With no real resources, Teachers Without Borders began as a global casting call for people intrinsically motivated by ideas—enough so to act upon them. People who know how to make compromises, yet never be compromised. Resilient and unflappable people who think more about removing obstacles than building empires. People with street cred, yet comfortable around those with power. People who challenge the status quo as well as their own assumptions.
I had to design Teachers Without Borders around the concept of a fabulous classroom where teachers are facilitators of ideas, rather than funnels or fonts, of information—a classroom where leadership serves more as a catalyst than a lecturer. I had to test whether that catalyst could spark (amongst teachers – the busiest people on earth) an even greater kind of chemical reaction necessary to build not just momentum, but also a movement itself – and without any dependence on me or remote control global change from a laptop in Seattle.
In short, if I claim that “brains are evenly distributed worldwide,” then I would have to prove it and engage with those brains. And if I spout the rhetoric that “teachers are not born or made, but simply show up,” then I – too – had to show up. I had to learn more about what drives individuals to believe in professional growth when, more often than not, they are unrewarded. What is it that keeps that intrinsic flame going when everything conspires against taking that extra effort? Why, after getting beaten up or being publicly ostracized as infidels, they do not cower in fear or abandon the school, but get on the bus – the very next day – to educate their colleagues in a community center hours away? Or what priorities did they wrestle with in order to face a price-gouging internet café in order to connect with each other and share ideas?
Elie Wiesel once related a story about how his parents were different from others, because instead of interrogating him every day about how his performance in school, they inquired: “Did you ask any good questions today?”
I wanted to know why so many Indian teachers had joined TWB. I wanted to listen and to learn, not in order to fix anything or enlighten anyone. I had enough sense not to clutch at preconceived notions about the right answers to what ails education. Not at home in the U.S. and certainly not around the world. I did have some good questions, and I wanted to hear theirs.
A handwritten letter had been sitting on my desk for a while – an invitation from a woman in Ahmadebad, India to visit and start something there. I dug it out and read it again.
Deepmala Khera offered to gather teachers to introduce the concept of Teachers Without Borders. It seemed so fitting. Ahmadebad is the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati ashram, instrumental in spawning his non-violent movement for India’s independence and his 24-day, 240-mile act of civil disobedience—the Salt Satyagraha—a truth-telling march and global awareness campaign focusing on a single issue of making salt without paying exorbitant British Raj salt taxes. Salt became the symbol of the people’s sweat and the product of their labors, a self-organizing, mobilization campaign, a kind of “Occupy India” spirit capable of capturing the imagination and catalyzing the change from enslavement and liberation.
I thought, only teachers can keep that imagination alive and build a lasting peace. Ahmadebad would be a perfect setting for gathering teachers from regions in conflict to discuss educational issues that truly matter to them. But Deepmala was worried about the growing tension between Hindu and Muslim teachers, the displacement of tens of thousands of families as a consequence of India’s explosive commercial rise, and a growing disparity between haves and have-nots, made that much more visually striking by the proliferation of television.
After a few days in Delhi visiting large NGOs, I traveled to Gujarat and wound my way to Deepmala’s neighborhood, having taken at least four forms of transportation. Ahmadebad is an urban ganglia of ornate European colonial buildings and makeshift mom-and-pop shops. Here, life runs at two speeds simultaneously. A cloud of sheep lope across a time-lapse Koyaanisqatsi blur of four lanes of chaotic traffic and daring u-turns. Women wearing navy-blue and peach sarees walk in silky slow-motion along the side of the highway, carrying large bowls on their heads, undisturbed by the din of auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws, cars, and bejeweled buses. A man crosses the street by taking predictable steps while the swarm knots up in a nest, then pinballs ahead as if he were a ghost. The air carried the thick grapefruit smell of diesel mixed with Durian fruit, the muskiness of a farm mingled with the intoxicating aroma of samosas frying at street-side snack shacks.
I made it in one piece and knocked on the door. No answer. Once again, I was a stranger in a strange land, dropped off a dozen time zones away and left holding my bags. Several heads appeared from apartments above, framed by a Paul Klee network of clotheslines and power cables. Some were curious, others obviously irritated. I could not understand the chatter, but it had the distinct feel of gossip. I vowed to add Gujarati to a growing list of year-round resolutions, reminded again that facility with languages remains the single most effective breakthrough skill for anyone attempting to work on the international stage.
I figured I would walk around, playing the helpless, lost American card in the hopes of finding a sympathetic face to whom I could present a piece of paper with Deepmala’s name on it, written in Hindi.
There was no need. “Dr. Fred! You made it!”
Deepmala was returning from her teaching job, breathless, waving. “Dr. Fred! Dr. Fred! Mr. Fred! Fred Mednick!” I felt like the neighborhood intruder, the one whose name everyone would remember.
As she approached, I saw a little girl holding her hand, her valise bouncing as she did her best to keep up with Deepmala’s long strides. Behind her, at least a dozen more children. She let them scamper ahead, one lucky one entrusted with her key.
Once inside, I saw an open room. The furniture had been pushed aside. Butcher paper was taped to her four walls from the floor up. A single table held art supplies: colored pencils and pastels. In the corner, bottled water and snacks and a pile of unopened boxes.
The children knew what to do the moment they entered the room. Two boys, Shaival and Dilip, drew on Deepmala’s poster walls with a sense of passionate urgency, while others waited patiently. One child after another would call for her attention and she would glide over, cooing over the piece as if were a magnificent discovery of fine art. She surrounded each child with hope, resilience, consistency, clarity, and irrepressible charm.
“Who wants to draw a bowl of fruit?” “Who wants to draw an elephant?” “Who wants to draw anything you want?” “Show me!”
And as the children turned to their creations, Deepmala circulated amongst them. Should they tussle over colors or compete for her attention, the issue would be resolved quickly. She never raised her voice. Manju, the little girl holding her hand, never left Deepmala’s side.
They came back day after day after day. Drawings. Games. Reading circles. Bottled water and snacks.
These were children who did not go to school, children who picked through rags. Some, she said in terms nuanced enough to soar over the heads, were susceptible to an insidious network of human trafficking. She was both protecting and educating them, she said. All I saw was love.
One day, she pulled out a roll of pictures. “The World Trade Center,” she said. “They hadn’t seen a TV, but they were listening to the radio when it happened. Here’s what they drew.” The buildings had faces. The bodies falling were tears.
I had arranged this trip to overlap with Diwali, a festival of lights in which clay lamps are often lit with oil. It felt, well, downright Hanukkah to me. I’d have the opportunity both to see schools in action and to meet teachers and students during the break. Besides, the fifth day of Diwali, Yama Dvitiya, involves sisters inviting brothers to their homes. It felt right to me.
We traveled to the place where salt was made, desolate from drought and devastated from an earthquake in Bhuj, the Kutch region of Gujarat that January 26th, India’s Republic Day. Multi-storied buildings had dissolved and flattened, killing between 12,000-13,000 people. I saw fissures in the earth that seemed to have been made with an unconscionably high amount of sand, without reinforcement. I asked about whether schools in the region knew about preparation and planning in order to mitigate against such a disaster. They knew nothing.
In Gujurat it was clear that earthquakes can be as much a national, as they are a natural, disaster. A prescription for a nightmare. They decimate the poorest and most densely populated communities living atop a recognized (and often shallow) fault line in unreinforced buildings. Recognized fault lines follow the rules of science. But under the surface, unrecognized fault lines any act of God that much more devastating. I saw there (and have seen all too often since) that corruption, neglect, or active disregard of building codes is an avoidable structural hazard. Unaddressed or dismissed, the social contract of a society simply implodes.
The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), always valued the social contract. As a result of a national campaign to reduce the number of diesel buses, resourceful organizations like SEWA transformed them into mobile schools. In the middle of an earthquake zone, many were flourishing.
SEWA was organized as a trade union comprised of poor, unprotected, self-employed women workers. Over time, they attended to the social, cultural, and economic services necessary to sustain employment: banking, midwifery, health-care, child-care, insurance, legal, housing, and infrastructure support. For SEWA, capacity building and self-sufficiency are pillars of dignity and measurements of success. If society were a building, education was the rebar necessary to reinforce it and withstand the tremor.
I traveled with SEWA to learn more about non-formal education, particularly of young women and mothers unable to attend or access schools.
On a farm in a remote rural area, women farmers were being taught how to read, having never seen their name in print. SEWA had convinced the community to convert an abandoned stable into a classroom. Dhara Narendra Patel and Ami Balvadan Shelat spent several minutes walking about the village, reconnecting with the women in ways that felt like a visit to see old friends Soon, a group was assembled, slates distributed, and instructions given.
This could be our lucky day, they explained. This could be the day when everyone assembled could experience success. Dhara and Ami made it clear that success would be measured only when every one of the students received 20 out of 20 on the test. They were to mark their slates. (no iPads here). The incentive for learning was clear: if I help you, you will help me, and if we help each other, we all win.
This was cooperative learning at its best, an idea that may have originated here or traveled here, but was now a part of the culture and fabric of learning itself. And it was a successful idea, a verifiable example of integrating curriculum with assessment, method with outcome, peer support and local leadership. Most of all, it was a symbol of dignity. And it didn’t require electricity.
Back in Ahmadebad, we visited a community science center that served as a magnet for innovative science teaching, creativity, and imagination. scampered about, conducting experiments, reading in the library, studying animals, working in groups. It is important to note that this was not a school day, but rather a great way, according to the children, to spend their free time. Clearly, this setting allows for children to explore their ideas in a way that feels both serious and playful.
Dr. B. R. Sitarma made stroboscopes with children, having glued ubiquitiously available bindis onto cardboard. He demonstrated principles of motion with shoelaces and bicycle wheels. He created a truly-focusing camera with cardboard paper rolls, for the prince of 20 rupees, and a double-coned experiment demonstrating the center of gravity using a ruler and cone. With spokes or straws, beads or tape, Dr. Sitaram can make a wave machine. Outside, he used playground equipment to demonstrate physics.
With common materials, Dr. Sitaram was able to engage hearts, minds, and imagination. No wonder Deepmala chose him to keynote a conference she had been organizing, on behalf of Teachers Without Borders.
During the few days I was traveling, Deepmala had managed to gather teachers from all sectors of Gujarati society. Hindu and Muslim teachers, government and private school teachers, teachers from different castes. She had put the children to work, assembling packets of materials from the boxes I had spied in the corner of her room the first day we met.
Deepmala titled the conference with a question: “Shall We Stay the Same?” Such an open-ended rhetorical question would allow teachers to learn from their peers so that they would not experience the life-deflating consequences of having been left behind. This would be an opportunity to stretch, interact with colleagues, de-escalate conflict, and to challenge the status quo.
They did exactly that. Teachers divided into working groups to discuss the issues they cared about the most. They concluded the conference by calling for a global, flexible, online and offline, culturally sensitive teacher professional development program. They wanted it to yield a Certificate of Teaching Mastery.
They wanted to learn from and with each other and on a global scale. They imagined a core of teacher training material, yet a chance to update it, translate it, adapt and remix it to meet local or contemporary needs. They sketched out a system of multi-lingual cohorts working online and offline, supplementing teacher education, enhancing professional development, providing options, connecting interest groups, and influencing policy.
The conference was punctuated by two powerful presentations. The first, a play written and performed by high-school students, described the feeling of emptiness and passivity in older forms of education and stressed the need for change, engagement, and innovation.
The second was a surprise. Deepmala Khera had told her after-school group of children that teachers were students, too, and that they needed to be the best possible so that they could light the way for them. She had arranged for the children to be freshly scrubbed and adorned in the finest clothes she could wrangle.
The children entered the front door, single file, presenting each teacher with a candle placed in the middle of each CD they had adorned with flowers, patterns and the words: “Spread the Light.” They sang the song, “Don’t Let the Light Go Out.”
In the middle of their song, the electricity did, indeed, fail. At first, the children looked to Deepmala to find out if they should stop or keep trying. Without saying a word, they understood and continued to sing and present the CD-candles, their faces effused with a warm glow. Each version was strengthened more and more with the sounds of teachers singing, many with tears in their eyes.
Teachers Without Borders not only had a new program, but also a new group of catalysts to nurture it along. It is alive and well today.
The Certificate of Teaching Mastery was born there. An outline for five courses was created and I was off making a case for a platform that would incorporate the kind of functionality that would create a global community of learners.
Before long, teachers in twenty-three countries weighed in. And just when we finished, our good idea and conviction was shattered, sparked by a fire on a sleeper coach on a passenger train, sparking riots setting Ahmadebad ablaze and resulting in the deaths of up to 800 Muslims and over 250 Hindus.
We all knew that our conference was a diverse cross-section of teachers from a city on the edge. I thought it would all evaporate.
I was wrong. Good ideas can endure. In the middle of the riots, a teacher sent an email: “Teachers don’t kill each other,” she said.
Ten years after the conflagration in Ahmadebad, the Certificate of Teaching Mastery has taken on a life of its own. She told me that the two boys drawing pictures, Shaival and Dilip, had opened a tea shop and were doing well. Manju, on the other hand, stood up and opposed her parents as they tried to force her into marriage at the age of 16. “I feel guilty sometimes that I did not follow through and hold all their hands for just a bit longer.”
Much has changed in Ahmadebad. The kids have grown up. Other things, like great teachers—stay the same.