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A Thriving Partnership with Middle Eastern Educators

Professional education customized to global (but local) contexts lets educator-leaders thrive in their own settings, sharing knowledge to strengthen teaching across regions.

Professor Fernando Reimers (right) works with the MEPLI Fellows last summer.

Photograph by Jill Anderson

Over the past two years, 80 educators from various regions in the Middle East have had the unique opportunity to partner with the Harvard Graduate School of Education to reflect on their practice and strengthen the teaching force in their countries. Through the Middle East Professional Learning Initiative (MEPLI) — based in HGSE’s Professional Education  — teacher educators and system-level leaders from the Middle East are gaining support in developing practices, programs, and structures to improve student opportunities and learning.

“The Middle East is blessed with a very high percentage of young people, which means that in the educational opportunities of their students lies the future of the region. It’s imperative that children and youth in the Middle East gain the skills to be empowered as architects of their own lives, who can collaborate with others in improving the communities of which they are a part,” says Professor Fernando Reimers, a faculty adviser along with Associate Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson and Senior Lecturer Katherine Merseth. “Our hope is that MEPLI can develop a cadre of education leaders for the region who can collectively develop ambitious and effective programs of teacher professional development that can help the education systems in the region leapfrog toward much greater levels of relevance and effectiveness.”

In 2016, an alumnus of Harvard College and Harvard Business School recognized that Professional Education was serving education leaders from more than 120 countries with transformative learning experiences, and made a gift to expand access to those programs for educators from the Middle East. That gift enabled the creation of MEPLI, which since 2018 has provided educators from the region — MEPLI Fellows — with scholarships for residential and online programs at HGSE. Fellows also gain a network of colleagues to connect and collaborate with, attend convenings in countries throughout the Middle East, and receive education courses and materials in Arabic. (Convenings have occurred in Jordan, Lebanon, and — just this month — in the Palestinian territories.) MEPLI works with collaborating organizations in the region, including Queen Rania Teacher Academy in Jordan, American University of Beirut, Sonbola in Lebanon, UNRWA, and AMIDEAST.

Mitalene Fletcher, director of PreK–12 and International Programs for Professional Education, cited MEPLI’s flexible model as a unique way to customize professional development for global contexts and settings. “HGSE is fortunate to engage with really ambitious educators from more than 120 countries,” she says. “This kind of initiative enables us to be more informed and intentional in the ways we serve these educators.”

MEPLI’s intent isn’t to simply transfer an Americanized ideology to its fellows, Reimers says, but to encourage them to “think critically about what they are learning, think about the context in which these ideas have been developed, and then ask, ‘How could I translate these ideas so they make sense in my context.”

MEPLI Fellows are carefully selected through an application process that requires not only the ability to commit to the yearlong program (after which they receive a certificate of completion), but also the discernment to identify problems of practice that they’ll use to direct their learning. They must also create a plan for sharing their learning within their networks.

Many fellows’ efforts focus on revamping the teaching culture in their countries.

Lara El Khatib — a MEPLI fellow from Lebanon who was part of the first cohort — struggled with training student teachers to think more critically and independently. Part of the challenge, she says, was working within a teaching model long structured around lecturing rather than actively engaging young people in deeper thinking and discussion. Through MEPLI, and especially through her courses with Lecturer Rhonda Bondie, El Khatib discovered different methods for training teachers that she could apply to workshops back home. “I learned so much that I decided to invest and come back,” she says — taking part in additional HGSE Professional Education programs this summer, despite the fellowship having ended.

When Amer Dababneh began teaching in Jordan, he didn’t foresee how it would change his future. But he fell in love with the work and “really wanted to make a difference.” Now, entering his first year as a principal (he will also continue teaching middle school), Dababneh is focusing his MEPLI experience on how to establish teaching requirements in the region. Many teachers end up in the classroom with no proper training, having to figure it out on their own, he says.

As a MEPLI Fellow, he’s relishing the chance to build relationships with other educators, learn from best practices, and gain some credibility for the workshops and social media channels where he “donates” information for other teachers in Jordan. “We’re in the business of changing lives,” he says. “I see hope in education and how it can make a difference.”

Since its inception, MEPLI has benefitted from the involvement of HGSE students from the Middle East working as staff and interns. Amin Marei, Ed.M.’17, is the former associate director of MEPLI and led the development of the MEPLI Fellowship. “I came to HGSE trying to learn more about building these communities of educators,” he says, noting that his classwork helped further his understanding of regional contexts, as well as the complexities of creating programming in challenging environments with scarce resources. Educators in the Middle East are committed to their work and want to grow their practice, Marei says, and MEPLI has helped create a space where they can determine how to do so sustainably and successfully.

Beyond addressing their professional challenges, the Fellows see MEPLI as an opportunity to change the narrative about parts of the world that haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.

“We have to work together side-by-side,” Dababneh says. “To collaborate and share is how you grow. I’m passionate about education and I can see the future – hopefully the future of not just my country but all of the Middle East. We have one civilization and we need to equip children to be self-learners, risk takers, and critical thinkers.”