Dare to Ask, Dare to Act
Alumni reflection written by Viktoria Toth, Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program alumna
I stood in the middle of the “rush-hour traffic” of two thousand students during the five minutes passing time in the hallway of West Regent High School in Madison, Wisconsin feeling completely lost and in shock for a moment, then all of a sudden a realization struck me. The powerful moment made me move forward to quickly find my way to the classroom, where I needed to be, to observe the American secondary level education system, and later teach.
What was this realization? I experienced a very different school culture from my own, where participants seemed completely in control of what they were doing and a strong sense of independence lingered in the space.
For me it was the realization of here and now – experiencing independence and responsibility for my actions, and learning – the concept of the independent and individualistic society unfolding right in front of me, and it was my chance to redefine how I wanted to go about my personal growth.
At that moment, when I saw the determined faces of American students, flowing into their classrooms, I wanted to be in full control of my learning experience in the USA. I took part in the media literacy cohort of the prestigious Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement (TEA) Program for secondary level educators, from all around the world. UW-Madison created a program in which the 22 participants from 12 European and Central Asian countries immersed themselves in the study of the role of media literacy and critical thinking play in education and curriculum development.
Application to the Fulbright TEA Program is open until March 15, 2023. Further details.
My Fulbright TEA program started in September, 2022 and took place in Madison, the capital city of Wisconsin. The city sits on an isthmus which itself is unique, as the two lakes, Mendota and Monona, sit on either side of a strip of land which creates a sublime and peaceful atmosphere to the friendly, vibrant and progressive city, where the University of Wisconsin enrolls almost fifty thousand students. The School of Education at UW-Madison ranks fifth in the United States of universities hosting education programs, and this is where I studied for more than six weeks, thanks to the Hungarian Fulbright Commission, the U.S. Department of State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was on this isthmus, in the city of Madison, through the generosity of many that I challenged myself to grow as a person and as a professional.
So, back to my realization: I regained control of my learning there, in the hallway of West High School in Madison, Wisconsin as part of the Fulbright TEA Program.
Through conversations with colleagues, I realized that in that moment in the hallway, I employed my culture shock training. I stepped back from the situation! I reflected on my feelings, and why I felt that way. “Think. Observe. Compare. Contrast. Analyze. Reflect.” I did all that in a flash of a moment.
And as it turns out, all of those things are core elements of critical thinking, which we learned during seminars and workshops at UW-Madison, and which are so inherent in the US public education system, and prepare students to become active citizens, and independent thinkers.
It explains why American students are so confident. Students in the US are prepared and socialized to stand the strain. The education system embraces the teaching of life skills and social responsibilities, to pave the way for members of society, to be active citizens, when they grow up. It is emphasized to anyone enrolled in public education in the US that besides being an individual, you are a decisive element in your community and in society. These messages seem to create self-confidence and an inner motivation to work. All this justifies UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Idea: “that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.”
Prior to my time in Madison, I knew of soft skills, but have learned to more accurately use them during the seminars and workshops. This helped me make the most out of the seven intense weeks of training in Madison, and made me proud of my achievement. Soft skills helped, especially in situations when I had to step outside of the box and try new, innovative techniques, and work in teams like we did in the PBS Wisconsin studios when creating educational videos on media literacy topics with my peers.
By practicing self-reflection, critical thinking skills, self-control and -awareness, I simply felt stronger, and more in control of my personal development in the program.
Why is this significant? It is, because I could see in practice how soft, social and life skills are delicately integrated in the common core curriculum of the US public education and can change peoples’ attitudes towards participation and citizenship on the whole. Practicing new skills made me more alert and reflective of my learning process too.
Plus, the moments of culture shock highlighted a number of differences and similarities among education systems around the world, and generated fruitful discussions with peer teachers on challenges we face. This resulted in collaboration and innovative lesson planning in the area of media literacy, mindfulness in the classroom, critical thinking and innovative use of technology.
I observed that students in the USA ask insightful and elaborate questions with ease, even on controversial topics for which they have their own opinions. I also decided to ask all the questions that clarified my understanding of current issues in American education, and society. I did so to get a better understanding of the cause and effect of social and cultural phenomena, which influences decision making through all levels of American institutions.
I needed to learn how the system, people, environment, shape the way people think about education, socialization, cultural awareness and literacy.
It was a high priority for me to ask elaborate questions, because I grew up in a different society and has been socialized in a very different way. Here I could sense my side of the learning.
In my education, I was taught, in a way, not to ask many questions, and to look out for some outer forces which would tell me the directions I needed to take in my life. This is where I come from, that is my cultural background, and it took effort to formulate the proper questions which would bring about the answers I had been striving for. In Madison, in the USA, I felt like an independent thinker, because I was surrounded by a diverse, motivated group of professionals – who were modeling the teaching methods they use to educate children in the US to make them capable of developing society.
The program model UW-Madison offered was comprehensive. We explored social studies education and media literacy in the context of social studies, language pedagogy, and practical media literacy workshops; these all highlighted so many niches I did not know about secondary education in the USA. The media literacy cohort focused on theory and practice and the weekly seminars with professors in the various departments in the School of Education all contributed to the deeper understanding of educational policies, strategies, trends, innovation, and challenges American teachers, educators, and education professionals face.
What is it like in the American high school classroom? The classroom environment is more relaxed, the teacher is positively encouraging students to participate, the students are not pressured to achieve. The teaching is student centered, and students have a voice in the classroom. The teacher engages the students in arguments with accurate guiding questions, and the students do not learn one ultimate truth, but are expected to explore various sources and present different perspectives on a topic.
The teacher has a role in the social emotional wellbeing of the student. Having an inclusive approach to education, students learn to respect diversity and each other’s feelings with the guidance from teachers. The structure of the lesson allows students with diverse needs to process content and feelings.
The teacher is responsible for the content, delivery, instructional design, methodology and can innovate and form opinions, because there is a decentralized curriculum which gives the gift of flexibility within a broader framework in the US public education system. The teacher has more freedom over the lesson planning, the instructional design, and the content. So, students learn that there are questions in history, society which are open to discussion and interpretation, they learn to consider the difference between facts and the results and impacts of facts, and that various sides can have differing opinions about facts. They also learn that a perspective which is represented through one teacher’s own personality, ideas and views might be very different through the interpretation of another teacher.
However, what struck me most was the impression that society operates as a living organism, it is dynamic, where the ongoing dialogue supports the adjustments, and even major changes in the structure, in order to respond to needs and malfunctions in the system. Maybe not every major social dilemma can be solved right away, and as we have learned during our exchange with local teachers, we share a number of common difficulties and challenges in education at the international level, but in US society you feel that there are commitments to a number of current issues, and not everyone is in agreement, but this means ideas and approaches are debatable in public. People contribute to the public-private conversation, and have a say in what directions the system should take. There are a number of platforms created to share those personal stories and experiences of challenges, and the boards, councils, associations function to help problems to be addressed, discussed and presented at a local, regional and national level.
People are sensitive to social issues. How is it possible? As I could see during the university seminars and the three weeks of school observation, social studies education is a strong element in the broad and decentralized framework of US public education. Social studies cover history, civics, government, geography, economics and the discussion of current issues in society. Students learn to understand the world around them, and it helps them navigate their lives more consciously. This prepares people to make informed and reasoned decisions for their private lives and for the public as citizens. This profound understanding of rights and duties, thanks to this massive social studies education, serves as a core pillar of democracy. Students and citizens are well informed on civic issues and they can contribute valuable input to discussions on public matters. In general, they are encouraged to care what is going on in decision making.
There are numerous challenging issues in public education in the US as well: teacher salaries, teacher shortage, teacher training curriculum, equity and inclusion in education, discrimination, discipline, bullying, poverty and safety. There is pressure on teachers in schools, but they address issues with pride and dignity. The teachers at West High School participate in the public discourse as they can identify as a catalyst of change in the immediate and wider community, because they learned the freedom of choice, decision, and action.
I have learned strategies that I can use in my teaching and I got tremendous inspiration and motivation; however, I also learned to give myself time to structure my thoughts, and knowledge for deeper understanding. From Wisconsinites I learnt the importance of taking a break, relaxing when needed, and taking things with a grain of salt.
Now that I look at the experience from a bit of distance in time and space, the puzzle pieces start to formulate broader perspectives on what I can do with the valuable skills and knowledge I acquired. I have definitely changed in the course of events and my experiences shape how I see myself as a parent, mother, educator and professional. The people I met, the encounters I had in a short and intense period of time, all created a sense of belonging to a community that is open to change.
At this phase of my life, and with my previous experiences in mind, Madison was the perfect place that embraced all my thoughts, feelings, and created a safe place to re-explore who I am, where I am standing right now, and where I want to go from here. I had a lot of questions about US society which have been answered and there are a lot of new questions arising now that I have seen a new side to the US.
The new side to the US seems really interesting, exciting and left me with great satisfaction with all the new diversity it brought about. My adventure will be a benefit to my two daughters, as they can understand that dreams can come true if you work hard for them, and to have a support system behind you. People are gritty in Wisconsin, and they do get to the nitty gritty of matters, and I myself will go and seek out opportunities to cascade my new knowledge because “if you try, you can indeed…” as Robert E. Gard put it.
Application to the Fulbright TEA Program is open until March 15, 2023. Further details.