As visiting principals wandered the halls at East Garner Middle School, the bell rang. A passing teacher warned the visitors and their guides, “Well, you’re about to see 1,100 students flood the halls.”
Sure enough, they came in torrents. So the principals took out their camera phones and began snapping pictures furiously. It’s not often you see a school’s chaotic class change on the other side of the world.
An exchange organized by the Center for International Understanding – part of the University of North Carolina system – brought 14 principals through three Garner schools on Oct. 3 as they learned firsthand about the U.S. education system.
Next month, 30 North Carolina educators, including a few from Garner schools, will visit schools in Jiangsu province in China.
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“I think they face a lot of the same problems in terms of funding and resources and instructional support,” said Brian White, China Programs Coordinator at the CIU.
White, who studied Mandarin at Appalachian State, helped guide the principals around the schools – few spoke any English – and eventually took them shopping. (While the knockoff brand-name merchandise may be cheaper in Asia, the genuine versions apparently are not.)
East Garner Principal Cathy Williams, who had been a bit stressed when she learned her visitors wouldn’t be able to communicate directly with her or her staff, said the trip was nevertheless positive.
A guest teacher teaching at the school for the last three months told her that despite differences, the fundamentals remained similar across the globe.
“The education systems are really different, but ultimately they want the same thing for their kids,” Williams said.
White noted some of the other differences between the systems.
“I think the biggest shock they have is the small class sizes. Their class sizes typically range from 40 to 70 students,” White said.
He also said they were struck by teachers’ ability to go straight to principals for support, and by teacher education levels – U.S. teachers have more master’s degrees. They were interested in teacher training and teacher quality, he said.
Given the language barrier and the brief stay, there were limitations on how much culture and insight they could absorb, White said.
“It’s more of a topical impression,” he admitted, adding that he was having the principals write him reports on what they learned and how they would apply it back home.
Ling Zhao Yang, a principal in the city of Suquin, complimented the host area through a translator when asked about similarities and differences.
“Similarities: People here are very friendly, like Chinese people. All the people are very happy,” the translator relayed. “Differences: Here we have good nature, a good environment. There are lots of big populations in China.”
The group arrived for its 13-day immersion trip in the U.S. on Sept. 25. The principals visited Washington and New York and arrived in North Carolina on Sept. 29, according to Rebecca Williams, a China Programs Assistant for CIU who also aided the tour.
Principals from East Garner Middle, Smith Elementary, Aversboro Elementary and Garner High will be among those to visit China this year, White said.