The World ORT education blog is taking a new direction in the next couple of months. It will feature interviews with leading ORT educational practitioners around the world, with an emphasis on pedagogical opportunities and challenges that they face in their roles.
The first of our interviewees is Kalya Hilu, Director General since August 2010 at Colegio Israelita de México (CIM) ORT in Mexico City. CIM-ORT caters for over 650 students, ranging from pre-school age to high school age. The school joined the ORT network in 2010. I caught up with Kalya at 07:00 – her usual start time – at the beginning of a busy Friday morning.
Tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to CIM-ORT.
Until now, all of my working life has been spent in the Israeli education system. Before coming to Mexico, I was the Principal at the 1100-student Western Galilee Junior High & High School, now affiliated to World ORT in Israel. During this time, I made big changes in the way that the school’s teaching staff worked with the students. I am no stranger to change; my Masters Degree at the University of Haifa was on change in educational organizations.
After nine years in the role, I felt that it was time to move on. Two opportunities opened up to take positions in Mexico, one of which was as Director General at the Colegio Israelita de México. Since the school already had a good relationship with World ORT, I knew that I would receive the support I needed in this role.
What did you see at the school which needed doing differently when you arrived? How have you gone about effecting change?
CIM had been known as one of the top schools in Mexico, but when I arrived it was struggling with its reputation and ability to attract students. I was hired specifically to help the school with boosting its image and improving the quality of education.
I dedicated my first year at the school to changing the way in which the school’s administration and organizational hierarchy worked. The different schools on the campus – kindergarten, junior high, high – worked very separately. Given that many of the students stay all the way through from kindergarten to high school, this was not an ideal arrangement for establishing a sense of educational continuity.
My goal was to build a senior management team, with a common vision for the schools. This was not so easy because it took time for colleagues to understand that I wanted to take decisions with them and that I needed them to give their opinions openly. I did not want a team of yes-men!
Having put the organizational management in place, it was important to also empower the teaching staff and make them appreciate that they can affect what goes on. We set up a voluntary focus group of 20 teachers, who were tasked with suggesting pedagogical changes which the school would benefit from.
The main pedagogical change we have made is introducing project-based learning into the classroom – be that the kindergarten, the primary school or the high school. The high school is developing a methodology of integrated learning, through encouraging students to engage with case studies – like the learning style of Harvard Business School. The rationale for this is that students do not learn by being passive recipients; they learn through doing. Case studies are a good way of training students to ask questions, to investigate and to learn independently.
Whilst the original 20 teachers from the focus group were on board with this, we still needed to convince the remainder of the 100-strong teaching staff that this was a positive change of direction. I believe that 30% of them are with us very passionately. Another 50% will wait and see how everything develops, and gradually come on board. Inevitably, the remaining 20% will find it very hard. We are putting on capacity-building training to support teachers in adjusting to this new way of working.
What differences have you noticed between working at a school in Mexico and at a school in Israel?
One of my primary goals as an educational leader is to foster a strong sense of teamwork in my school. I worked very hard on this in Israel, but have found it more challenging in Mexico – for a funny reason. Mexican culture is generally more hierarchical; employees are very obliging and are expected to obey their bosses. It is very different in Israel, where the first person you disobey is your boss! Israeli employees need to be convinced of your leadership credentials. So whilst it may seem easier in Mexico, there is a risk that people have only been won over superficially. I have therefore stressed the importance of my staff being as open with me as possible.
I have also found that whilst in Israeli schools it is sometimes easy to take for granted the students’ connection with Israel and Judaism, in Mexico this has to be consciously considered and thought about the whole time.
What kinds of relationships have you built between CIM-ORT and schools at both a local and international level?
The Va’ad HaChinuch (Jewish educational council) in Mexico City works hard to bring together the different principals from the different Jewish schools across the city – for example, by conducting visits to each other’s schools. Developing cooperation is a challenging task because the different schools are effectively in competition with each other: we are all competing for a limited pool of students. My view is that even though we are competitors, we cannot afford not to cooperate at the same time.
On a wider scale, we are developing relationships with two private Christian schools in Mexico City – one of these projects is focussed on Holocaust education. We are also participating in a university sports project, which involves a variety of other schools in the city. I would like to develop more links with local schools. My sense is that once we re-establish our reputation as a leading educational light in Mexico City, other schools will be more interested in collaborating with us.
At an international level, the school values its membership of the ORT network, but our connection is not as effective as I found it to be in Israel. We feel ORT’s involvement less in day-to-day matters, probably as a result of our perceived distance from the focus of activities in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. I would like to establish a closer relationship with ORT organizations in South America, but the physical distances between us are still enormous! It is still early days.
What has been the highlight of your work so far in Mexico?
Being consciously aware that I am a shelicha – an emissary – from the State of Israel, and that my overriding purpose is to bring the spirit of Israel to Mexico and to develop the best possible Jewish education that I can in Mexico.