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.
Editors’ note: This is an edited transcript of a videotaped interview. Some changes have been made for clarity in print. To view the entire interview, visit www.tc.edu/tctoday.
Published Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2009