Teacher exchange: UNT program helps educators learn about methods, culture across borders

Teachers in the exchange program participate in a workshop together.

By Mary Murphy

Jeanne Tunks, UNT associate professor of Teacher Education and Administration, is crossing continents to help teachers in Denton and Guatemala learn valuable new skills.

The University of North Texas' Teacher to Teacher Exchange program was created by Tunks in partnership with Collegio Boston, a Guatemalan school in Antigua, and with the Denton Independent School District to help educators learn about culture and teaching methods. A team of three Guatemalan teachers came to Denton in early November to reunite with their Texas counterparts, share their experiences and answer questions from students and professors.

The program's in-person interactions – despite great distance, language barriers and differences in teaching styles between the teachers – are part of what makes the program so beneficial, said Johnathan Raney, principal of Crownover Middle School in Denton. One of his school's teachers is participating in the program this year.

"It truly is about the relationships that you create with your colleagues, with your students; about providing them with something that is going to help them grow and really change their lives and hopefully change the world and the community we live in," Raney said. "It's a tremendous program, and the opportunities for everybody here are great."

The Beginning

Prior to creating the Teacher to Teacher Exchange program, Tunks coordinated and taught in the Denton ISD Professional Development School program, placing UNT College of Education students into Denton ISD schools from 2000-2010. While teaching in the PDS program, Tunks realized that the teachers entering into Denton schools had trouble connecting to the Latino population they were teaching. Tunks also realized that students' math scores were not very strong, despite teachers' attempts to improve them.

"I thought that maybe the issue was that our students graduating from UNT and working in Denton didn't understand the population they were teaching," Tunks said. "I thought maybe if they were a little more immersed in that population, they would begin to understand it."

Tunks immersed herself in Latin American culture in 2011 when she took a six-month professional development leave trip to Guatemala. She studied how teachers there taught math, and found that their teaching methods were vastly different from those in the U.S.

In Guatemala, everyone -- beginning with students in kindergarten -- was taught like a high school student.

Students would copy problems from the board to their notebook, and then were assigned homework; however, students rarely received homework help at home, so when they came back to class the next day, they received red X's for incorrect answers, and the teacher would move on to the next lesson.

"Teaching is different [in Guatemala]," Tunks said. "Teaching for understanding is different, teaching for comprehension is different, and teaching for commitment to learning is different. The kids never grimace when they get a red X, they just kind of expect it. Then they just think ‘I can't do math,' and that's it."

One of the schools Tunks observed on her visit was Collegio Boston, a private school in Antigua. Tunks decided to team up with a co-owner of Collegio Boston, Maria de Carmen de Batres, to create the Teacher to Teacher Exchange program in 2012.

"We thought maybe Guatemalan teachers would learn some practices they could take back," Tunks said. "And that maybe our teachers could go over there and learn more about culture so they could come back and teach in a more culturally relevant way."

About the Program

During the exchange program, each Denton teacher gets paired with a Guatemalan teacher. The program begins every other November, when the Guatemalan teachers first come to the U.S. for two weeks to spend time with their Denton counterparts. This works out well because the Guatemalan school year runs from January to October, giving the Guatemalan teachers ample time to visit the U.S. in November.

Then, in July, the Denton teachers visit Guatemala for two weeks to shadow their Guatemalan counterparts. While the teachers are in one another's countries, they do everything with their partner, such as go to school together, live in each other's houses and go sight-seeing. The pairs spend time together in order to learn as much as possible from one another, Tunks said.

Normally, the pairs of teachers don't speak each other's languages. Instead, they must figure out their own way to engage with one another linguistically. According to Tunks, several have downloaded the language-learning app Duolingo on their phone, or downloaded a Spanish-to-English translator.

"I've met a best friend, and even though I speak little to no Spanish and she speaks little to no English, it's been really fun," said Janie Peters, second-grade teacher at Rivera Elementary in Denton and member of the second group to take part in the program. "It's been amazing. I've learned to be patient, and it helps me in the classroom to be more patient with my students and give them more time to comprehend what I say and what I'm trying to ask them. "

The teachers visit each other's countries two times over the course of two years. According to Tunks, the first year of the program is about figuring out how to get along with one another, developing partnerships, friendships and trust. Then, during the second year, teachers can focus on collecting data, sharing ideas and changing their practices.

"It's important to know that this program isn't intended to go and ‘fix' things that are going on [in Guatemala]," said Tracy Wahbeh, fifth-grade math teacher at Pecan Creek in Denton and a participant in the program. "Great teaching happens in Guatemala. We're just there to enrich it. Great teaching happens here and they're here to do the same – to enrich us and learn enrichment for themselves."

Wahbeh is a member of the second group to take part in the exchange program. The first group consisted of three Guatemalan teachers and three Denton teachers, as well as Tunks and her doctoral student Amy Anderson. The second rotation of the program includes Anderson, coordinator of the teachers; Tunks; Maria del Carmen de Batres; Thomas Tunks from SMU, advisor; along with four American teachers and three Guatemalan teachers.

The first group of the program was funded by UNT's Charn Uswachoke International Development Fund. Now, the Guatemalan teachers are funded by Amiga de Matematicas, a philanthropy group in Guatemala, and the Texas teachers are funded by various contributions and the International Teacher to Teacher Exchange Fund held at the Community Foundation of Texas.

Two Guatemalan teachers from this rotation, Nancy Amarillas Salizar Barillas and Ruth Gonzalez, teach at Collegio Boston in Antigua. Barillas teaches pre-k, and Gonzalez teaches second grade. The third Guatemalan teacher, Marlin Jimenez, works at a public school in Guatemala teaching second-graders.

All of the Denton teachers participating in this rotation of the program are UNT alumnae. Kaitlyn Pound, class of 2013, teaches fifth-grade math at Stephens Elementary; Blombay, class of 2006, teaches fifth-grade math at Pecan Creek Elementary; Peters, class of 2013, teaches second-grade at Rivera Elementary; and Robin Zaruba, class of 1987, teaches seventh-grade math at Crownover Middle School. All of them learned under Tunks at one point during their college career.

According to Tunks, most of the original six teachers actually changed their practices in the classroom and received positive student response to the changes and an increase in math success.

Making Waves

The Teacher to Teacher Exchange program is already making an impact in the lives of Guatemalan teachers, American teachers and their students, Jiménez said.

"I have been learning many different techniques and different strategies to teach [my students]," he said. "In Guatemala, our educational system has problems, but I've been changing that with my students. I've been working with my teammates to change the way to teach."

One of the biggest changes that Jimenez has made is incorporating manipulatives into his teaching method. Manipulatives are objects designed to help students understand mathematical concepts in a hands-on way.

Janie Peters, a 2013 College of Education graduate and second-grade teacher at Denton's Rivera Elementary, works with students during a trip to Guatemala.

After the first rotation of the exchange program, the Guatemalan teachers were sent home with boxes of manipulatives to share with their students. Now, Collegio Boston has a math lab full of manipulatives that classes come to use throughout the week. They call it the "Lab of the Future."

Other Guatemalan teachers have begun to adopt this way of teaching as well. According to Tunks, the two teachers who use the "Lab of the Future" most often weren't part of the Teacher to Teacher exchange program – they are just two teachers who adjusted their teaching style after receiving training from the UNT team on how to use manipulatives, and seeing how working with manipulatives positively influenced their students' learning.

Jiménez's second graders are also enjoying learning with manipulatives. Recently, for the first time ever, his students participated in a math competition and won.

"Marlin [Jiménez] teaches 38 second-graders, and when he holds up a bag of manipulatives the kids raise their hands and they all start screaming, ‘Matemática, matemática!', and they just want to do math," Tunks said. "There isn't a place in Guatemala where I've met a kid who wanted to do math. But his students love it."

One of this program's goals, according to Tunks, was for Denton teachers to find a way to be more inclusive of students who are otherwise marginalized, such as Latino Learners. The Denton teachers' immersion in the Guatemalan culture has helped them become more inclusive. Several of the Denton teachers from the program have already begun forming a stronger connection with their Latino students.

"[My students] can compare my stories of what I saw in Guatemala to what they have seen in their native countries, and building a relationship with them has been amazing," Wahbeh said. "Before, the Spanish-speaking students would just think I was weird when I would talk to them in Spanish, but now they come up to me and say ‘hi'; they draw pictures for me and ask me for help."

The Teacher to Teacher Exchange is also reaching out to other teachers in a way organizers didn't anticipate – mathematics workshops sharing alternative ways to teach math.

Teachers who attended these workshops are not necessarily teachers in the exchange program, or teachers who are interested in the program. Mainly, they're just teachers in the school where the workshop is being held, but they are also adjusting their way of teaching because of what they learn. The last workshop brought in 100 Guatemalan teachers, and the one before that brought in 200.

Initially, Tunks taught the first few workshops with Anderson, her doctoral student. Now, however, the Guatemalan and American teachers from the exchange program have learned how to work together to present the workshops to other teachers.

"These workshops aren't where we intended to be, but it's a nice outgrowth in that I and Amy Anderson are no longer the center of them," Tunks said. "Now it's a colleague-to-colleague thing. It empowers them to believe in themselves as true math teachers, as people who know the content well enough to present it to others."

This is the current group's second year in the program. They recently created a Facebook page to share more information about what they're doing and post photos and videos of their workshops, teaching sessions and outings. To learn more about the program and the group's progress, visit the Facebook page. To contribute to the ITTTE project, visit the ITTTE Fund website.