Eleven educators from the U.S. recently spent a week in Qatar and Bahrain assimilating the region’s ethos and culture and dispelling some myths and stereotypes. Their itinerary included schools, universities, businesses, science and cultural centers, and interactions with students, educators and people across the public and private sectors. The trip was part of the Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony (TEACH) program, an annual fellowship from the Texas-based Bilateral U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce.

The TEACH fellowship began in 2009, and in the past six years more than 70 U.S. educators from 22 cities in 14 states have participated. The program typically lasts for a week and is spread over two countries in the Middle East. The TEACH fellows have incorporated their experiences and exchanges into their lesson plans and have also shared them with their local communities in the U.S.

Tom W. Glaser, social studies teacher of grades 11 and 12 at the Mater Academy Charter High School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, participated in the program in 2012. He describes it as a “mind and eye-opening” experience. ” showed me the complexity of life there as opposed to the over-simplification and often fictionalization of America’s mainstream media,” Glaser says. As an example, Glaser described a shopping complex he visited in Doha, which was comprised exclusively of abaya (cloak) stores, and seeing the many different styles available. “[This variety] as opposed to the American media’s representation of drab conformity, was amazing, and has been an ‘Aha!’ moment in all of my presentations,” Glaser notes.

Regina Zafonte, who teaches advanced placement world history to grades nine and 10 at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College in New York City, says that her experiences during the TEACH fellowship in 2013 have helped her to appreciate the differences within the Middle East countries. For instance, she notes, while Saudi Arabia tends to be very conservative and somewhat repressive against women, this is not the case in Bahrain and Qatar. “It is important that people know that the Arab world is not homogenous; real differences exist within countries and across the region.”

Expanding the Scope

In the initial years, the program was aimed primarily at teachers of the social sciences. Now, there is a strong focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) educators also. “We want this program to help develop a new generation of leaders equipped to provide solutions to the world’s most pressing social and economic issues. We want the teachers to inspire their students to be sustainable and responsible stewards of their future,” says Aida Araissi, founder-president and managing director of the Bilateral Chamber. Vranae Pavlich, vice president of the organization, adds: “The question before us is how can we use STEM as part of the cultural education and develop global citizens? It is important to teach the young people, the next generation of leaders, that there are more similarities than differences between different cultures.”

“It is important that people know that the Arab world is not homogenous; real differences exist within countries and across the region.” –Regina Zafonte

Araissi says that she set up the Bilateral Chamber in 1997 because she felt there was a need for “a platform outside of politics” to talk about the relationship between the U.S. and MENA countries. As the Bilateral Chamber grew, Araissi realized that one of the key concerns of its members was a lack of skillsets in the MENA region. Most companies there were importing talent from outside. At the same time, students in the region were unable to get employment because of lack of relevant skills. This led to the idea of taking teachers from the U.S. to MENA to interact with educators there and share some of their methodologies. The agenda then developed further into fostering cultural awareness and sensitivity about the MENA region among the U.S. educators which, they in turn could share with their own students and communities.

“In the early years, it was very organic and we as an organization did not necessarily shape the agenda of the TEACH fellows. But we are now working at institutionalizing the effort to ensure systemic changes and create a bigger impact,” says Araissi. For instance, the selection process for granting the fellowship is now focused toward educators who have created a significant impact in their own communities in the U.S. by using new techniques to make learning more exciting. The objective, Araissi adds, is to connect teachers with the “best and brightest” in the Middle East and create a platform of shared best practices.

Developing Fresh Perspectives

Abdulnassir Al-Tamimi, founding associate dean of student services and workforce education at the Community College of Qatar, believes that the TEACH program can play an important role in helping to build “bridges of understanding” between the Arab world and the U.S. “Most of the fellows are Americans who have never been to the Arab and Muslim world. The participants are able to see this new world through their own eyes and can judge it for themselves rather than what they hear in the news and from friends,” he says.

The fellowship has found strong resonance within the corporate world and is funded by a host of companies including RasGas, ExxonMobil, Qatar Foundation, Gulf Petrochemicals Industries Co. (GPIC), the Bahrain Economic Development Board, the Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco) and the National Oil & Gas Authority in Bahrain.

Ali Z. Al Marri, public affairs manager atRasGas, the founding sponsor of TEACH, notes that the program provides its participants with “practical experience,” and “allows the transfer of cultural understanding into educational work.” Abdulrahman A. Hussain Jawahery, president of GPIC, which has been a sponsor since 2010, believes that such programs can result in “mutual respect” between nations and can “yield numerous business cooperation.”

Roadblocks Ahead?

TEACH, however, has its share of challenges, including the short duration of the fellowships and lack of adequate follow-up with contacts made during the teachers’ trip to the Middle East. Al-Tamimi says the program must “try to include more secondary and post-secondary education administrators such as principals, vice presidents and deans, who are decision makers and may have the authority to foster the relationships with the host institutions upon their return.”

Shaun Wegscheid, a technology and design teacher at the Westchester Academy for International Studies in Houston, thinks the program should enable interaction between teachers after the trip. “It would be awesome to try to work with regular teachers there and create some sort of shared unit that both teachers could do during the year together and let students compare results through online communication,” says Wegscheid, who participated in the TEACH program in 2011.

“Awareness of contradictory ideologies [can] dramatically broaden our comprehension.” –Dominic Beggan

Noeli Piccoli Biggs, director of community programs at the Richland College in Dallas and a 2012 TEACH fellow, suggests that the program should focus on visiting only one country. “By traveling to two countries in one week, valuable research time is spent on away from the field,” she says.

Araissi and her team are working toward removing some of these glitches. For instance, to ensure ongoing exchange of ideas and continuing collaboration between the TEACH fellows and the MENA educators they are looking to leverage online web-based platforms. They are also planning a conference in the U.S. in 2015 where past TEACH fellows and their MENA counterparts can re-converge and follow-up on their initiatives.

Funding is another issue. Araissi notes that a key priority is to ensure that “it is a valuable investment for those who are supporting us and investing in this program.” But how does one measure results and impact in a program that is so long-term and where there are so many intangibles? One measure would be to “institutionalize the techniques and processes [like workforce training or development] that some of the fellows have been using and ensure that they are adopted in the MENA schools,” says Araissi. Another way, she adds, is to see if there is “a greater energy within the student bodies in both the MENA and U.S. to pursue science and math and collaborate more.”

To help make the program more impactful and sustainable, Araissi and Pavlich are putting together an advisory committee comprising people from different walks of life, including academia, corporate and business. This is expected to be finalized in early 2015.

Is there need for more initiatives, similar to TEACH, between different countries? Yes, says Al-Tamimi. He says such programs would be beneficial in East Asia, particularly China, South Korea and Japan, both in terms of academics and in building cultural bridges. “Most countries in the Gulf follow the same U.S. educational model, but countries like South Korea and Japan are well known for having the best K-12 education systems in the world and are different from the U.S. The U.S. could learn from them.”

Dominic Beggan, a professor of political science at the Lone Star College in Montgomery, Texas, who participated in TEACH in 2009, says that one can have a clearer understanding of different political cultures through exposure to two sides of an issue: a Western and Eastern view. “Awareness of these contradictory ideologies [can] dramatically broaden our comprehension,” says Beggan. “We need many more programs, such as the TEACH fellowship, to enhance and expand our understanding of humanity and the various cultures which impact our modern lives.”