North

Teachers from around world learning how to narrow gender gap

(From left) UMass Lowell student Rakesh Buchan listened to Feruza Erkulova of Uzbekistan and Ghada Khader of Jordan.
Photos by Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe
Feruza Erkulova of Uzbekistan (left) and Ghada Khader of Jordan were among the visitors.

The African continent has the world’s highest rate of girls leaving school to marry at a young age. Schools in Asian countries such as Laos have less female enrollment because society considers men the breadwinners and women the housekeepers.

“In Jordan, women are expected to get married, give birth and look after children, deeply respect their husband’s relatives, and get up early to do housework before their job, if they have one,” said Ghada Khader, an English teacher in Amman.

A group of 21 international high school teachers gathered at the University of Massachusetts Lowell recently to tell their stories and discuss their nations’ efforts to decrease the gender gap in their education systems and workforce.

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During their six-week stay, the teachers toured the campus, visited New York City, held local workshops, and volunteered in classrooms in Andover and Chelmsford.

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Michelle Kender, a biology teacher at Chelmsford High School, hosted a teacher from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic where nearly all of the population is literate.

“It’s been very eye-opening in terms of what it’s like for teachers in other parts of the world,” said Kender, “and it’s been really cool to see how my students respond to her. Our countries are pretty similar, from an educational perspective and in terms of diversity and acceptance in the classroom.”

A.J. Angulo, a professor in UMass Lowell’s graduate department of education, organized the teachers’ visit with help from Allyson Lynch, coordinator of the university’s international student programs. The program was cosponsored by the International Research & Exchanges Board and the US Department of State.

“I think that in many ways, programs like this target the need to get beyond fear and misconceptions we may have about people who don’t sound or look like us,” said Angulo.

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Lynch said the UMass Lowell students enjoyed their time with the international teachers during the trip to New York.

“The fellow from Latvia didn’t really know what the Black Lives Matter movement was, so some of our African-American students explained it to him,” said Lynch. “That was a great exchange of cultures.”

Most of the foreign teachers said the biggest differences they saw in US schools were smaller class sizes and better technology.

“We have one Smart Board for the whole school in the library, and you have to reserve it,” said Khader, of Jordan. “I sometimes look [at technology here] and I feel a little bit jealous. I wish to see my minister of education and talk to him. I want to tell him, ‘Please give us something, so we can work with these students.’ ”

Jordan struggles to provide women with the same social and economic opportunities as men, but lately the country has been allocating more resources. “Queen Rania Al-Abdullah started a teacher academy in 2009 to help teachers train to become better,” said Khader. “Right now, more women go to university than men, but there are less job opportunities for women.”

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Aboubacar, who teaches math to students from 14 to 20 years old in Niger, a developing country in West Africa where the literacy rate is just 15 percent for girls, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said cultural norms can sometimes get in the way.

“Between male teacher and female student, there are risks of unfair relationships,” Aboubacar said. “We are more likely to keep our distances from the students.”

Other information the international teachers shared:

 It took until 1991 for the constitution of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to include mandatory educational rights for women, and they are still vastly less literate than men. According to UNESCO, about 63 percent of Laotian women can read.

 In Tajikistan and Mongolia, school enrollment is low, yet more boys than girls leave school because of their parents’ preference for labor-intensive farm work and a general lack of interest in education.

 On the other hand, most visiting teachers reported their students begin studying foreign languages as early as first grade and continue through high school graduation. Foreign language programs in the United States usually don’t start until middle school or high school.

“I’ve learned so much from [the foreign teachers],” said Lynch. “International people, they rather care about your home life, so when you meet, they’ll ask, ‘Are you married? Do you have kids? What’s your family like?’ instead of, if you were to meet an American person, they’d ask, ‘What do you do for work?’ It’s much more personal.”

Rakesh Buchan (left) attends a presentation by 20 international fellows on February 28 at UMass Lowell. The event was organized by A.J. Angulo, professor of graduate education studies, and funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State.
UMass Lowell student Rakesh Buchan (left) listens to one of the speakers.

Samson Amore can be reached at samson.amore@globe.com.