forums were set up for all of us, 70 Fulbright exchange teachers from all across the globe. We had workshops in Goa. Washington DC and a mid-exchange in Boston. The issues covered were endless- effective teaching learning strategies, classroom management, student motivation, crossing the culture, interacting with parents and more. We had some wonderfully educative lectures/ presentations by experts and resource persons. On the on-line forum, all of us teachers shared best teaching practices, motivational tools, cultural differences and classroom management strategies.
To be able to teach in the state of Oregon, you are required to get a teacher’s license after getting your credentials endorsed by Teachers Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC). A Process which normally would have taken three months was expedited for me thanks to my Fulbright recommendations.
My host school was Health and Science School (HS2) in Beaverton, Oregon which was following one of the latest models of learning-Expeditionary Learning (EL). I also attended the orientation program of the school and was exposed to some innovative trends in teaching and assessment. I was provided a constant support of a mentor teacher as well as that of a special education teacher.
I found the classrooms in USA to be extremely structured and student friendly. The issues of teenage problems, discipline and behaviour are very effectively handled in an extremely professional manner. The teachers were trained and restrained enough to deal with any discipline problems through appropriate choice of words. I rarely saw a grown-up losing self-control in front of the students. One of the methods involved not sounding accusatory, using more ‘I s’ than ‘You s’ while confronting a difficult student. For example instead of telling the student “You were distracting the class”, the appropriate choice of words included being direct and telling him “I was distracted by your behaviour. Please don’t repeat it”. This did not put the student on defensive and most of the times the confrontation was amicably settled. The self-discipline of the students and involvement of the teachers really impressed me.
Teaching in the US was the best professional development opportunity I have ever had. Their educational system is different and sometimes even better than our own. Science teaching followed the Discovery method. Instead of being taught a concept and performing experiments on it, like we do in India, the curriculum facilitated the students to discover the concepts through experiments designed by teachers. Students were given hand-outs and then left to perform the activity on their own. The teacher just facilitated the learning. It was a challenge for me to come up to the expectations of my host school. In the process, I learnt new teaching practices like designing experiments for the topic being taught; making thought provoking worksheets and reflected on my own methodologies. I could compare and contrast the two educational systems to evolve a new one. While our education system is more theory based and we rely a lot on text books, the American system relies more on activities and hand-outs designed by teachers. What amused me were the students using calculators even for some simple numerical calculations. The students were very creative but lacked curiosity and presentation skills. A very encouraging attitude of the staff and a supportive one of my students made the exchange an enormously true learning experience for me.
Personally also, the exchange opened my eyes to a range of possibilities. I felt more independent and took some great risks. The consequences at times were overwhelmingly challenging, but made me emerge a stronger person.
My children had a wonderful learning experience. We forged new friendships, learnt to live in a new culture and celebrated all their festivals with equal gaiety. Be it Halloween, Navratras, Diwali, Thanksgiving or Christmas- we didn’t miss any opportunity to make merry. We explored museums, libraries, harvest markets, pumpkin patch, berry-picking, public transport systems, and entertainment parks- at times on foot to save a few bucks. We imbibed American culture by going to free Operas by the park, symphony orchestra by the riverfront and other music festivals. Portland is rightfully called ‘The Culture Capital of Oregon’.
In retrospection, taking kids along was a wise step on my part. Kids are a spontaneous and an expeditious bridge to a new culture. It might have been a little setback to our finances, but a great investment into the memories of my children. Everyone that we came across was ready to help us explore the American way of living. We had no dearth of friends, or outdoor activities to do on a weekend.
Not that we didn’t face loneliness, insecurity and vulnerability at times, but we took it in our stride. We had gone for the exchange with very few expectations and a lot of hope. I rediscovered my love for teaching, my kids discovered a culture and we came back enriched with an experience and friends to last us for a lifetime.
Fulbright Exchange Teacher to Oregon, USA in 2011