Fulbrighter Michele Lew: How 6 Weeks in Palestine Made Me a Better Educator

Oct 31, 2018

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Michele Lew spent six weeks in the Palestinian Territories as a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher. What she learned changed her teaching practice for the better.

By Guest Blogger Michele Lew

As I prepared for my trip to Palestine, doubt and worry started to creep in—I don't know anything about the Middle East! I wish I weren't going alone. I'm not an expert, what can I teach teachers halfway around the world? Maybe this isn't such a good idea....

Fast forward to the present day, and I now know my fears and anxiety were unfounded. And while I believe I brought value and insight to my Palestinian colleagues, I also came away with a changed perspective and a renewed appreciation for my profession.

Good Teaching Can Be Instinctual

As I made field visits to schools across the Palestinian Territories, I spoke with many teachers who proudly shared their classrooms and teaching techniques with me. When a Bethlehem teacher described her method of communicating with a mute student, I found myself nodding in agreement and telling her that I do something similar with my students who have a hard time communicating. I asked if she'd been trained in that particular technique and she said she hadn't. It was something she'd thought up when she began working with the student.

Again and again, I heard similar stories from good teachers who weren't necessarily trained in best practices for behavior management, informal assessment, and accommodations and modifications, but who used them organically throughout their teaching. (In fact, there is no formal special education credential for teachers in the Palestinian Territories; teachers have a regular education certificate and attend district trainings on special education.)

This was an insightful reminder that good teachers use similar strategies and tools no matter where they're teaching—be it in the States or halfway around the world. I realized that best practices and effective strategies transcend language and culture. Good teaching is a universal language that unites educators globally.

Bells and Whistles Aren't Necessary

The Palestinian Ministry of Education is on a tight budget. Many of the schools I visited talked about the lack of resources for teachers and students. The Ministry of Education is in the process of developing a formalized curriculum, but in the meantime, they're using curriculum borrowed from neighboring countries. When I asked teachers about the efficacy of the curriculum, many told me they often supplement with other sources and content, since the curriculum wasn't tailored specifically for Palestinian students.

Most classrooms I visited had a chalkboard and basic supplies like paper and pencils. Student work and teacher-made posters decorated the walls, but there were no interactive whiteboards or document cameras, or even overhead projectors; no technology was used in the classrooms I visited. As I observed lessons, however, I saw engaged and motivated students. Teachers were able to impart knowledge and content without shiny curriculum, textbooks, or technology.

This was a great reminder that teaching doesn't have to be overly complicated. I often get caught up in the need to use the right curriculum, or the right technology, or the right resources, because if I don't, I think the lesson will fail. Not true. The teachers I met had none of those things, yet they were effective. Sometimes simple is better.

I was blown away by teachers' creativity and resourcefulness in using the limited resources given to create an enriching classroom. I saw tires used as seating in a class library, egg cartons and wire hangers used for a science project, and rolls of tissue paper used for a math game. One teacher showed me a beautiful felt book she'd made to teach language skills. The book was interactive, included 3D elements, and personalized to her students. Another proudly showed me a bookshelf she had found on the side of the road. She cleaned, painted, and repurposed the bookshelf for her classroom.

It was really humbling and inspiring to see these teachers do so much with so little. I thought about my classroom cupboards back home (filled to the brim with supplies for every occasion) and vowed not to complain so much about all the things I thought my classroom lacked.

Social and Emotional Learning Was Embedded in School Culture

I spent a day with an NGO based in Jerusalem whose mission was to educate Palestinian youth under house arrest. These kids didn't have access to school while at home, so the NGO sent trained tutors to the students' homes to work with them. Along with academics, tutors supported the students' emotional health. Many felt depressed, angry, and hopeless. Part of the NGO's purpose was to help them identify and work through those feelings so when they went back to school, they would be equipped with the skills to function successfully.

Many students have been traumatized by the ongoing conflict in the area. Some students live and go to school on opposite sides of a border checkpoint and are only allowed to cross the border during certain hours. When checkpoints are closed unexpectedly, those kids can't go to school. Almost all of the people I met had family or friends who had been in jail. The conflict can be a very personal one for students and resulted in students displaying anger, aggression, sadness, and depression.

Teachers and administrators spoke very candidly about the effects of trauma on their students, and schools had to be cognizant of students' emotional health out of necessity. Teachers were knowledgeable about warning signs displayed by students and often took an empathetic approach with them. The Ministry employed counselors to work with students and train teachers so that Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) was embedded in school culture.

One of the ways elementary teachers helped students express their feelings in a productive way was by having the class create a Feeling Board. The board was divided into two categories: Feeling Sad and Feeling Angry. Under each category were suggestions on what students could do if they felt sad or angry (listening to music, coloring, drawing, talking to a friend, deep breathing, etc.). Not only did students feel empowered by being a part of the creation process, they also learned to how to deal with and express their emotions in a constructive way. Whenever a student became upset or sad, the teacher would help them through it by using the Feeling Board.

I have a huge passion for SEL and believe that students in the States can benefit greatly from learning SEL strategies. Teaching students self-awareness and coping skills will prepare them to face any stressors that come their way. The Palestinian way of embedding SEL within school culture is a model I hope to replicate in my own district.

We Are More Similar Than We Are Different

The most important thing I learned from my time in Palestine was that we are all more similar than we are different. Although I live halfway around the world from my Palestinian colleagues—with a difference in language, culture, religion, and perspectives—we were able to connect in a very real way.

With every new experience I had, I moved further and further away from thinking of the people I met as different, and closer and closer to thinking of them as same. By the end of the six weeks, I just called them friends.

I came away from my time in Palestine inspired, motivated, and fundamentally changed. Watching my Palestinian colleagues deftly navigate their way around so many obstacles in order to teach pushes me to be a better educator. If they could do so much with so little, then surely, I can do even more than what I'm doing now. Because at the end of the day, good teaching only takes a good teacher.


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