LAWRENCE — No matter what type of school district teachers enter in their career, or the subject matter they teach, it is a certainty they will have students from diverse backgrounds. That can include students who may not speak English as their first language or who come from a cultural background different from the teacher’s. To help prepare future educators for that reality, a University of Kansas program is taking students to Costa Rica this month to experience education in another nation, the challenges and strengths of that culture and how they can enhance their educational expertise.
Jose Martinez, assistant professor of special education, will lead the trip and guide students and future educators through educational and cultural experiences. KU and its No. 1 nationally ranked Department of Special Education put a premium on inclusiveness, making sure all students feel welcome in a classroom and are positioned to succeed. Seeing education from several perspectives in a setting they are not used to will be a way to expand the experiences of a group of future educators.
“The purpose of the program is to provide students with the opportunity to learn more about educational systems in another culture,” Martinez said. “We’ll visit private and public schools in the capital and in rural areas and have cultural experiences as well.”
KU students will depart May 21 for Costa Rica, where they will observe teachers managing their classrooms, speak with them about their training to be educators, and attend lectures about the state of education and special education in Costa Rica and the organization of its educational systems. They'll have a chance to lead class activities, too.
“We look at it as, ‘How can we strengthen you?’” Martinez said of the future educators. “What can we do to make you a better practitioner? We’ll observe how teachers manage their classrooms, and we’ll even have the students lead classroom activities themselves to put them outside of their comfort zones.”
The students, who are not fluent in Spanish, will almost certainly be confronted with challenges, not only of leading a classroom activity that all educators face, but with communicating with students they have not had time to get to know and with a language barrier as well. After the experience, they will detail the challenges they faced, what support they needed to better reach the students and how the experience can translate to when they are working with students in the United States.
The future educators are undergraduate students majoring in early childhood, elementary, secondary and special education and applied behavioral science. While in Costa Rica, they will also learn about working with families of students to gain an understanding of differences in cultural values and how they apply to a student’s educational progress.
The program will reach beyond the classroom as students will also attend lectures on the “state of the nation” of Costa Rica and learn more about the nation’s politics, history, economics, environmental conservation efforts and more.
Costa Rica is an ideal setting for such a program for numerous reasons, Martinez said. The nation is known for high educational achievement, has long had social and political stability and, while unique, can serve as a window to life and education in Latin America. Students will examine how the country’s unique challenges and educational strengths can be applied to educational practice in the United States.
KU has a long-standing collaborative partnership with the University of Costa Rica as well. The institution is the oldest and largest in Costa Rica, and 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of an exchange program between the two universities. The partnership is the oldest interuniversity exchange of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Martinez traveled to Costa Rica earlier this year to explore ways to expand the collaboration in both faculty and students as well as build research partnerships and potential workshops for educators in both countries.
The program is intended to ensure that KU graduates will be prepared to teach students from diverse backgrounds and minority groups, be it a cultural, national, religious or sexual identity different from their own. Experiencing education in a country other than their own will be a way to begin understanding how to help students succeed, no matter their background.
“We want our students to be thinking, ‘What do I need to do to make all children feel welcome in my classroom?’” Martinez said.