By Salah Benhammou
By Salah Benhammou
Rabat – My love of the English language spurred me to look for an opportunity to visit the United States of America. My goals were to improve my English skills through interacting with native speakers, enhance my teaching skills, and broaden my knowledge of American culture. My dream came true when I was awarded a scholarship from the International Leaders in Education Program (ILEP).
ILEP, a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, brings international secondary school teachers from around the world to the U.S. to develop their teaching skills and learn about American culture. It is administered by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), an organization which works with the Department of State in administering a number of international exchange programs.
Every year, Morocco sends selected secondary school English teachers to represent the country in the program. The teachers apply through the Ministry of Education, which selects a number of candidates based on their application form and CV. The Ministry then refers them to the Moroccan American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE) for final selection based on an interview and the TOEFL. I was lucky to be one of the five Moroccan teachers chosen to participate in the program for 2015.
On January 5, the IREX staff in Washington, D.C., received 64 teachers from Morocco, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana, Uganda, Brazil, the Philippines, Senegal, Kenya, Mexico, Egypt, and Bangladesh who had been awarded this highly competitive and prestigious fellowship. We spent three busy days attending seminars and workshops on education and preparing for the start of the program in our host universities: The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York; Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona; Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina; and Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. I was placed in a group of 16 at the College of Saint Rose, along with a colleague from Morocco and others from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana, Uganda, and Brazil.
Many of us were visiting the U.S. for the first time in our lives. Everything was a new experience for me, from the first flight to the end of the program. I was thrilled to be able to see such famous cities and landmarks as New York City, the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, and Boston.
Of course, there were challenges, too. One of the most difficult challenges in Albany was the weather. For most of us, snow was a novel experience, which was exciting at first. Unfortunately, it was snowy almost every day during the first three months of the program. It was so cold that as soon as we finished our classes we hurried to the dorms to shelter from the snow and freezing temperatures. Although I had seen snow before, I had never experienced such harsh and cold weather. However, we managed to adapt and eventually enjoyed some aspects of the weather.
I also had to get used to new ways of measuring things. Americans use Fahrenheit instead of Celsius to measure temperature. Later on, I discovered that they also use pounds instead of kilograms, miles instead of kilometers, feet instead of meters, inches instead of centimeters, and so on. The more time we spent there, the more we realized how different America is from the rest of the world.
The U.S. is one of the few places in the world where one almost always finds diverse ethnicities. I saw nearly all the races during my stay in Albany and surrounding cities, including Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, and Native American. I even heard someone say, “We are all immigrants.” Indeed, America is a country of immigrants from all over the world, attracted by the abundance of job opportunities.
On a professional level, ILEP gave me an overview of the American educational system and helped me improve my teaching methods. I had the chance to observe and teach classes in American middle schools. In one class I observed, students were given freedom and independence to learn on their own. They were divided into small groups to discuss and interact with each other. The class was student-centered, which is not the case in my school in Morocco. Our Moroccan educational system focuses more on subject matter; students depend highly on the teacher for their learning and are not often given the opportunity to work on their own and learn by themselves.
As I visited different schools both in the suburbs and in the inner city, however, I noticed that educational quality can vary greatly from one school to another. Each school, I learned, is funded by the school taxes collected in its particular city. In the wealthier suburbs, schools provide high quality education because they benefit from the high taxes paid by their residents. In the inner city, where most of the population is poor, the situation is quite different.
During a visit to an inner-city middle school, I did not see any learning taking place. The teacher had no control over the noisy class, and only a few students were interacting with him. He attributed this situation to the students’ background, saying that most of them come from “single-mother families.” Most of the students, I was told, drop out before they finish middle school. I noticed that the teacher was not making any effort to listen to the students and guide them. His judgments seemed to prevent him from making any attempt to improve the situation. I could not help but wonder whether those students were suffering from racial discrimination, since most of them were African-Americans. Moreover, it seemed to me that tying education to how much taxes are paid is very detrimental to poor families. One has to be rich to be able to offer children quality education.
For the academic portion of my program, I attended two ILEP courses and audited two graduate education courses at the College of Saint Rose, alongside American students and other ILEP participants. In addition, I had the opportunity to teach demo lessons. My experience at the college was very beneficial overall. The American higher education system provides ample space for creativity and innovation. Professors guide students toward working independently, focusing on providing positive feedback and encouraging students to aim high.
Although the courses are very demanding and challenging, especially those in the sciences, students get help and support from all the staff at the college or the university to complete their degree. At the college I attended, professors are available after classes and students can stop by their offices if they need extra help. Through my conversations with students, however, I learned that not all American colleges provide the same instructional quality. In some colleges, education is a matter of business. All you need to do to get a degree is attend courses and pay college fees.
As our program was coming to an end in Albany, the weather started to get nicer and warmer. By the end of April, the snow had melted and the grass and tulips were popping up. We took advantage of the nice weather to explore the city and discover new places which we could not see during the snowy days. We received invitations from our host families who did their best to help us have fun and enjoy the last days of our stay.
At our farewell dinner, the last event at the College of Saint Rose, we received our certificates for completing the program and took time to reflect and to express our gratitude to the college staff, administrators, and professors who made our stay comfortable and pleasant. After that, we travelled to Washington, D.C., where the entire group spent the last three days of our trip talking about our experiences during the preceding five months. Almost all the participants expressed their satisfaction with the program and commitment to use their experiences to improve education in their home countries.
My visit to the U.S. changed me in many ways, making a positive impact on my professional development and on my personal life. I have expanded my knowledge of American culture as well as the cultures of many countries all over the world.
Edited by Esther Bedik
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