“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
– Saint Augustine
By Holly Bloodworth
Recently, I had a chance to read more of the world. I traveled with five student teachers and their instructor, Bonnie Higginson, to Corozal, Belize, as part of the International Teaching Experience program at Murray State University.
This international teaching program began in 2007. More than 100 Murray State student teachers have participated, spending three weeks teaching in a classroom with a Belizean teacher.
I was invited to conduct professional development for the Corozal elementary teachers and principals focused on teacher leadership and literacy skills. Although I was there to teach and lead, I learned so many valuable lessons from this experience.
The first lesson I learned in Belize is “Be Impressed!” Teachers can be a pretty critical group. Often in professional situations, we try to spot everything that is wrong instead of what is right. In a developing country like Belize, there are plenty of opportunities to call out the obstacles, but Murray’s student teachers seized every opportunity to learn from the people and their culture. They met teachers who worked hard and loved their students, which taught these new teachers that things do not have to be perfect to make a difference and that hope is one of the most important elements in a classroom.
Gabrielle Wibbenmeyer, a Murray student from Fenton, Mo., taught high school music in Corozal. Although the teachers in the music department did not have music degrees like she did, Wibbenmeyer was inspired by what they were teaching. In one of the classrooms, she observed students transposing music for different instruments, a skill she did not acquire until college. “It makes me aspire to be the best I can be,” Wibbenmeyer said.
My own misconceptions came to light as I toured one of the schools. Belize is a developing country with a relatively high poverty rate. I found myself surprised that the classrooms were bright, cheerful places with table groupings and beautifully displayed student work. These classrooms were similar to classrooms in my own school. The teachers were eager to try the new ideas they learned from the workshop I presented and reached out to me for opportunities to learn more.
One of the principals I met who came from a school with a name that caught my attention, Louisville Roman Catholic, giggled when I told her she had a hybrid position because she is in the classroom half of the time and half time in administration. Although her situation is based on the number of students in the school, she sat a little taller when I told her that some schools in Kentucky are exploring similar positions and what an advantage that gives her as an administrator. She is planning for her faculty to focus on new comprehension strategies each month as part of a schoolwide professional development program. Her plan sounds like professional learning at its best!
Another lesson I learned is how important relationships are for students everywhere. After a few frustrating days with behavior management, Laura Cobb from White Plains, Ky. – a student teacher in the elementary school – realized that she could not change things overnight, but she could connect with some of the children who made the classroom difficult to manage. As she worked to develop relationships with the students, the classroom became a better place to learn and she learned how to teach more effectively.
Tyla Bailey, a physical education major from Russell Springs, Ky., had the opportunity to develop a deep connection with a student with a visual impairment during her time in Belize. The relationship helped her develop accommodations and differentiated instruction that will be part of her teaching forever.
Building a strong working relationship with the cooperating teacher was also an important part of student teaching in Belize. Peyton Smith, a student teacher from Vienna, Ill., worked with a veteran teacher of 23 years.
“When Ms. Rosa asked me what I thought about some of the lessons she had planned, it really caught me off guard,” Smith said, “She wanted to know if I thought it was good or too easy for them. This really built up my confidence because it told me she viewed me as a knowledgeable colleague.”
Smith’s comment really made me think about the relationships I build with my own student teachers. Do I show them that I value them as a colleague or do I send the message that the professional learning is a one-way street and he or she is there only to learn from me?
To put yourself out there and to be vulnerable is a lesson that can be scary to learn, but it’s important for any teacher that wants to truly connect with students, colleagues and families.
One of my roles on this trip was to provide professional development for teachers and principals. One day, I led 40 principals and teachers in discussion around teacher leadership and creating plans for implementing new reading strategies. The second day, I worked with 200 teachers – outside – for six hours. Since the PowerPoint I had planned to use was not available, I had to be flexible. It was me and a microphone, but the teachers were eager to learn and jumped right in with my activities.
Yes, I was nervous, but my work paid off in some unexpected ways. At the close of my session, Mr. Magana, the director of schools, talked about their low reading comprehension scores and how the teachers needed to implement the new strategies they had learned. As he talked, he put on a pair of my silly glasses I used for a game during the workshop and said, “Mrs. Holly has taken us beyond. We must get over our fear of stepping out of our comfort area and be the stars for our students.”
From the teachers’ reactions, I believe Mr. Magana modeled this idea by stepping out of his comfort area for his teachers. Because he was willing to take the first step, the teachers will be more likely to try some of the new ideas and strategies in their own classrooms.
Being a part of Murray State’s International Teaching Experience broadened my perspective of teaching and deepened my understanding of a country and its people. Adding new pages to my “world book” will make me a better person, thinker and teacher for my students. The student teachers that embraced this opportunity will be forever changed. They have begun a beautiful library of experiences that will be forever a part of them as teachers.
Holly Bloodworth, a National Board certified teacher and 2014 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, has taught primary students at Murray Elementary School for 29 years. She is the co-director of the Kentucky Reading Project at Murray State and serves on several state committees. Bloodworth has worked as a teacher leader on special assignment.