Reflections From 10 Years in Global Education
Today, in both the United States and around the world, I find there is more apprehension about the future than at any other point in my life (and despite long being associated with recent college graduates, I just turned 50). I see it in my travels as a board member of Teach For America and the CEO of Teach For All, and I feel it as a mother of four. Due to the polarization of our politics and the volatility of world events, many people are feeling edgy, including me.
But fear is not the full story.
There is also hope, and I find much of it in the young leaders around the world who are full of courage, ingenuity, and optimism, and are taking on the challenges we face in communities all over the world, from Afghanistan to Argentina, Nepal to Nigeria, Uganda to Ukraine.
I have the privilege to meet many of these social entrepreneurs, teachers, and advocates through our global network of independent, locally led partner organizations that are galvanizing the energy of their nation’s most promising leaders into the arena of working with the most vulnerable children. Teach For All turned 10 last fall, and our network partners represent nearly a quarter of United Nations members.
The global perspective that I’ve gained over the last decade, together with lessons from my earlier tenure as founder of Teach For America, has brought me to a few reflections about what it will take to overcome the challenges of these times that we’re living in.
First, we need to make an intentional effort to cultivate collective leadership.
No doubt influenced by the American culture I grew up in, I used to think of our organizations’ work in terms of fostering individual leadership. I focused on the power of an individual teacher to change her students’ lives and on the potential of pioneering social entrepreneurs to change our collective trajectory.
But as I’ve continued my journey, I’ve come to understand the power and importance of developing collective leadership. A single teacher or social entrepreneur can be game-changing, to be sure, but it will take them and students and parents and community leaders and policymakers and other stakeholders all working together to make and sustain the meaningful progress we need.
Too often in my own country, deep tensions lurk beneath the surface and slow progress as good people keep their heads down and do all they can to push boulders up hills or to simply survive the days. There’s another way, and it involves bringing together diverse stakeholders — including those with the least stake in the status quo — for relationship-building, deep listening, collective reflection, and co-creation.
Former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor (and Teach For America alumnus) Kaya Henderson exemplified these traits. She created a Parent Cabinet and then met with them monthly. She held public meetings on how to improve struggling schools. And she sought input wherever she could, from high school hallways to the corner barbershop near Capitol Hill. Under Kaya’s leadership, DCPS became the fastest-improving urban school district in America.
Second, we need to reimagine education. That’s as true as it is trite — our outdated education model is poorly positioned to prepare today’s students to address the enormous challenges they’ll inherit from us. Communities need to step back — together — and really think about what they want to be true for their children and the outcomes they need to work towards to achieve their vision. By outcomes, I am not referring to data points. Rather I mean the competencies, mindsets, values, agency, and awareness that students will need to navigate the turbulent economy and solve increasingly complex societal problems.
Consider the Maya Musical, which Teach For India used as a vehicle to advance values, academics, and the students’ exposure. Teach For India students and Broadway artists collaborated on the production, but the intended outcome was far more than a show. In addition to rehearsals there were sharing circles. Skits, songs, and dances were used not just to entertain but to help learn new concepts, values, and mindsets. The students’ desks were rarely in rows — in fact, the students were rarely at their desks — but through this experience students learned to challenge the status quo, to ask questions, and to promote kindness. This is what it looks like to reimagine education.
Third, we can move so much more quickly when we’re learning from each other across borders.
Over the last decade, I’ve learned that while there are indeed vast differences between countries, there are also remarkable similarities in the roots of the inequities that face children. Poverty, discrimination, poor nutrition and health care services, inequitable distribution of resources, low expectations, schools that aren’t equipped to meet extra needs — these are just a few of the systemic injustices that hold millions of children back from fulfilling their potential all around the world.
The silver lining in facing common afflictions is that the DNA of the solutions will also be common, even as the particulars will vary from one place to another. And yet, in education, we spend precious little time and money working to learn from each other across borders. As one example, in public health 21 percent of foreign aid goes to fostering global learning and sharing. In education, it’s 3 percent.
We’re shortchanging ourselves. Teach For All’s Global Learning Lab studies high-performing classrooms around the world that foster students’ leadership and expand their future opportunities. Then, through in-person and virtual visits, online workshops, virtual courses and more, teachers have the opportunity to generate and share insights, resources, and learning experiences. The Lab has proven that what works in a classroom in Colombia can help improve a classroom in the Philippines.
Even during these precarious times, I’d much rather be where we are now than where we were a decade ago. Because of the rising generation of leaders who are determined to ensure that today’s children have the education, support, and opportunity to shape a better future for themselves and all of us, I have hope.