"Never Say No -- Unless It's Dangerous or Illegal" (Or, Fulbright Orientation: Days 2-4)

While I've been a little bummed about missing the beginning of Uncommon professional development (seriously, you guys went to Brighton Beach without me?), being able to spend this week in Washington, DC with the Fulbrighters has been incredible. I know that we're surrounded by diversity in NYC, but being able to collaborate on a daily basis with the best and brightest teachers from Botswana, Chile, Finland, India, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, the Palestinian Territories (first time Fulbrighters!), Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and all across the USA has allowed me to get so many different perspectives on education. This afternoon, the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching (DAT) staff hosted a session on barriers to participation in this program. Like most US teachers, I won't be receiving pay from my school or district while I'm on the Fulbright program. I thought that I was "overcoming challenges" because I'm giving up my apartment and spending four months crashing on my friends' sofa-bed. Then I heard about the two Botswanian teachers who had to visit their country's Ministry of Education every single day in order to get their Fulbright authorization form signed. (They finally got the form signed -- on the day before they were scheduled to leave for Washington, DC.) I heard about the Palestinian teacher whose employers refused to sign her authorization form because, as they repeatedly told her, there was no way that she would ever be allowed to leave Gaza -- regardless of the US Consulate's involvement. (Obviously, she did leave Gaza.) And I heard about the Finnish teachers who were required to take a TOEFL test in order to even apply for the Fulbright program. And that TOEFL test cost €300. And the results expire after two years. These teachers have moved mountains, and I could not have a deeper respect for them and the work that they're doing.

(A teacher from Morocco presenting at Fulbright Culture Night.)

One of the first workshops that we attended at Fulbright Orientation was called "The Art of Crossing Cultures." Last month, when I was traveling through the UK and Ireland, I frequently found myself getting frustrated. This workshop helped me realize that some of my frustrations were due to minor differences in the values and beliefs of our countries. (The facilitator gave us this example of a common UK miscommunication: "If a British person tells you there is 'a spot of bother' down at the warehouse, this means: A) There is a small problem at the warehouse. B) The warehouse is on fire, and we've lost most of the contents." The answer was B. The British tend to understate situations.) We analyzed where each of the different Fulbright DAT countries fell along five cultural assumption spectrums: the locus of control, the importance of face, management style, concept of rank and status, and communication style. I knew theoretically that there are some cultures that believe in an external locus of control (i.e. "some things are just meant to be, no matter how hard you try"), but until I saw so many international teachers identifying on that side of the spectrum, I never really thought about how that belief could impact someone's everyday life. I'm so used to America's "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mindset that I have a hard time envisioning anything else. It really jostled my entire worldview -- which is the entire point of international exchange. (Also: Our conversation about monochronic societies [ones that have undivided attention, like the US and the UK] vs. polychronic societies [ones that have divided attention, like Latin America and the Middle East] was fascinating. If you're not familiar with these terms, definitely look them up on Google. MIND. BLOWN.)

(Teachers from New Zealand singing in the Māori language. Jessica Stovall, who traveled to New Zealand in 2014-2015, is wearing traditional Māori dress, complete with a Piupiu dance skirt.)

The facilitator (Craig Storti) also pointed out some quirks that Americans have. When we read a pretend exchange between an American (Bill) and a Finn (Sirpa), Storti said: "Bill is a good American -- and as a good American, his starting point isn't reality." I realized that my starting point isn't reality either because, like so many Americans, I'm a die-hard optimist. THE GLASS WILL ALWAYS BE HALF-FULL. His advice to international teachers visiting our country? "If you're in the US, be happy. You don't have to actually be happy. Just act happy."

(A teacher from Singapore demonstrating some Tai Chi moves with her daughter.)

(And teachers from India and Botswana even joined in!)

Visiting the UK last month made me re-think the subject of my inquiry project. (More on that in a future blog post.) One of the million amazing things about the Fulbright DAT program is that the committee selected your inquiry project -- but they also selected you. They believe in your potential as a researcher, as an author, and as an innovator. They understand that as you continue to learn more about your host country, your inquiry project will grow and possibly even change. Hearing firsthand from the alumni panel about how some of their inquiry projects ended up being much different than they'd initially planned (thanks especially to Anne Ward and Jessica Stovall!) really inspired me to be flexible about my inquiry project instead of limiting it to what I created months (or even years) ago. Having so many alumni at Fulbright Orientation was definitely the most helpful component. I was especially lucky because Courtney Reynolds, who was in residence at the University of Glasgow in 2014-2015, was one of the UK representatives. I found out all about my housing situation, what my class schedule might look like, and how often I'd be able to travel around the UK (answer: all the time). Having some of those questions answered made me feel so much better. While receiving a Fulbright is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there are a lot of stressors involved in moving abroad -- even if it's only for a couple of months. It feels great to know that some of the basics (housing, utilities, etc.) are already taken care of. (Shout-out to the University of Glasgow for clearly being one of the best Fulbright university placements!)

(We went downstairs for a "pub experience" during a breakout session. The other Fulbrighters couldn't find us and wondered if we had "Brexited.")

The most valuable advice came from Dr. Holly Emert, the incomparable Program Director of the Fulbright DAT program. First of all, I cannot say enough amazing things about Holly and the rest of the Fulbright DAT staff. They were so extraordinarily patient with me -- even when I kept sending them emails that were the academic equivalent of an annoying toddler on a road trip: Have selection decisions been made yet? Have selection decisions been made yet? Have selection decisions been made yet? If you decide to apply for the Fulbright DAT program, I cannot overstate how much you will enjoy working with Holly, Becky, and Angelica; they are complete rockstars.

(Fulbright Orientation Day 2, ready to go!)

At the end of Day 2, Holly told us: "Never say no -- unless it's dangerous or illegal." This advice was reiterated by alumni and facilitators alike. Go visit classes that are unrelated to your content area. Go to an out-of-the-way rural town to experience another side of education in your host country. Go to coffee with someone that a university colleague knows and thinks you might like (a blind academic date!). Everyone kept telling us that the Fulbright experience isn't just about conducting research and writing an essay; it's about experiencing your host country to the fullest extent possible. It's also about being an ambassador for the USA and sharing information about our country and our school's best practices. So even though I'm a homebody who would gladly spend all of my free time in an apartment with fifty cats (no shame in the kingdom), I'm resolving to "never say no." I am so excited about my upcoming trip to the UK, and I could not be more thankful to the Fulbright DAT team for providing us with an inspiring orientation week as well as this life-changing opportunity. I've been dreaming of that coveted Fulbright pin for almost eight years -- and I'm so thrilled to be able to wear it this winter!

(More good advice from Fulbright DAT alumni.)

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