I started interning for the International School-to-School Partnerships last semester when I was introduced to the founder Jonathan Berkey by his former colleague, my French professor, Michel Gueldry. Working for ISSP has made me realize the potential a virtual exchange can have on the people involved, and how powerful technology is at changing what we know, and how we learn. As great as it is to be able to talk to someone with the click of a mouse, we came to realize that to start such an exchange, we must first reach a better understanding of who we are working with. Despite a few emails exchanged between teachers in Cameroon and California, we still had little knowledge of the school, or the instructors, their interests, and their wants for this program. With this realization I proposed to Mr. Berkey to embark on a visit to Yaounde, to better understand Tassah Academy, and to document as much about the school as possible. The goal of this trip was two fold: first to discover what our partners are doing, and secondly, to put a physical presence of our program in place, being able to finally connect all of our teachers by having a “middle man,” someone who could bridge the gaps, culturally and otherwise. Although there were some challenges including scheduling during the summer period, we were able to accomplish these humble yet surprisingly important goals.
The first success was in gaining awareness of the school. By spending a month with the staff, and especially being hosted by the school founder Bih Janet Fofang herself, I was able to build relationships with each member individually. Over time we were able to trust each other, and through this friendship I was able to learn more about their teaching methods, students, school politics, among other cultural aspects of Cameroonian daily life. Based on this information I was able to better assess what resources the school already has, and what assets would benefit the students. Additionally I could gauge how the program would best fit into the curriculum already in place, and how it could be made to fit the needs and interests of the teachers who will be the driving force of ISSP’s pilot program. By gaining these insights, our pilot has a much higher chance of success, because we will make sure to appeal to those involved, and have them gain knowledge and skills that will help them grow professionally.
Equally important was the connections that were made between ISSP and the local community. By physically visiting the school, local NGOs, and government offices, individuals felt the reality of the program, and appreciated ISSP’s presence so much more. They were able to provide feedback, and connect with different members of the program, so that it was not just some random organization, but one that they had personal connections with. By seeing an actual member of ISSP, they felt the reality of what we are trying to do, and were more supportive of the program. “Now people can see that this is actually happening. We are actually going to do this,” said Bih Janet Fofang, the founder of Tassah Academy. “When I told them before they didn’t believe me. Now they can see that what I have been saying is true.”
Although virtual exchanges work great, as one teacher pointed out, “I feel more comfortable talking to [someone] that I have already met before, face to face. It’s harder to connect with a stranger, unless we are introduced by a familiar face, guiding us along.” This is one of the challenges we must take on, to make sure the teachers feel comfortable with their virtual relationship as we embark on the Pilot this school year. Some other challenges that we are discovering is that teachers are extremely busy (both in Cameroon and in California) and sometimes feel overwhelmed with the work they already have. By adding this program, they will have to find extra time to plan, organize, and Skype with their counterparts. However, the support of several teachers that we have found who are interested in this program has been monumental. Their excitement and desire to move forward have kept us confident that with some help from ISSP, they will be able to continue the conversation, and truly create the global classroom we are all looking for.