Strong School-to-School Partnerships: Part I

Establishing and Maintaining a Relationship

When Asia Society highly recommended the Mudanjiang No. 1 High School in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang Province as a potential partner school for our schools—the Gig Harbor and Peninsula High Schools in the Peninsula School District of Washington State—I agreed to explore the possibility. Knowing many of the possible pitfalls that lay ahead, we built our relationship carefully and honestly, and are now in our fourth year of a partnership that offers rich learning experiences for students, parents, and teachers.

What It Takes to Establish and Maintain a Strong Relationship
As teachers, we all value these essential skills: reflecting on one’s practice, listening carefully to students, and communicating in an authentic way. These same skills are crucial to establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship with a partner school—we must reflect on our own circumstances, including our hopes for the partnership and any specific needs and constraints we may have, listen carefully to our colleagues at our partner school, and convey thoughts and information about our situation honestly.

This transparency is essential from the outset, starting with your partner agreement. When negotiating the agreement, you may be tempted to use a boilerplate contract—which is often provided by the Chinese school—and adjust it slightly to reflect the unique characteristics of your particular partnership. The drawback to this approach is that both schools are likely to let the verbiage in the agreement obscure their true needs and capabilities. For example, the original boilerplate text for our agreement (which we later discarded) mentioned teachers and administrators as well as students as participants in exchanges. I knew, however, that teacher and administrator exchanges were not likely going to be feasible for my district in the near future. As another example, the clause about cultural exchange was one-sided, including only examples of Chinese cultural practices that would be shared with the American school (tai chi, calligraphy, traditional Chinese music, and so on), rather than listing examples of cultural practices from both sides. The text thus implicitly placed greater importance on transmitting Chinese culture to my American students, as opposed to valuing cultural sharing in both directions.

To address these and other issues, I drafted a new agreement from scratch, discussing and editing the text with my counterpart at our partner school until we both felt that it truly reflected our schools’ expectations and abilities. We left the agreement flexible so we could focus on broader goals and values, rather than tying ourselves down to specific projects, numbers of participants, and timelines. The process of writing a new agreement served to solidify our trust that both sides would be honest and clear about each of our concerns, wishes, and expectations.

As we began our partnership, both sides agreed that we wanted to start with small projects and build slowly to larger ones. This gradual approach has allowed our two schools to get to know one another and build relationships in a natural process over time. When schools take on large projects too early in the partnership, they often end up overcommitting before they really understand what each side is capable of accomplishing. This is a common mistake and it can lead to a rapid breakdown in trust.

Once the partnership is underway, establishing one point person at each school to meet on a regular basis will keep the lines of communication open. As the contact for my program, I have found that communicating via email alone is not enough to convey the detail and nuance needed to understand one another. Especially with sensitive subjects, Skype or GoogleChat are better alternatives. And regardless of which language you use to communicate, the two point people must share a high level of proficiency in at least one language that they can use to understand one another easily.

With the underpinnings of honesty and frequent communication in place, we can accept changes in plans without being concerned that the entire relationship is in jeopardy. Our strong foundation supports fluidity, much as a tree strongly rooted in the ground is able to flex in the wind without snapping.

Focus on Culture
We run our two-way exchange program during July and August. My initial reason for choosing the summertime was purely economic because the Peninsula School District was not able to cover hosting expenses during the school year. By running the program during summer months, we shifted the financial responsibility from the district to the individual families of the participating students. This enabled us to keep the exchange program going even through times of budget cuts.

As time has progressed, however, I have come to realize that the advantages of running a summer exchange extend far beyond financial issues. Because the students are on break, the focus of the exchange is cultural and language immersion, rather than academics. (For the Chinese students, who live in an academic pressure cooker much of the year, the exchange program is also a time to simply play and enjoy being a teenager.) In our program, we match each student with a partner at the other school, and the partner-pairs stay in each other’s homes on both sides of the exchange. The parents on both sides are responsible for designing the hosting itineraries and for chaperoning all of the group events with the teachers. With homestays for the entire duration of the exchange (two weeks on each side), the students’ cultural and language learning is grounded in a first-hand experience of family—the heart of culture—and extends up and out from there. Students learn as much or more from chatting with their partners late into the night or talking with host parents over the breakfast table than they do during formal learning activities.

Communication before Travel
For the students and parents directly participating in the exchange program, the preparation and learning begins months before we actually travel. Once we have made the partner matches (based on lengthy discussions between me and my counterpart in Mudanjiang about the individual personalities and hobbies of each student), we hold a Skype session in which the partners can meet and chat. Parents and siblings are also welcome to attend, and many partners continue to Skype and email up until the time of travel. This initial Skype session, during which students and family members match faces with names and hear each other’s voices for the first time, is an exciting and magical moment that makes the upcoming exchange feel “real” to everyone involved.

The parents on both sides begin to communicate with one another indirectly as they are developing the itineraries because we periodically share drafts of the itineraries to get feedback from the other side about what activities to include.

Don't miss Part II of this article: "Differences Are Just as Meaningful as Similarities"

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