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International Teachers

Why cultural exchange is a two-way enrichment experience

By Juan Carlos Rivera, former Participate teacher from Panama

We like to believe practice makes perfect, but it may also make it repetitive. There is always something new to learn out there. Becoming a cultural exchange teacher challenged many of my professional and personal paradigms. It allowed me get out of my comfort zone, something I will always be grateful for. It made me see things from various perspectives and understand that different is not necessarily better or worse, and that differences are worthy of respect and value.

Diversity is one of those things that makes the world go round. By being exposed to other cultures and sharing ours with others, cultural exchange teachers build global bridges. We contribute to making society significantly more aware, understanding and appreciative. As my admired professor Steve Molinsky always says: “Nothing is significant if you don´t know it first.” This knowledge of others usually translates into appreciation and tolerance, a deeply felt need today.

By being exposed to other cultures and sharing ours with others, cultural exchange teachers build global bridges.

Spending three years teaching in the U.S. with Participate was without a doubt a two-way enrichment opportunity. Not only did I teach my language and culture to my students, but I also learned a lot from them, my co-workers, other Participate teachers and the surrounding community, especially with regard to teamwork and kindness. I built strong and lasting connections and found that to be one of my biggest accomplishments.

In addition, I learned to avoid making assumptions and groundless judgments based on cultural biases. When in a different cultural environment, we teachers need to be open and adaptable, without compromising our authenticity. That authenticity is exactly what makes the difference between a foreign exchange teacher and a cultural ambassador. We teach not only courses but also global values. We are probably the closest those around us will ever be to visiting our home countries, so we need to be worthy representatives of them.

In my particular case, I will never forget how inspiring it was to see my 8th grade students build Panamanian molas (indigenous handcrafts) and piñatas. Their faces of surprise when I showed them how to use that old-school gadget known as tracing paper to draw the mola outlines, despite all the technology existing in my classroom, were priceless. Also, it goes without saying that we had lots of fun making and busting our crafty piñatas. These little things create huge memories for our students and us.

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