This year, I decided to participate in a principal exchange program. The intent of the program is to promote a partnership between two schools: a high school in the Hebei province of China and Clarkstown North. Part of the program requires that each principal spend one week in the other principal’s school.
To that end, I planned an entire week of activities for the principal, Mr. Wang Diansheng, during his time at Clarkstown North, on the weekends, and other free time. I planned activities from the moment I picked him up from the airport. Since he was staying with me, I ordered Chinese television on the cable system so that he could feel connected to his homeland during his visit. My wife also purchased ingredients to make a traditional Chinese breakfast. So, when Mr. Wang arrived Saturday morning, she had prepared poached eggs boiled in tea water, congee, shrimp and vegetable dumplings, and buns filled with pork, bean paste, and eggs. Keep in mind that our communication was all conducted through an iPhone application, SayHi. This app allowed us to speak in our native language, and whatever we said was translated into the other person’s native tongue. The app worked great, and it was a reasonable way to translate back and forth until a Chinese translator met us at North High School on Monday morning.
Later that afternoon, we went to the Nyack Halloween parade so that Mr. Wang could see an American event that is fun and in which many people participate. On Sunday, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where there was an audio tour available in Mandarin Chinese. We drove to the Empire State Building, went to Chinatown, and Little Italy and drove back home and cooked a steak dinner for us. The SayHi app truly came in handy in the absence of a translator. Then, I received a call that Clarkstown North was going to be closed on Monday, October 29. This threw off all the plans. The translator could not be reached. So, Mr. Wang and I headed to North High School, and I gave Mr. Wang a tour of the school even though there were no students or staff in the building. By 11:30 am, I received a call that the building was going to close shortly and that the power was going to be shut down in preparation for the super storm. I drove Mr. Wang to Nyack State Beach Park where we saw the level of the Hudson River quickly rising. The wind picked up, and the tree branches ferociously moved back and forth. That afternoon, super storm Sandy arrived. We lost power around 4:30 pm. Flashlights, electric candles, and a battery operated radio were all charged and ready. The only thing left to do was wait out the storm.
On Tuesday, we were still without electricity. Mr. Wang and I drove to North High School and saw the damage that Sandy left us. When arriving at North, we saw many downed trees and wires. It was clear to me at that point that school would be closed for at least a few days. Without a translator and with spotty cellular service, I had difficulty communicating with Mr. Wang. Knowing that the school was going to be closed for the remainder of Mr. Wang’s stay, what do I do now? Here is a principal from China who traveled half way around the globe to visit a school in New York.
Luckily, my iPad was fully charged. I saw that schools were open in the mid-Hudson Valley and to the north. I emailed a friend, Katie Zahedi, the principal of the Linden Avenue Middle School in the Red Hook School District, who arranged a full day at Red Hook on Wednesday, October 31. We visited the elementary, middle, and high school, met four principals, sat in two classes, and observed the kindergarten’s Halloween Parade. Later in the afternoon, Mr. Wang and I drove north to Albany, which looked relatively unscathed by Super Storm Sandy. My dissertation advisor from SUNY Albany met us for dinner and brought with him two Chinese-speaking graduate students. For once, I was finally able to communicate with Mr. Wang. I asked him why he wanted to visit schools in the U.S. He stated that there is an educational reform movement currently underway in China, which is led by the nationalist Communist government. This educational reform covers three areas: 1) teach students to think and work independently, 2) have students work collaboratively in the classroom; and 3) cover material in depth (as opposed to breadth). Mr. Wang stated that students in the U.S. are more creative, and China would like to create more creative intellectual capital. Some examples he gave are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I commented how ironic this is since our current educational system is moving in the opposite direction, more testing and less emphasis on creative thinking.
On Thursday, the School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS) offered to meet with me, Mr. Wang, and our translator (one of the graduate students). We met with the Executive Director (Kevin Casey) and the Deputy Director (Donald Nickson) of SAANYS. After, we headed to Saratoga Springs High School and met with the principal and superintendent. We spent 2 hours touring the campus and answering Mr. Wang’s questions. Later in the afternoon, we headed back to Albany and took a tour of the State Education Department (SED) building. Someone I knew at the SED provided us with a Chinese translator. Thursday night was our last evening with Mr. Wang. I treated him to an American style restaurant at the Albany Pump Station, and he began his return to China the following day.
Had it not been for the kindness of others at the SED, SAANYS, SUNY-Albany, Red Hook School District, and Saratoga Springs School District to help us in a difficult situation, Mr. Wang’s visit to New York would have been a complete disaster. Thankfully, our state has caring educators and administrators who are willing and proud to show and open their schools to others. I also learned from this experience. As a principal, I rarely have the opportunity to visit other schools in my own state. I know that Mr. Wang was impressed with our schools, but so was I. We provide a good public school education in this state with multiple programs tailored to students’ diverse interests and needs. Super storm Sandy certainly made Mr. Wang’s situation difficult, but, as always, people rise to the occasion and help each other out.
Hopefully, this caring spirit will persist in the holiday season and throughout the new year. I wish you and your families a joyous holiday season and a Happy New Year!