Brad Johnson, at right, with second- and third-year nursing students and co-researchers who worked on a project examining the learning styles of faculty and students at the University of Calgary campus, Qatar.

Faculty and Staff

New TLC director brings rich middle eastern experience to the job

March 30, 2017
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When Brad Johnson flew out of Abu Dhabi at 2 a.m. on March 2, 2017 it was a sultry 30 degrees C. When he landed in Vancouver the same afternoon at 12:30 p.m. after a 22-hour flight that crossed the dateline, it was snowing and 0 C.

That stark contrast aptly mirrors his experiences as an educator in the Middle East over the past seven-and-a-half years—experiences he says will enhance his new position as director of SFU’s Teaching and Learning Centre.

Armed with a PhD in educational technology, Johnson’s first job in the Middle East was as director of the Faculty Development Centre for the University of Calgary’s (UC) campus in Dohar, Qatar. The UC runs a bachelor of nursing program there staffed entirely with Canadian faculty

“No amount of preparation prepares you for being there,” says Johnson, who moved there with his wife, Brigitte, and six-year-old daughter Julie, in 2009.

“Everything is so different. It really was the adventure we hoped it would be.”

He recalls his first day in the classroom, where he was confronted with an all-female class of nursing students wearing hijabs, one-third of them veiled.

His first thought?

“How will I know if they understand the lessons, when I can only see their eyes?”

He soon learned, however, that the eyes truly are the window to the soul, and that he could evaluate students’ comprehension.

Brad Johnson with nursing students at UC, Qatar.

Conversations with students, he says, were the key to his success at UC, where he was honoured with a “U Make a Difference” award initiated and supported by his peers.

“I started to learn just how different the student context is, how they had been raised, and how strong and rich their family ties are. I learned so much about their perspectives. It had a huge impact on how I taught, and how I worked with faculty in the development centre.”

For instance, he discovered that most students have little time to study because family obligations always come first. Study time was often relegated to 11 p.m. or later, leaving them tired during classes.

“How you interact with students is affected by that,” he says.

Faculty were often frustrated with the students’ educational background. Their kindergarten to Grade 12 experience was one of rote memorization, leaving them ill-prepared for a western education based on a much more interactive, exploratory model.

“Teaching strategies that worked in Canada often didn’t work there,” he says. “We had to develop variations on bridging programs for language and academic skills.”

In 2015, Johnson moved to Zayed University’s Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates, to become director of the Center for Educational Innovation, a teaching and learning centre.

This time, his biggest challenge was working with faculty members hailing from 43 different countries, all of whom had different perceptions on what teaching is about.

He focussed on teaching processes, and increased faculty involvement in the TLC from five to 35 per cent.

He has now joined SFU’s TLC and says he is excited to work with his team and with faculty to explore teaching processes and to learn from, and share, the successes at SFU.

He expects his biggest challenge, however, will be understanding how the University can indigenize the curriculum.

“People want to know what that is,” he says. “Nobody has an answer. Probably that’s a good thing. There’s lots of space to explore and have conversations about what that may look like in the classroom.”

Sunsets in the Middle East, says Johnson, are always beautiful. He enjoyed the lifestyle as well, noting that he always felt safe there—where doors were never locked and wallets left behind in cafes were still there when you remembered to look for them.