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When education transcends cultures

As part of a College of Education-sponsored leadership program, a select group of Kuwaiti principals, seen here in front of Independence Hall, traveled to the United States.

Last month, 18 Kuwaiti principals traveled over 6,000 miles to learn that education is a universal bond.

Representing two cultures that often seem so distant, both Kuwaiti and American educators share more in common than one might think.

That’s one of the lessons learned during an intensive three-week training institute hosted by the College of Education’s educational leadership program.

“We’re really having a conversation about the roles of principals, especially as instructional leaders and agents of change in schools,” said Ron Yoshida, professor of educational leadership. “Here at Lehigh, we truly believe that school principals need to be transformational leaders.”

That’s an idea at the core of the educational leadership program at Lehigh, which promotes a theory-to-practice model designed to make research and best practices more accessible to those in the educational arena.

Educational leadership

The trip to Pennsylvania was funded by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Education and was the first time that a select group of Kuwaiti principals has traveled to the United States to learn about educational leadership. While here, they participated in workshops and visited with educators from throughout the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia.

The program was designed to discuss the evolving roles of administrators in both countries. “We found that a lot of people know about Kuwait, but very few people have a sense of the culture of Kuwait. That presented a range of opportunities for us,” explained Yoshida.

Over the course of three weeks, the Kuwaiti delegates split their time between Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus and at various other venues including Nazareth and Bethlehem Area School Districts. The guests were also escorted to the Lehigh Carbon Intermediate Unit and spent their last day in Philadelphia at the Microsoft School of the Future and the Russell Byers Charter School.

The intent was to introduce Kuwaiti and American principals to the challenges that each group faces in its respective country. “To a large extent, we share one common goal,” said George White, chair of the educational leadership program at Lehigh. “We want the best for our children. And as professionals, we want to exchange knowledge and learn from each other.”

That they did. Led by Lehigh faculty in the College of Education, the training institute tackled such administrative topics as leadership and organizational roles, technology instruction and implementation, special education and critical planning and curriculum design.

But it’s not just a one-way street. “This has been a wonderful opportunity for our faculty and principals across our region to exchange ideas and begin a new dialogue on what it means to be a leader—both in school and in the community,” said Sally A. White, dean of the College of Education.

In intimate, “world café” settings and roundtable discussions, principals who are members of the Lehigh School Study Council and their Kuwaiti counterparts talked about common challenges they share. During a trip to Philadelphia, for example, they engaged local urban principals in talking about distributive leadership—a concept involving the sharing of leadership responsibilities between multiple school leaders.

They also talked with Lehigh’s Centennial School on the topic of special education, positive behavioral support systems and creating learning environments in which all students can learn.

The American model

A session featuring Lehigh’s School Study Council, a consortium of approximately 45 school districts spanning eastern Pennsylvania, was also a program highlight.

During that meeting, the visitors saw firsthand the evolving role of administrators. In the U.S., superintendents and principals tend to have more of a leadership role in managing schools and building educational relationships than their Kuwaiti counterparts do.

“In the U.S., we have a very collaborative educational model that relies on group decision-making and which is very data driven,” said Yoshida. “The question is, after spending a few weeks here, is that what our Kuwaiti friends want to start embracing once they get home?”

First-year experience

It was a learning experience that left many of the visiting principals surprised.

“The curriculum in the United States is related more to your lifestyle than in Kuwait,” said Essa Bu-Sakher, Ph.D., a member of the Ministry of Education and program coordinator who accompanied the principals during the trip. “The activities here are completely integrated.”

He and his colleagues seemed particularly interested in the opportunities that American children had to participate in drama, music and athletics. But nothing came as much of a surprise as the prevalence of technology in the classroom and throughout the schools.

“The internet has definitely revolutionized the world,” said Bu-Sakher. “This program is for our principals to study and learn from the educational system in the U.S. I hope they see how technology is used in the schools, especially how the students use computers and laptops in the classrooms.”

In a few local classes, students worked on projects in which they used their iPods. “What’s fun back home is used for learning and practical purposes here. It’s an amazing thing, really,” he said with a smile.

Long-term growth

The biggest challenge for those participating in the first-ever workshop will be to find ways to implement what they’ve learned here during their visit to Lehigh, said Bu-Sakher. But there remain other cultural issues for Kuwaitis to tackle as well.

“The difficulty we have is Arabic,” he explained. “Most teachers come from Arabic countries—Lebanese, Syria—because we don’t have enough teachers to teach in all the schools. The Arabic language has many different accents, and it’s not always easy to understand each other.”

“Day by day, we’re discovering new things,” Bu-Sakher added, noting that Kuwait’s educational model is emulated among its neighbors. “Everything is going step by step. We’re becoming more modern, more technology is being used, and our educational system has already begun changing for the better.”

The Educational Leadership program hosted the institute along with support from faculty from the college’s Centennial School, and its International Education and Teaching, Learning and Technology programs. Library and Technology Services staff also contributed to the success of the workshop.

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Tuesday, April 17, 2007

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