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Talking Shop with Portia Williams

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Talking Shop with Portia Williams

TC alumna Portia Williams, the College's first Director of International Affairs, says, "We want to do work that does not jeopardize our own quality, but rather, enhances it.”

TC Today: Why the big push at TC right now to focus on international education?
Portia Williams: We have an international history, beginning with John Dewey and the work that he did abroad. Over the last century, our faculty members have been engaged in Japan, China, Afghanistan, Tanzania, India and other places around the world. While educational reforms have been going on worldwide for some time, in the last ten years, there has been a huge shift from issues of access to quality. Countries are not only looking at how to get children into school, or how to curb the dropout rate, but also looking at what to do once the students are in classes. That shift has resulted in a number of countries really looking very carefully at their teaching population—at their pre-service and their in-service training for their educators—and at their educational leadership and policy.
 
So this is not about why we are doing more international work, but rather, why countries are coming to Teachers College to ask us to work with them on addressing some of these concerns. And while it’s not unique that this is happening with Teachers College, it does help to explain why there’s such a demand right now for this kind of work—and why Teachers College has begun to respond to some of these requests more fully.
 
At present, we have a limited capacity here at the College, so we’re not interested in building new campuses abroad or in creating models to export to other places. Instead, we’ve decided to respond through collaborative partnerships. We want to work together with other institutions that concern themselves with advancing educational reform, educational delivery and quality in education—particularly graduate schools of education. We want to be a part of those discussions. We want to be a part of innovative and groundbreaking research that addresses these issues. We want to share what we know and learn from what others know. So what we’re doing is trying to more strategically work together with those entities interested in the same things that we’re interested in. And under President Fuhrman, through this vision, we hope to do that. But we had to first establish an office that would look more carefully at these requests and at what we’re doing—what individual faculty members are doing and what we’re doing as an institution.

TC Today
: So much of TC’s international work arises spontaneously, because faculty member X is interested in a country and goes there. Is that the way we want to continue working, or does the existence of your office signal some sort of change where we try to guide the process more?

Portia Williams
: Much of what currently happens will continue to happen. We encourage our faculty members to move forward in their scholarship with those institutions where they have relationships around the world. Establishing an Office of International Affairs signals not a change in those relationships, but rather, in the relationships that we take on as an institution and that we want to bring in line with our vision as an institution. As an institution, we will broaden our focus on relationships that are of high quality. That are mutually beneficial. That provide sustainable outcomes for the people that we work with. That provide long-term opportunities for our faculty members and students. So when I talk about institutional-level collaboration, I’m talking about collaborations that provide benefit across both institutions.

TC Today
: What are some of the partnerships that have been created on your watch, and how do they reflect those goals?

Portia Williams
: Well, we have been working in Jordan for a more than a year now with the Queen Rania Teacher Academy to help train public school teachers in line with widespread educational reforms. That initiative involves faculty members from several departments, including TESOL; Curriculum and Teaching; Math, Science and Technology; and the Consortium for Policy Education and Research [an organization founded by TC President Susan Fuhrman during the 1980s], through which the project is actually run.
 
In India, we are working through the Khemka Foundation with a large network of private and public schools, helping them develop and implement a leadership curriculum for junior high and high school students. This curriculum is based on values that have been identified in India, and it targets students who intend to go into the public sector. The idea is to create a foundation for students who will then go on to study at university, earn degrees, and come back to India—if they study abroad—and work in the public sector in ways that reflect the values identified in that curriculum. 

TC Today
: You’re describing the College’s current international vision. What more would we do in the future?

Portia Williams
: As we begin to expand the work that we do overseas, we will target our partnerships to like institutions—to graduate schools of education like Teachers College. We’re interested in effective policy reform, advancing new and innovative ways of addressing curricula, teacher education and the education of students. Our expertise is in “education” broadly defined. Our faculty members focus on education, health and psychology through as many as dozens of programs across nine departments. Our partnerships involve many academic areas, including special education, intellectual disabilities and more. So it’s not just the typical math, science and English —although math, science and English are critical areas for basic education that various countries want to reform and often with the help of Teachers College.

TC Today
: Do we have a preference for working with developing countries? And if or when we do, how do we avoid the perception—or the reality—that we are coming in with all the answers?

Portia Williams
: That is both a difficult and a sensitive question, and it’s one that we constantly ask ourselves. First, we work with countries of different income levels, but these also are countries that have a strong desire to work with us. For example, Bhutan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and very recently, it underwent democratic reforms. The Director of the Royal Council for Education there is a former Columbia student who worked with a TC professor, Francisco Rivera-Batiz. Once he returned to Bhutan, he—like many international students who come to TC—took on a very high-level position in government. And once the country underwent democratic reforms and turned its attention to education, this former student came to Teachers College, because he understood the work that we did, he already had established relationships here, and he wanted Teachers College to be a part of a larger advisory council that would engage in helping to make those reforms happen in country.

Bhutan represents a certain income level. But we’re also in Saudi Arabia, which has a very different income level, and their interest in working with Teachers College is very different. We’re working with an all-women’s college there that’s interested in establishing a graduate degree in special education. So there’s no clear-cut answer in terms of whether or not we prefer to work with countries of this level of income or that level. That’s not the way that we enter into those agreements. We look at the institution. We look at the work. We look at the collaboration. We look at the work that we’re doing. Is this a match for Teachers College? Can the partnership achieve success?
 
Now I’ll get to the second half of the question. We are not really creating a model that we’re exporting. What we do in each individual collaboration is quite different. It’s based on the needs of our partner or the desire to jointly research different areas, jointly design programs or jointly implement training programs. We are also concerned with the same issues that other counties are concerned with. For example, social justice. Right now, we are engaged in South Korea with a province that sought out our training for its own teachers in ESL because they found that most of the students there, while testing well in some areas on the English language test, were not doing very well in many other areas. Those students who did well were students who had access to private tutors and studying abroad. Because of this, they wanted to level the playing field. They wanted to create equity within language learning to encourage high-school graduates to be fluent in more than one language. And that’s of interest to our TESOL department. Right now we’re there doing an assessment of English language teaching in the province to make sure that it’s a match for what we do. But it came about through that initial interest. Not just because they want to teach English, and we teach English, but rather, because we were interested their broader mission.
 
When it comes to concerns about the issue of imposing models of education, it’s also important to understand that we’re not the only people having that discussion. While we are sitting around a boardroom table saying, “You know what? We really don’t want to impose our way,” others are having that same discussion before they approach us. They’re saying, “We don’t want to be the subjects of someone from another country coming in to make a lot of money—a lot of our money—and leave behind very little. We really are not interested in unequal partnerships any more. We’re not interested in working together with people who have no real interest in the work that we do. People who do not respect our internal expertise.”
 
For example, the assessment we’re doing right now in Korea will lay the groundwork for a curriculum design retreat that will involve education leaders in the country—teachers and school leaders who will bring their voices to the table to say, “This is how we want this to run. This is how we want this to happen.”
 
And so the answer to the question is that we make a conscious effort to provide a supporting role in work that’s already happening. Because I don’t think people will want to continue to work with Teachers College if Teachers College behaves in a way that is imposing, that is exporting a very specific model that has no relevance. Because it doesn’t work. And I don’t think it will be allowed, in a way that perhaps wasn’t once understood.

TC Today
: Is there a financial benefit to the College in doing international work?

Portia Williams
: There is a financial benefit for some projects, because Teachers College faculty members are often asked to design programs. They’re often asked to go elsewhere to teach or train. However, we also work with countries where there’s no financial benefit. We proceed with proposals that will allow us to raise funds to carry out these projects, because we are not in a position to fund educational reform or training elsewhere.

TC Today
: Does some of this work—for example, the TESOL work—put a new kind of pressure on us as a service organization? How are we managing that?

Portia Williams
: Internal capacity is a huge issue for us as we look toward expansion. And that’s one of the issues that my office hopes to address. We need to build our own capacity before we can do too much more. One of the reasons that we don’t take on projects that are of a very large scale is because we can’t. Our first priority is Teachers College, our own students and quality. The quality of our work here and the work that our faculty members do. We’re not willing to risk quality for the sake of expansion.

TC Today
: What do you see as the biggest challenge that you face?

Portia Williams
: To make sure that we really do proceed in a way that is about sustainable outcomes in the places where we work. We really don’t want to do work that is not beneficial. We don’t want to do work that is not sustainable. We want to do work that does not jeopardize our own quality, but rather, enhances it. 

TC Today
: And what have been some of your most exciting moments thus far in this job?

Portia Williams
: It’s been very exciting for me to meet with our own faculty doing international work and to really learn the extent to which Teachers College is and has been involved globally. It’s no small thing. And it’s something that we want to continue to do, but do correctly, and to do in ways that will just make us better at who we are.
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