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Shift to virtual a success for teacher exchange program

June 15, 2021 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor


St. Paul teacher Terra-Lee Gratton says she appreciated being able to participate in an exchange with an Australian colleague from the comfort of her own home and school this past year.

Despite travel restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of Alberta teachers were able to bring an international flavour to their practice through virtual exchanges with colleagues from around the world.

Normally, the ATA’s short-term exchange program sees Alberta teachers spend two weeks visiting a counterpart in another country, then hosting that colleague for another two weeks at home. However, during the pandemic the model shifted to a six-week virtual exchange in which matched teachers held regular discussions by video conference.

“Teachers are still passionate people who love their craft, and even though they’re exhausted, they’re still keen to do these projects,” said Carolyn Freed, the ATA’s exchange liaison.

This past year, the program matched 33 Alberta teachers with teachers in Australia, Iceland, Spain and Germany.

“It’s been really quite heartening to see how many teachers have taken this on despite how difficult these times have been,” Freed said.

For St. Paul teacher Terra-Lee Gratton, who was matched with a teaching partner in Australia, the experience was similar to having an old-school pen pal.

“For anyone not ready or planning to travel internationally, having the opportunity to connect virtually is honestly the next best thing!” she said. “Participating in an e-exchange during a pandemic brought renewed energy and a welcome source of joy with my Australian counterpart, who was also living and teaching through the same pandemic.”

Ian Wilson, co-ordinator of safety and wellness for Wolf Creek School District, was paired with an Australian principal and was able to gather some valuable ideas to share in his district.

“We’ve shared our journeys as educators and the circumstances that have brought us to this point in our careers. It’s been interesting to recognize the many commonalities from halfway around the world,” he said.

The virtual exchanges have gone so well that they may continue to be an option even after travel restrictions are lifted and the exchange programs are able to operate normally, Freed said.

“I’d like to see it as another option,” she said. “It could be a stepping stone to doing it in person.”

Gratton and Wilson both said they appreciated the virtual exchanges but that there’s also something special about meeting colleagues in person and walking the halls with them.

“I have been fortunate to have experienced a virtual and an in-person exchange, and have appreciated both opportunities,” Wilson said. “Given the choice, I would choose an in-person exchange. There is nothing better than being immersed in another setting and experiencing all it has to offer.” ❚

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