Every spring, thousands of students across the country participate in a rite of passage: they walk across a stage and accept a diploma for their academic accomplishments. This year, 232 international educators from eighteen countries marked a similar milestone, taking part in Participate Learning’s first ever Ambassador Teacher Graduation. The members of Participate Learning’s Class of 2022 have spent the last five, six, or seven years of their lives serving as cultural Ambassador Teachers in the United States.
These outstanding educators have navigated homesickness and cultural transitions, have learned how to live and work in the U.S., and above all, have demonstrated professionalism, commitment, flexibility, and resilience. When the pandemic locked down the world in March of 2020, they had to shift their teaching practice overnight, learning new technology and methods to keep students engaged despite immense challenges.
When new Ambassador Teachers begin the Participate Learning orientation process, they set intentions for themselves in four areas: as Ambassadors of Culture, Masters of Instruction, Builders of Inclusive Culture, and Initiators of Leadership and Impact. This graduation celebration invited them to reflect on how they fulfilled these intentions throughout their cultural exchange.
Graduation speaker, Steffi Thomann, a dual language teacher from Chile who has spent the last five years in Rockingham County, North Carolina, described her experiences living and working in the United States. Steffi said that connections, cultural experiences, leadership, and learning helped her meet the intentions she set for herself.
For Steffi, connections formed the foundation of her experience in the U.S. From making friends with other Ambassador Teachers in her school’s dual language program, to collaborating with her U.S. teacher teammates, and forging lasting friendships through her church community, Steffi described how these deep and meaningful relationships helped her navigate the challenges of her first year. These connections were essential to “getting out of my comfort zone,” she said.
Thanksgiving, ice-skating for the first time, and visits to the Wright Brothers’ monument at Kitty Hawk and The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta: these were some of the cultural highlights Steffi enjoyed during her time in the U.S. While each individual Ambassador Teacher may check different experiences off their bucket list–whether it is attending a baseball game, admiring the view from the top of the Empire State Building, or seeing snow for the first time, these adventures will become an indelible part of their cultural exchange experience.
Leadership and learning
Leadership, Steffi explained, begins with learning. A laugh of recognition rippled across the room when Steffi described her experience as a first-year Ambassador Teacher: “I came here asking all the questions, always wondering how it was done.” Fast-forward to year two, and “when a new colleague comes you can give them an answer.” Steffi’s personal story of becoming an expert teacher in her building is reflected in the fact that many Participate Learning Ambassador Teachers are recognized for their leadership and excellent teaching in their own schools as teachers of the year.
The pandemic lockdowns of 2020 forced teachers to shift gears overnight and demonstrate a new level of leadership. Steffi talked about the incredible challenges of teaching during this time: “We all know it is so difficult to engage little children through a screen.”
Leadership and learning go hand in hand for Ambassador Teachers. ”Leadership is not just with adults, it’s with children too,” she said, describing how teachers had to show up to teach virtually and lead their students by example. “We had to reinvent ourselves,” she said, and again–laughs and nods of recognition among the attendees.
While Steffi gave specific experiences she had during her time here, her story clearly resonated. Even though the members of Participate Learning’s Class of 2022 had experiences as diverse as the countries they’re from, one thing is certain: they will return to their home countries with invaluable personal and professional experiences, connections, and perspectives, which will enrich their home communities as much as their presence has done in their communities in the U.S. As Steffi says, “Now we have so much more in our hearts, so much more in our minds–now we are ambassadors of Participate Learning.”
Find out more about Participate Learning’s options for promoting cultural exchange and global learning at your school here, or check out photos from the Ambassador Teacher Graduation on Twitter via this link.