Children in South Africa

Outside My Window

How the answers to one question have driven my career

When Celie questions, a space opens. 
Alice Walker, The Color Purple

High-school principals are tyrannized by the urgent. They navigate real crises and tempests in teapots in the same day. They show up early and leave late. More often than not, their days are a blur, their evenings are not their own — followed by night sweats.

By any measure, I had it good, despite the occasional crisis. I was in the enviable position of running an excellent independent school secure in its reputation, nestled on a hill in a safe, expensive neighborhood just around the corner from Curt Cobain’s former residence. Parents did not treat me like a piñata, the faculty was committed, and the students engaged. The school was alive with a spirit of learning and innovation. During a particularly rare and promising Seattle Mariners season, I canceled class and took the entire school to the playoffs.

But I was bored. It had been twenty-five years since I felt that shared intellectual exuberance in Dorothy Overly’s class. I appealed to, and won, the Board of Trustees’ support for a reduced schedule so that I could pursue my doctoral studies in educational leadership. The faculty were supportive and took on extra responsibilities. Within months, I was a student again.

I may have lost friends and any semblance of a reasonable life along the way, but for three and a half years, I pursued my studies with a missionary zeal, often setting my alarm for 4:30 am in order to get in at least an hour-and-a-half of study before school, staggering home after games or parent evenings.

It was worth it, for a new century was coming. Strangers asked questions of strangers. The internet was exploding with ideas, some insightful, others manic and troubling. A new class of digital and information haves and have nots was emerging. The world was complex, yet more accessible, upending assumptions, confounding pundits, inspiring entrepreneurs to take risks.

A year into my doctoral studies about global perspectives on the qualities of an educated teen for the 21st century, I had been gazing outside my office window in the late afternoon. The grounds felt gentle. A gardener was clipping hedges. Students chatted while playing hacky-sack.

I, however, was exhausted. I had been free to explore a new path for myself, yet somehow — even with a new set of colleagues at the university — I felt claustrophobic and ashamed for feeling this way. I scolded myself for whining. I turned on NPR while I packed my briefcase and shuffled a few papers. On NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Linda Wertheimer reported: “A student militia has taken control of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. The extremist Muslim group known as the Taliban seized the capital today after two days of fighting with forces of a coalition government.” How could extremism flourish in a world of information? How can kids get an education in a war zone? How can we prepare teens for an irrational world? The world I saw outside my window was precious and removed. I felt that much more disconnected. I longed to be in and of the world, rather than a bystander, studying from afar.

What do the world’s teachers see outside their windows? How might their view inform their reflections about education itself? I searched for a business card of an education specialist at the World Bank who had graciously agreed to disseminate a survey, but I decided to start with the same question I had experienced: “What do you see outside your window?” By the time I arrived home, I had shaped various iterations of the question, so that when teachers responded, I would be able to follow up with more.

I called my doctoral chair, who loved the question, “What do you see outside your window?” but saw no connection to the intent of the study, no less the literature review. Besides, he intoned patiently, the question would not reveal reliable data I could code. Too many variables. Too weird. Too chatty. I asked the question anyway, expecting a slow start. For me, there is little learning or engagement if there is no relationship. One question about one’s experience could lead to questions I could code consistently or leverage for deeper analysis. I have always operated from the

With humility and grace, teachers flooded my email with articulate, generous stories about the views outside their windows. Windows facing brick walls. No windows at all. Windows in prison literacy-group sessions. Broken windows. Rectangles replaced by an x-pattern of iron bars. Windows facing tenement buildings.

I received messages about sounds and smells outside of windows. The Doppler whine and fade of ambulances approaching and receding, screaming, garbage, urine, hay, jack- diesel fumes. Story after story of fear, isolation, pride. I returned every message, every evening, unable to help myself from inquiring more about the personal than the professional. I apologized for not taking my chair’s advice. What view do you want outside your window? In your classroom? What will education look like outside my window in twenty years? Who are you? And I would ask myself, who am I, who are we?

The return rate on my questionnaires was extraordinary, the highest the university had ever seen. My professors helped me design a way to leverage the momentum developed by the intimacy of these global conversations. I predicted a huge drop-off, but somehow they stuck with it. It was now a mix of personal and professional responses. Relationship does matter. I was reminded of The Color Purple. Alice Walker writes, “When Celie questions, a space opens.” Those stories and questions opened the space for Teachers Without Borders.

On one particularly pivotal day, a teacher from Norway and another from Nicaragua described what they saw outside their windows. The Norwegian, feeling trapped by a tunnel of dark days, longed to bask in the sun. The Nicaraguan teacher, drained by the monotony of feverish, sepia-toned heat and bars on her classroom windows, expressed her longing to see snow for the first time. I connected the two, and what followed was a set of interactions so rich, so filled with humility, hospitality, and friendship, that I announced my resignation from my comfortable job as a principal in 2000 and launched Teachers Without Borders (TWB), a global non-profit designed to connect teacher development with global challenges.

More than a decade and a half later, with a tiny staff and an army of volunteers, Teachers Without Borders has been embraced by members in 177 countries. When something happens in the world, I contact a teacher who lives there. And when I do, I’m never disappointed. TWB is an organization comprised of teacher leaders, worldwide. All TWB programs are conceived and led by teachers.

Fifteen years ago, UNESCO numbered the global teaching corps at 59 million. Today, at over 65 million, teachers are the largest professionally-trained group in the world. They know who is sick or missing or orphaned by AIDS. Teachers are the ones with their ear to the ground, checking sensitively to every community’s pulse. Under a tree or in a cramped room with a tin roof, in war-zones or in temporary child-safe shelters following a natural or national disaster, or in air-conditioned, high-bandwidth wireless state-of-the-art buildings, they remain true catalysts of change, the acupuncture points of our society, and the glue that holds our world together.

Those who seek to tear a society down attack its pillars — the teachers. Remember the advice to slave-owners not to educate slaves. In many settings around the world, the view outside one’s window may appear bleak — the ravages of climate change, whole communities at risk from civil unrest, inequality, whole nations dissolving into failed states. But teachers? They carry on day after day after day.

Teachers don’t have time — but somehow, they make time — for students, their parents, and their communities. Teachers who don’t have much pocket change, but they make change anyway. Teachers have few resources, so they fashion them from local materials, their own creativity, and from the expertise of their colleagues. Teachers don’t have publicity firms, but nonetheless summon the inner strength to reach thousands, regardless of who is looking.

Dismiss this view of teachers as rhapsodic or quixotic, naïve, even wrong. Point out stories of abusive or incompetent teachers, teachers who cheat, teachers shuttled off to meaningless desk jobs because they disappoint children and their colleagues, teachers who sleepwalk and slouch toward retirement.

For every one of those, I’ll show you a hundred teachers who create safe environments to learn in unsafe neighborhoods. Teachers who brake for garage sales and clip coupons to purchase supplies their schools can’t provide, even though their real salary (factoring in tutoring, preparation, after-school obligations, professional development, even house calls) is closer to subsistence wages. Teachers who simply do what it takes support teaching and learning, but go ahead to perform acts of conscience in their classrooms the very next day.

I learned one fundamental lesson from the first question I asked. Brains are evenly distributed around the world, but education is not. From that moment on, Teachers Without Borders would connect those brains in order to fill gaps on their own terms. Their voices would be heard. We would find a way to encourage sharing and scale the intimacy of teacher professional development.

The tyranny of the urgent is greater and the night sweats are worse. I am often overwhelmed by the scope of our mission. My late step-father once said, “Keep at it, even though you are a pimple on an elephant’s ass.” The news has become a daily briefing report. The refugee children streaming into Europe or across Central America on their way to a better life are extensions of my own family. I have seen much of the world’s seamier side. I question my sanity, I’m never satisfy, and I worry incessantly that we are not doing enough to serve teachers. But I am never bored, never ungrateful, and will never give up.

Someday, I hope to meet the Nicaraguan and Norwegian teacher who inspired me to start Teachers Without Borders. I am certain they have no idea how much they have changed my life, along with thousands of others who share our mission, our vision, our neurosis, our hope.