Chinese primary school principals visit Lower School
Posted 10/03/2014 05:55PM

Twenty-four primary school principals from Jiangsu Province, China, visited the Lower School Friday as part of a training program to study the U.S. education system. A similar delegation visited the Upper School last year. Both groups were accompanied by Brian White, associate director for China programs at the UNC Center for International Understanding.

The Chinese principals visited each Lower School classroom, as well as reading, math, science, computer, music, drama, library, physical education, and art rooms, and they even spent time on the playground observing recess. They watched a Spanish lesson in Anna Mesen’s second grade class, and laughed when their translator said the class calls itself “Mesen’s Monkeys.” The group saw technology such as smartboards and iPads being used in many classrooms. They took photos and videos of classrooms, students, teachers, schedules, books, take-home folders, bulletin boards, posters, science equipment and math manipulatives.

But they were puzzled by what they didn’t see or hear. 

“How does the school run without bells?” asked one principal as they toured the school.

Lower School Director Carolyn Ronco explained that each of the 16 Lower School classes has its own schedule, and each teacher is responsible for getting the class where it needs to be, when it needs to be there.

After touring the Lower School, the group gathered for brief remarks by Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner and a presentation by Ronco. She told the principals that the Lower School wants to develop individual learners who have effective study habits, are eager to learn and have the confidence to try new things. It’s also important that Lower School students learn how to be a member of a community:  to share, to be a good listener and to care about others.

Through their translator, the visitors peppered Ulku-Steiner and Ronco with questions. Does the school receive money from the government or does tuition cover everything? How much does it cost to go to school here? Do you get to choose which students to admit? What if a student loves the school but his parents cannot afford it? What is the salary for teachers? What is the reason behind teaching Spanish? Do teachers have a time to come together for training? What is the school’s administrative structure? Is there a school-wide set of rules to regulate students’ behavior? What happens if a student gets hurt on the playground? What is Ulku-Steiner’s background and how does he spend his time? What effect does he hope to have on the school? 

Ulku-Steiner and Ronco answered each question, then asked a few of their own, such as do school children have recess in China and how math is taught in China.

Ulku-Steiner told the group that he began his career in education 23 years ago at Durham Academy. He has spent 15 years at DA as a teacher and administrator, and also spent time at The American School in Switzerland, serving as headmaster there before returning to DA as head of school a year ago.

“I divide my time among students, parents and teachers, probably about equally,” he said. In the course of a workday, he may pick up trash off the floor or work on a 10-year financial plan for the school.

As for his effect on the school, Ulku-Steiner said it’s his job to hire the right people, and “the people who matter the most are the teachers. That’s what makes the difference. Find the best teachers and let them do their magic, let them do their best work.”

When the Chinese principals thanked him for their visit, Ulku-Steiner said, “I hope sometime we will have people from Durham Academy come to your schools as well.”

See photos from their visit at: http://bit.ly/1rGvFqn

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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