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Establishing Strong International Partnerships: Five Lessons

Asia Society is privileged to work with 100 exemplary U.S. schools and districts offering Chinese language courses. Together we learn and share with others who are just starting programs. Today, Donna Podgorny, an educator from Union County, North Carolina , tells us how Marvin Ridge High School school developed a strong partnership with Jiang Ning Campus of the High School affiliated with Nanjing Normal University, in China. Read on for her advice to others seeking to do the same.

By Donna Podgorny

Setting up and maintaining a school-to-school partnership is not easy and requires work between many parties, but the benefits are tremendous.

For us, one moment at lunch made all the difference!

Principal Li asked our delegation of four if we would be interested in sending eight to ten U.S. teachers to teach English at their summer camp in Nanjing. I held my breath and looked down at my lunch plate. Our assistant principal next to me focused on the pretty table settings in our small private dining room at a local restaurant in Nanjing, China. Our elementary school principal smiled demurely and stole glances back and forth at the U.S. high school principal and the Chinese pre-K-12 principal. The moment seemed frozen in time. It could have been just seconds but it seemed that the clock had stopped and the air stood quiet. The U.S. principal responded, "Yes, I believe we could do that."

Such it is that four years later, there is a strong partnership between Marvin Ridge High School in Union County and the Jiang Ning Campus of the High School Affiliated with Nanjing Normal University. Looking back, that ability to make a timely commitment was one of the keys to our successful sister-school relationship.

Our first interactions with our partner school were clumsy and ill matched at best. While we wore business suites; our hosts greeted us in short sleeves. We smiled in awe at their immense school. The head principal had two translators at his side to explain our English-only commentary. We bumbled through who should sit where in two reception rooms. We had our business cards ready to draw but didn't know when to do it. We had hauled gifts through three flights and two hotels but did not know whether to offer them with the first hello, the final goodbye, or some unknown time in between.

Always gracious and hospitable, our hosts never showed any shock, laughter, or judgment at our behavior. We come from a culture where there is a time allotment next to agenda items and bells that ring for the change of class. Here we were without a clue as to how the days would unfold, where the 5,500 students were, and no clear indication as to what their desire was to have a new sister (albeit sister-school).

Our initial meeting lacked the formal fanfare common to many Americans visiting Chinese schools. There were no waving children as we arrived, no formal performances, no smiling student tour guides. Instead, it was the school's Principal Li touring us around and answering questions. He was the headmaster, the head principal, the director of this 5,500-student megaschool. This gentle, quiet, soft-spoken man graciously spent hours with us during the busy days as the school year was about to close. I think he is quite a visionary. Whether he had previously designed ideas of what could happen with the sister-school relationship or whether he invented them on the spot is unknown but his decisions those days set the future relationship in motion.

What worked for us?

  1. Seize the opportunity: If you have the opportunity to create or expand a mutually beneficial sister-school relationship, do so.
  2. Be able to make a decision: Do not reply to invitations of collaboration and exchange, etc. with "Let me take that to my site-based committee." Or "I will see if I can get that approved." Be able to say "yes" to an offer to work together even if you have to modify the dates, time frame, number, etc.
  3. Be prepared yet flexible: Use the Internet and local contacts to learn as much as you can about the sister-school. Investigate what collaboration and support your local teachers can suggest. Work with your trusted Chinese teacher and count on his or her help in mediating a culture you don't know. Having prepared as much as you can, be willing to throw out your preconceived plans and expectations, and be flexible with the many unknowns that come in a developing new relationship.
  4. Listen. Work on communication. Try to understand the goals of your Chinese counterparts, what they are saying, what they are trying to say, and what they are not saying. Make sure you have a Chinese speaker on your team who understands both American and Chinese culture.
  5. Be of goodwill and good cheer. 

Donna Podgorny is the World Languages Curriculum Coordinator in Union County Public Schools in North Carolina. Next week, she will return to share how the two schools grew their relationship over the years, and offer advice for schools looking to do the same. 

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