Many American secondary and university students are taking advantage of their school's international programs to spend time abroad, studying the culture and language of another country, and immersing themselves in a different educational system. Another cultural exchange program that is gaining popularity brings teachers from other countries to U.S. classrooms, so that much younger students can also have a cross-cultural experience.
It's the beginning of another school day for Ellen McNamara and her first grade students. As she greets the five- and six-year-old boys and girls entering her classroom, it's clear they are eager to start the day.
Just down the hall, in another classroom, Corina Badea is screening a five-year-old boy to test his English fluency.
Both McNamara, who is from South Africa, and Badea, who is Romanian, are participants in the Visiting International Faculty Program. Since it began in 1989, the program has brought more than 7,000 teachers from more than 50 nations to work in U.S. classrooms.
Prince William County, Virginia, where McNamara and Badea teach, has 34 VIF teachers this year. "I think at the beginning, we had particular areas that were hard to find teachers to fill and this gave us a recruitment opportunity to find teachers from overseas,” says Amy White, director of human resources for Prince William County Public Schools.
White says once those key positions in math, science and teaching English as a Second Language were met, the program took on a life of its own. "When we had our new superintendent come, he just loved the idea of having a VIF teacher in every school, because it's one thing to read about a country. It's totally different to meet someone from South Africa and share learning with that person, share their culture."
Ellen McNamara and Corina Badea agree, and say their students will learn more than language and math skills this year.
"They all know about Dracula,” says Badea, referring to the fictional vampire who is based on the 15th century Romanian count, Vlad Tepes. “They will want to know me better, I think. I hope my students will see that Romanians are normal people just like them. I want them to have the wish to visit our country, because it is worth visiting."
McNamara says her students “have this old image of South Africa - lions and hunting and all that.” But she says they have already learned that South Africa is not that different from the United States in some ways. “When I speak to them and show them pictures, they say, 'Okay, that's like around the corner near us.' It's good because it gives them a real feel for the world."
That's the idea behind the Visiting International Faculty Program. But there are other benefits as well, according to Darlene Faltz, recruitment supervisor for Prince William County Public Schools. "Many of [the teachers] have had some experiences teaching in their own school divisions, which have a different approach. We're interested in them helping us expand some of the strategies we use in Prince William County Schools."
Faltz says the county, which has nearly 70,000 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, wishes it could keep the VIF teachers longer than the three years their visa allows them to stay.
The foreign teachers benefit from the VIF program as well. Corina Badea says she expects to return to Romania a better teacher. Ellen McNamara says she has learned, like her young students, to set aside preconceptions. She remembers her first experience teaching in the United States seven years ago, when the VIF sent her to the southern U.S. state of Georgia. "I remember how naïve I was. I came over thinking, America, everyone is rich and beautiful and thin and wealthy, and you come here and you see people are normal,” she says. “You have this image of Americans as loud and brash and everything flashy, and I came here and it wasn't like that. They were sincere; they were helpful.”
McNamara discovered there were more similarities than differences, especially when it came to the children in her class and their parents. "Kids are kids wherever you go. They want the same things. And parents want the same for their kids. My parents over here want them to be prepared for the world when they leave school. And (it's the) same thing for parents in South Africa."
Ellen McNamara enjoyed her three years teaching in Georgia so much she decided to return to the United States last year. This time she came with her husband, who is also a VIF teacher in Prince William County, Virginia.