Pre-school teachers from US and Tanzania find common ground

Crossing continents and cultures using digital communications, early childhood educators from the US and Tanzania met in a virtual workshop in June to discuss such common topics as the diverse and individual needs of children, the significance of play in early childhood education, the role of art in the classroom, and ways of working with parents. They found much common ground, observing that some themes and challenges are universal.

The meeting, via a Skype call between teachers in Sarah Lawrence College’s Early Childhood Center (ECC) and the Janada L. Batchelor Foundation for Children (JBFC)’s Joseph & Mary Schools in Kitongo, Tanzania, was facilitated by Sarah Lawrence’s Child Development Institute (CDI) and JBFC.

The two organizations were brought together by the Rotary Club of Bronxville, NY and the Bronxville School, which has been sending volunteers to JBFC for the last several years. In June, 2013, CDI advisory board member and SLC psychology faculty member Kim Ferguson traveled to Tanzania to plant the seeds for the schools’ collaboration.

“When I visited JBFC, and was able to spend some time talking with their teachers and observing their classrooms, I immediately noticed many interesting similarities between their priorities and interests and those of our own teachers at our Early Childhood Center,” says Ferguson. “It was incredibly exciting to begin to connect the two groups of teachers together, and we are looking forward to continuing this collaboration in the coming months.”

“The collaboration between CDI and JBFC is an incredible opportunity for us as educators to think more deeply about what we do on a daily basis, the classroom environment, respect for children and development of community. To be able to recognize and celebrate the universality of play, for example, and then have frank discussions, noting our cultural differences, is invaluable,” said Lorayne Carbon, director of the ECC.

“Our teachers walked away so excited, and reenergized to make their classrooms better than ever and get to know their students in a completely new light,” said JBFC founder, Chris Gates. 

Prior to the Skype call in which the two groups of teachers participated, videos of their respective classrooms had been shared laying the groundwork for a productive discussion. Future calls are planned.

The conversation left all involved yearning for more dialogue and understanding of each other's cultures, environments, and practices. Robbin Hawkins, lead teacher for three and four year-olds at the ECC, is eager to delve deeper: “I can't wait until the next time,” she says. “I would like to know what the teacher/parent relationship is like; if and when the teachers see children having difficulty with any task, what is done to help them through the process; what are some of the themes in pretend play?”

"I learned new techniques and activities that I can use in my own classroom,” said Ms. Deo, a long-time preschool teacher at Joseph & Mary Schools. She says she plans to integrate more drawing, painting, and coloring, rather than lecturing, for her young students.

“I loved being able to meet face-to-face with the teachers from JBFC, share stories about how our days are spent at school, discuss what we value as teachers, and ask one another questions. The many miles between us did not seem that great, as we are all dedicated to the same things - our desire to learn as teachers and to provide the best school experiences for children that we can,”  noted Sonna Schupak, ECC teacher of five and six year olds.

“While cultural environments play a role in our approaches, we all want the same things for the children,” says Millie Harper, the lead teacher for four- and five-year-olds at SLC’s ECC.

Plans for the collaboration include a visit to Sarah Lawrence by Joseph & Mary Schools administrators and the participation of JBFC in Sarah Lawrence’s new Study Abroad Program in Sub-Saharan Africa taking place in the spring of 2015.