I love intercultural experiences—I am enthusiastic about traveling, sharing and, above all, learning. Although I didn’t expect it initially, the “Aulas sin Fronteras” ("Classrooms without Borders") initiative coordinated by Teach For All network partners in Latin America brought together all of these elements through an educational learning exchange trip between Mexico and Lebanon. Actually, the term "educational" is an understatement, because it was more than exchanging formal education learnings. It was also a cultural exchange, where I learned more than what I could have learned in a conventional classroom. It was an exchange of best practices, languages, and even letters between students from Mexico and Lebanon. The Aulas sin Fronteras initiative, Teach For All and Enseña por México, allowed me to live one of the most meaningful and different experiences of my life.
I had never been to the Middle East, so I did not know what to expect, I had no expectations. Arriving in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon was more complex than expected, it took me more than 35 hours of travel and three flights. As soon as you get off the plane you can notice the differences, starting with the signs where, although they were also in English, the Arabic alphabet was very striking.
After my journey I finally got to meet Rozan, a Teach For Lebanon fellow and my partner in this learning exchange experience, in person after four months of virtual connection. I was so excited to get to know each other, to know more about our contexts and educational challenges we face every day and working with each other’s students. Rozan was always a great support for me, she answered all my doubts and gave me recommendations to make my stay in Lebanon the best. And so it was. Although Rozan did not have the opportunity to come to Mexico, she got involved with my students through virtual classes. My students always looked forward to her classes and showed great interest in learning more with her. Undoubtedly, these spaces for learning and dialogue were very valuable for them as well as for both of us.
Rozan and I met at 6:15 am on a Monday for my first day of classes in Lebanon, which became our routine for the next week.I was fortunate to meet about 100 fourth and fifth grade students and teachers who made me feel part of the team. I was received very warmly, there were lots of hugs and smiles, as well as notes from the students, which made me feel more than welcome. It seemed like we already knew each other because the interaction was very natural. I felt part of this beautiful educational community since day one.
In one day of classes, Rozan and I co-facilitated six classes to three different groups. During my first class with them, I shared more about my students and Mexico, its customs, traditions, and the most emblematic places in the country. We practiced Spanish and discovered some similarities between our languages, as we have several words that come from Arabic. I gave them the letters that my students in Mexico sent to them. It was a very nice moment as they could not wait to open their letters and were very excited and thrilled.
In the following days we focused more on the academic rather than the cultural part. Needless to say, I really enjoyed sharing the classroom with Rozan, she is an excellent teacher and is very well liked by her students. In theory, I was going to be the one teaching. However, I think I was the one who ended up learning much more. I find it amazing how something as conventional as conversing with someone can mean so much.
In addition to co-facilitating classes with Rozan, I had the opportunity to visit three schools to observe the implementation of a program that Teach For Lebanon is conducting. The program consists of an academic curriculum composed of 36 lessons used in formal and informal learning environments to teach civics and peace education, as well as life skills. During my school visits I met more children and was able to continue learning from them. It was a very nice interaction, as I shared a little bit of Mexico and they were all very interested in learning more. These visits were all possible thanks to Teach For Lebanon staff and I am very grateful to them for their support and community: we shared road journeys, they took me to try Lebanese food and to incredible places like the ruins of Baalbek.
At the end of my exchange, I gained several key learnings that I would like to share:
- Engagement is as important as content. The content of the classes and the tools used play a very important role, but they are not the essence of the teaching-learning processes. What makes these processes different, useful and meaningful is the way in which teachers teach through them.
- Believing in the potential of students is key for their academic performance. Teachers’ successes begin with the success of their students. We must always have high expectations for our students and believe in their potential to succeed and reach their full potential. Believing that they can always try a little harder is simple but also very powerful.
- Being a fun and enthusiastic teacher makes the difference. When you are in class and you smile, make a funny comment or joke, the tension that may be in the classroom is released. Students feel more confident and in turn, are more likely to approach you to share if they are having issues or need help. A teacher's attitude is crucial in the teaching-learning process.
- Listening and showing empathy about your students' personal problems can improve their academic performance. Sometimes students show low academic performance due to external factors. It is important to take the time to understand their context, talk to them and intervene if necessary.
Thanks to these learnings, I know that my work as a PEM (Enseña por México participant) and teacher is continuously improving, because although the educational contexts have differences, the way in which students learn, communicate and live their academic experience is very similar.
After 10 days in Lebanon, I can say that it has been an unparalleled experience, full of learning, friendly people and incredible students. This experience was possible thanks to the Teach For All Communities & Connections Fund support and Enseña por México. Thank you Teach For Lebanon for welcoming me as if I were part of your team. You made my stay in Lebanon an unforgettable experience.