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Educators as advocates

College of Education professor Teresa Harris will use Fulbright award to build partnerships with South African schools
By Chris Edwards

Teresa Harris

College of Education professor Teresa Harris

Students and professors in JMU's elementary education and reading programs will soon join a three-way partnership to work and learn with colleagues at two South African schools. College of Education professor Teresa Harris will prepare the way, thanks to a Fulbright award.

The Fulbright will fund Harris's visits to the University of Pretoria and the Child Academy in Tambesa -- located in northern South Africa's rural Venda section -- from January to June, 2010.

African immersion

Harris's immersion in African education began three years ago.

In 2006, she served as curriculum specialist for a group of local teachers visiting Kenya on a five-week, intercultural travel seminar, supported by a Fulbright-Hays/Department of Education grant, and briefly visited South Africa on an assignment for her church. In summer 2007, accompanied by 11 students, Harris returned there and met Nkidi Phatudi, a professor of early childhood development at the University of Pretoria who will work with her in the planned partnership.

This past March, while awaiting results of the grant application, Harris returned with another student group to visit Venda, where she met more colleagues. In July, she'll take eight graduate students to South Africa, where they will complete an elective course.

During her Fulbright semester, Harris will co-teach early childhood education at Pretoria, moving back and forth between there and the Venda academy. "We three will work together," she says, noting Pretoria and Venda exemplify contrasting, urban and rural settings.

Jennifer Coffman and Lorie Merrow, members of JMU's international education program faculty, wrote Harris' Fulbright proposal.

"The biggest surprise, to new arrivals," Harris says, "is confronting 'Africa' in its many facets. South Africa is really a first-world country in many respects. The airport in Pretoria is much like Dulles" -- though much easier to navigate. She smiles when recalling students' families' concerns: "I have parents concerned about wild animals." (The country's large animals now only live in Kruger National Park.)

Harris' trips to Africa have been intensive for students. Along with gaining teaching experience and studying child development, they must rapidly learn the geography, culture and political structure. Harris prepares them to see poverty in some areas and to be aware when families struggle to pay their children's tuition. In Venda, they must also expect to live without luxuries: walking a lot, having running water only at certain times, and heating it on a stove for bathing.

"Africans are incredibly hospitable and open and friendly and gracious," Harris says. Last spring, a favorite discussion topic was President Barack Obama; she was often asked, "Who did you vote for?'

A small world

Educators in both Africa and America face similar issues, Harris says. "The focus is on young children and on families of young children." There is a difference in the way the two societies perceive teaching, however, according to Harris. The U.S., she says, has many high-quality teacher-training programs, and students who choose education specialties genuinely want to teach. Teaching in South Africa, however, is "a fairly low-paying job, with not much prestige." With 25-percent unemployment, "You've got people who don't really want to be teachers but are."

South Africa

"South Africa is really a first-world country in many respects," Harris says.

Harris's earlier career -- while raising a family -- consisted of teaching elementary school, preschool and Head Start in North Carolina; then becoming a lead teacher in a Radford, Va. school.

She was the early childhood supervisor for the Virginia Department of Education from 1988 to 1990, before arriving at JMU in 1990.

Excellence in education

Noting JMU has had the state's longest-running undergraduate early childhood teacher licensing program, Harris says, "Our department and program are recognized at the state level as sources of expertise. When I was in Richmond, JMU was the one I worked most closely with." Since then, "I've remained really involved in the policy side of what happens in early childhood education."

Harris edits an educational e-journal, The Constructivist, which she expects to continue while in Africa. ("Constructivism," she explains, is an umbrella term for "learning theories that focus on the learner constructing meaning.") She sits on the board of JMU's International Beliefs and Values Institute, while often working with Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

Educators as advocates

Harris expects her Fulbright semester will include direct work with children as well as university students. "It's my nature." The new partnership may feature seminars at each of the three universities, led by instructors from each, as well as interactive online studies.

"We like to think education is free, but there is a cost," Harris says. Both here and in South Africa, she sees the schools' role as serving children and their families -- "Making sure they have access to the resources to take a place in society and to have a voice."

Those resources, she notes, include good nutrition, health care and employment opportunities -- needs extending far beyond the classroom.

Harris passionately believes in educators becoming advocates. "For us, children and families are the most important part of the system, and if we care for them well, we have a just and thriving society of human beings."

When challenges seem overwhelming, Harris advises her students to remember, "This is the part that I can play."