Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Reflections on international student exchanges

After a few incredibly hectic weeks I finally have some time to sit down and reflect on our latest student exchange programme. Last week we had 'an invasion' of 17 students and 3 teachers from Singapore at our school.

As usual, it was a homestay arrangement with the families of some of our students, and this time round even the teachers were accommodated by me and two colleagues. So, I could say for the last month or so, I have been truly multi-tasking in the roles of travel agent, programme manager, overall coordinator, taxi driver, guest house hostess, press liaison coordinator, janitor, caterer, cook, cleaning lady... possibly a dozen other roles, and all this on top of doing my daily teaching load as well. No wonder our Singaporean colleagues asked incredulously: "Don't you have staff?" when we started rearranging the tables and chairs in our school cafeteria after our welcoming party on Sunday. No, here in Finland, staff at schools is downsized to the bare minimum with each person outside the teaching staff having very strictly defined duties and working hours, which leads to us teachers having to be prepared to do almost anything not to lose face in front of foreign guests. And it goes without saying that we teachers do all this with no extra pay - the popular belief being that as you clearly enjoy doing it (otherwise you'd be crazy to take on so much!), surely you don't also expect to be paid for it!

(Do try to negotiate this before embarking on student exchanges. I know in some countries this is standard practise, and wisely so!):
- at least one of the teachers in charge of any such extensive exchange should be free from classroom teaching and provided with a qualified substitute for the time of the visit.

Thinking back to the busy week of running around, I thought at first that maybe my 10 years of doing these various projects would be enough. After all, I haven't managed to create a lot of enthusiasm or momentum among the majority of colleagues and students for these activities. It's always a small minority who get involved. But then again, I always come to the conclusion that if it's just one student who gets the spark of wanting to be an active, intercultural participant, then I should feel happy. Over 10 years, it's hopefully been at least a dozen who have truly broadened their horizons in our projects, not to mention the knock-on effect on their families and siblings at home. And just have a look at this picture from our sauna-cottage evening to see the fun young people across continents can have together - makes it all seem so worthwhile again.

Intercultural sensitivity and communication skills are not something you can learn from lectures or reading books, you will have to be thrown into new situations, and be guided to reflect on possible misunderstandings afterwards. Debriefing is what we will be doing with our group of hosting students on Thursday.

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