Spotlight on Global Competency and AFS: Jill Woerner

How do you define global competency?

My definition is that Global Competency is the ability of anyone of any age to effectively engage with the world. Learning a foreign language, interacting with individuals from a culture different from one’s own, staying abreast of international news and events are simply some of the many ways a person can begin to increase his/her global competence. What I see many times is that many people believe that they are globally competent yet what they can share in a foreign language are a few choice phrases that they learned years ago in a foreign language class, people touting stereotypes instead of factual cultural information and constantly complaining about the events in other countries instead of looking at how they could play a role in them.

I truly believe that the future of our nation is dependent upon the ability and willingness of the citizens of the United States to not only care about what is going on in their own community, but also communities around the world. No one has to become an expert on every country/language/culture/etc…, but it is vital to the national security and productivity of the United States to breed a generation of citizens who can empathize, understand and engage with their local and global neighbors. It is no longer enough to focus on just the matters that seem to pertain to one’s local community, we must begin to realize that we are now so intertwined globally through the use of improved technology that our local community is the earth on which we all reside.

How have you been able to implement Global Competency in your classroom through your involvement with AFS?

In my classroom, I work with middle school-aged students to help them understand the actions of those in the other culture rather than make judgments about them. We start out the classroom year with the AFS “It’s Your World” PowerPoint presentation where I get to know my students by name and by philosophical background. I get to see seventh graders discover new facts about other cultures, be engaged in the debunking of stereotypes and be introduced to the concepts of culture that lie beneath the infamous “iceberg” of superficiality.

Additionally, I watch while some of their beliefs about the superiority of English and the United States are challenged when they learn that English isn’t the most spoken language in the world and that children around the world are learning English while perfecting their own native languages. We spend about 4 days working through these concepts as I get to know who these students are and how they think. They get to know me as I am able to brie y share experiences from numerous countries around the globe and most of all, they get excited about being a responsible global citizen (once they know what that is, of course). After that initial four day period passes, situations with language and culture continue to come up throughout the year and I am always given opportunities to help them discover exciting things that are happening around the world and I get to reiterate the importance of becoming a part of those new cultures in whatever capacity that they are able.

What is your proudest educational achievement?

I’ve been fortunate to have what I would consider multiple awesome educational achievements, but I can think of one student particularly that has begun to touch the world and she attributes that to the time she spent in my class as a freshman in high school. This former student was extremely bright and I encouraged her to travel with me on a teacher-led, 4-week, immersion experience in Costa Rica. She adhered to the rules of speaking only Spanish although she’d only studied it for two years and she fell in love with her host family there. She followed that experience up with a 7-week immersion experience in Spain two summers later and then chose a double major of Spanish and Science at the college level. Her family hosted two AFS exchange students the latter part of her high school career and are both AFS volunteers who engage with our exchange students every year.

No plaque, no title and no award can replace the value and pride I feel at knowing that I helped this student develop a love of Spanish, a love of the Hispanic culture and a true passion for engaging in the world as a global citizen. If I only have a fraction of that impact on every student that I encounter, then I can continue to believe that I am making a difference in the world and am helping to promote and instill global competency in those students who are a part of my classroom each year.

Why is it important to expose elementary school students to multicultural learning?

I would say that it is more than important, it is essential that we expose elementary school students to all aspects of multicultural learning for the simple fact that they are open and accepting of those new and different ideas. Also, the older the students get, they more likely they are to follow in the same footsteps as their parents or be influenced by other individuals that aren’t necessarily guiding them in the most positive, productive direction. Changing habits and opinions when children are young is much easier than trying to make those same changes when they have reached secondary school ages or beyond.

I would also say that the earlier we can expose children to other languages the better their chances are of acquiring the accent of that language. Young children’s brains are truly sponges and they can soak up and retain amazing bits of information if it is presented to them in the right way. Teaching them about cultures of the world and new languages is ideal at a very young age.

What conditions, in your opinion, must change to better support global education?

First, the government needs to understand and support the idea that operating business in a global economy requires its constituents to be competitive. In order for our country to be competitive in an era where more businesses are internationalizing themselves, knowledge of only one language and culture is unacceptable. Thus, as the government puts its mandates in place for students to be educated more “globally” they need to support those initiatives financially. Teachers need professional development to teach about concepts that they have never learned and all personnel in education need an opportunity to interact with new cultures and languages. Without that interaction, any “globalization” of the curriculum is very superficial and possibly skewed by the media. A skewed perspective or an uninformed perspective will be unable to really provide students an in-depth look at the world.

Second, schools need to be more flexible with those globally-focused students, both incoming and outgoing. It is very frustrating to see schools make it so difficult for some of our best and brightest to go abroad for a semester or year because of the requisite courses such as US History and English. In reality, those students will be encouraged to acquire as much information about their native culture in order to be able to be an ambassador upon going abroad. When they see the news and engage in conversations with their host family abroad, those students will come home with a more broadened perspective about the history of the US and how young our country truly is in comparison to the rest of the world. Students will acquire a significantly richer quantity of knowledge in one year abroad than they ever could in their home culture during the same amount of time. As for the incoming students, I would love to see schools welcome more exchange students in their buildings to allow for such rich, cultural interactions to take place in every class, every sport, every extracurricular activity and so on knowing that the kids who are coming over are some of the best and brightest from their home countries and understand their roles as ambassadors.

Additionally, teachers need to welcome the idea of internationalizing the curriculum instead of being intimidated by it. Students can many times share such amazing perspectives in this way that you can learn so much from them meaningfully while connecting with the kids at the same time. This can be as simple as interjecting examples from other cultures in the work that students are already doing in any curricular area. They can compare and contrast populations and geographical data of various countries when looking at graphs and charts, they can have students research other countries when investigating healthy eating habits, they can learn to play sports of other countries that aren’t as common in the US in their physical education class and they can look at famous speeches in multiple languages when evaluating presentation styles and composure. There are so many ways to infuse global examples into EVERY content area, but it’s a matter of making it a priority and understanding that it’s not as scary as it sounds.

If you could give one educational tool to every child, what would it be?

The fluency of a 2nd language (which comes as a package deal with an understanding of the cultures where that language is spoken) would be the one tool I would give to every child. This can be ANY additional language. With time, those children will be able to synthesize the similarities and differences between the native and target cultures along with the reasons why those customs and behaviors occur and flourish in both cultures. These children will also grow to empathize with the target culture and possibly additional cultures after having been exposed to a second one from a young age. Without this empathy, they might simply judge and dismiss as new people and cultures as “others” and they might look at the actions or circumstances through their own eyes and understanding rather than of the individuals from the target culture. Additionally, they will be more globally aware, more interested in events that occur on another side of the globe, more willing to interact with individuals different from themselves, more able to open doors for themselves and their children and more able to put world peace and the resolution of global issues at the forefront when making decisions.

Are you optimistic about the future of global education?

Yes and No. Through my involvement, I try to be as optimistic as possible about the future of global education because I am a true believer of AFS’s mission and of my power as an educator to impact the beliefs of my students to play an active role in the world around them. At the same time, I see adults deny their children opportunities that they are begging for to engage with the world beyond the borders of the United States, I see others who are constantly negative and inflammatory in their remarks of other cultures of which they are not educated and I see a society that continues to make more and more poor decisions that affect how the United States interacts with other countries and other cultures.