Jordanian School Principal Pays Visit
By RACHEL KOVAC
Ibrahim Shhab trekked across the world to arrive on Martha's Vineyard last Wednesday as part of a Fulbright program which takes school administrators from around the world and sends them to different countries to learn about education.
Mr. Shhab, a middle school principal in Jordan, jumped at the chance to observe another school system and visit the United States. For Margaret Harris, Vineyard schools assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, it was a chance for Island administrators, teachers and students to learn about another country.
A full week was scheduled for Mr. Shhab as he visited each school on the Vineyard and did a little sightseeing. As he was ferried to schools that bear little resemblance to his own at home in Jordan, he marveled at the new experience.
"I hoped to observe the education system in the United States," Mr. Shhab said in slightly broken English on Saturday morning, seated at the dining room table at the Harris home. "Visiting the schools where they are teaching, students are learning and learn how I can maybe solve the problems and challenges in my own school," he said.
Mr. Shhab cited key differences between schools in Jordan and schools in the United States. He spent his first two weeks in Washington, D.C., with nine other Jordanian administrators. There they went to seminars, met with educators and toured several schools before being sent to school systems around the country. Mr. Shhab said everyone told him he had all the luck for landing the chance to go to the Vineyard.
The opportunity came about after Mrs. Harris applied to be a host school system for the Fulbright administrator exchange program, which is sponsored by the International Institution of the Graduate School in conjunction with the United States Department of State. She said the Vineyard might also have the opportunity to host educators from Brazil later this year.
"The schools here are very interesting," Mr. Shhab said. "The schools have lots of equipment, materials, facilities for the purpose of learning. My schools are suffering from a lack of money. We have no materials for facilitating the teachers. We need to [teach] the students more and more."
Mr. Shhab said he is impressed by materials, equipment and small class size in the schools in this country. At home he said his classes are overcrowded, with more than 40 students in some classrooms and the rooms are often too small for the number of students.
"This makes for some troubles with the students and teachers," he said, though noting more of his students are quiet. The schools do have a large curriculum. They teach Arabic, English, math, social education, arts, music and Muslim religion. There's never enough money to expand the arts and in his small school there is almost no space for sports except a small open field. For Mr. Shhab this is sad as he spent 24 years as a physical education teacher. This is his third year as principal.
"All the jobs which I do now are very hard because I feel I have more responsibility for all the students, all the teachers and to help make them learn," he said. "It's very hard work."
While Mr. Shhab is in the United States, in Jordan his school is being run by a team of volunteer teachers. The country's education system requires schools to have at least 300 students before having a full-time assistant principal. Mr. Shhab's school has only 270 students, so his assistant is the Arabic teacher, who helps out from time to time.
He has 16 teachers in three grades with eight different sections. The school is located about five kilometers from the center of the district of education in Irbid, in northern Jordan. Mr. Shhab spends much of his time in Irbid trying to push the government to provide more money for the schools.
"I try to apply for essential things," he said. "I'm asking the government to make available more materials for the schools. I want to encourage them to care more about the future of the teachers and students. I want to give my students more freedom."
Mr. Shhab said if he had more money he would be able to allow students to experiment with a wider curriculum. For now the students sit in the same classroom all day. All students in the country are required to attend school until the 10th grade when they are tracked to different schools - specialty schools based on their intended career paths. Some students do not continue on to the 11th and 12th grades and go straight to work.
One aspect of Jordanian schools quite different from the United States is that women are required to wear uniforms, but men are not. Mr. Shhab said he has learned something new each day from his visits to Island schools. He will leave tomorrow to return to Washington for a couple days.
For the Vineyard his visit has also been a broadening experience.
"When it came our way we said what a great opportunity for our students to meet someone from another country," Mrs. Harris said. "To be able to ask someone from the Middle East questions. This is a short visit, but it is intense."
Mrs. Harris's husband Jamie said even he has learned a lot from the visit. Mr. Shhab has been staying with the Harrises since his arrival.
"I've learned that just being in Jordan is not as frightening as being in the rest of the Middle East," Mr. Harris said. "They are leaning more toward the West, encouraging tourism. Jordan is a lot easier to be in than Israel or Palestine. It's a more open country."
Mr. Shhab said he is taking in as much information as he can about the schools and culture. He has met with a number of Island residents and participated in a community reception Sunday at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. He said it will take him weeks to process everything he has learned.
"The Island is very quiet, very beautiful," he said. "The persons who live on the Island are also quiet and wonderful."