Outside My Window
When you’re a high-school principal, you’re tyrannized by the urgent. You navigate through real and imagined crises. You show up early and leave late. More often than not, your evenings are not your own.
And yet I had it good — really good. 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. No gangs, no embarrassing test scores, no lead paint. I was not treated like a piñata. The faculty were interesting, the parents accomplished, the students engaged.
What right did I have to complain? But I still felt hollow, lonely, disconnected. Raised by socialists, I could not make peace with having dedicated my life to the haves alone. Was this all a midlife crisis? Perhaps. Maybe I realized that the enormous tempests in teapots I took so seriously would, like many, evaporate…along with my life addressing them. The school was alive with a spirit of learning and innovation. Our faculty meetings were actually interesting. During a particularly rare and promising Seattle Mariner’s season, I cancelled school and took everyone to the playoffs. It was fun.
Is this not job satisfaction enough? Probably. I am antsy by nature, however, and pleaded with my faculty to allow me to embark upon doctoral studies. They gave me their blessing. And I felt as if I had come alive again. In class, we were introduced to refreshing global perspectives offered with eloquence by colleagues with a diverse set of experiences. We were faced with vexing challenges, for which there were no simple questions. We moved through the elegant chain of research methodolgy to sharpen our focus. On weekdays, I set my alarm for 4:30 am in order to get in at least an hour-and-a-half of study commuting to school. Weekends were filled with charity auctions and playoffs, interspersed with marathon study sessions, research, and papers.
At one of my daughters’ dance performances in a middle-school gym, I remember sitting on the bleachers, books piled on my lap and notes sitting precariously on the thin planks to the left and right of me, only to see them plummet spectacularly through the gap. Panicked, I squeezed past spectators and squirreled into the dark cavernous triangle beneath to gather them up at the very moment my children swirled onto the gym floor to the sound of “Man in the Mirror.”
My parents once told me a story how Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner used to come home from school each day, Dr. Wiesel’s parents did not grill him about whether or not he got good marks. Rather, they asked: “Did you ask any good questions today?” I had plenty of my own, and I have always felt that curiosity is the soul of education.
It was all worth it, but not enough. A new century was coming. The internet was exploding. In The Color Purple, Alice Walker writes: “When Celie questions, a space opens.” I felt as if I could breathe again. Piqued and inspired, I longed to be in and of the world, rather than a bystander, studying it. I remember looking outside my window one late Monday afternoon, exhausted, lonely, claustrophobic, even ashamed of myself for feeling this way. I was supported in my quest to earn my doctorate. I decided to study the qualities of an educated young person for the 21st century and so began to reach out to teachers.
To get the conversation going, I asked them to describe what they saw outside their windows, to reflect upon and share their views of education. I knew the question was a bit abstract. I feared that nobody would respond. I was, simply, curious. Somehow, the word got out. With humility and grace, teachers flooded me with generous, insightful stories about the views outside their windows. Teachers in war zones. Teachers with few resources. Teachers at the beginning and the end of their careers. They changed me. They still do.
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 dark northern days ahead, longed to bask in the sun. The Nicaraguan teacher, having suffered through weeks of unbearable heat, 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.
A decade and a half later, with a tiny staff and an army of volunteers, Teachers Without Borders has been embraced by members in 184 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.
Those who seek to tear a society down go after its pillars – the teachers. It’s a long, tragic legacy. 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: natural and national disasters, communities at risk, and countries in turmoil. But 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 who nonetheless summon the inner strength to reach thousands, regardless of who is looking.
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.
Go ahead, 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 100 teachers who create safe environments to learn in unsafe neighborhoods. Teachers who make little money, yet they brake for garage sales and clip coupons to purchase supplies their schools can’t provide. Teachers whose real salary (factoring in tutoring, preparation, after-school obligations, professional development, even house calls) is closer to subsistence wages. Teachers who don’t blame others or wait for an act of Congress to do what it takes support teaching and learning, but go ahead to perform acts of conscience in their classrooms the very next day.
Some day, I hope to meet the Nicaraguan and Norwegian teacher who inspired me to start Teachers Without Borders. They gave me the first push to be of service. They were the first of hundreds of thousands who have not let that momentum diminish for a moment.
And for that, I am deeply grateful. We all should be.