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Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

One of the first things ‘Love Support Unite’ did when they began working with the school in Mkunku village, Malawi was to create a women’s group. They had noticed that women didn’t speak up in the larger community meetings so, they wanted to create a space where women could share their thoughts and experiences. Here women could support one another and speak freely about taboo topics such as sexual abuse and their role in the community.

After the women’s group was established, the organizers at Love Support Unite noticed that women began to speak up more in the larger community meetings. At one meeting, there was talk about new construction related to the school. The male leaders declared that the women would carry the water necessary to make the bricks. In the past, this sort of direction went unchallenged. But on this day, the women spoke up. They said that only some women would carry the water and stipulated that they would not do so during the hottest hours in the middle of the day. The men would need to adjust their schedules around what the women were willing to do.

I love this story. It’s a story of women standing up for themselves in a community where their voices have not been historically valued. But it’s also a story of how outsiders can believe deeply in the importance of local self-determination without sacrificing their own commitment to cross-cultural rights like women’s empowerment.

We met with Lara, the co-founder of LSU, at a small table in the eating area of our hostel. She wore a purple t-shirt and spoke with passion about LSU’s approach to their work, “The village will say, ‘We need desks for the school, can you give us desks?’ And we have to remind them that we don’t give away resources. That’s not the type of work that we do.” This frustration with the historical approach to aid in Africa was echoed by another non-profit director we met. She said, “It’s difficult to teach people to grow their own food when, the next week, UNICEF or Feed the Children might show up and say, ‘Don’t worry about growing your own food. Here’s a check, go buy some.’”

School in Malawi

The type of work LSU does has less to do with resources and more to do with sharing technical knowledge and facilitating conversations. They bring in volunteers from England, but the community always does the vast majority of the work to keep the projects growing. Their greatest contribution seems to be expanding the community’s idea of what’s possible.

Of course, all of this work is centered around the new village school. Mkunku is operating in a context where they can’t expect anything from the government. This reality has forced the community to come together to problem solve a variety of challenges. The result is a school that’s remarkable in many ways. 1) The community built it, literally from dirt and water. 2) They are beginning to grow food to feed the students and the teachers. 3) They want to grow excess food to sell to be able to pay the teachers. 4) They are starting small businesses such as, a solar powered phone charging station and barber shop to further finance teachers and the school as a whole. 5) There are no desks, and that’s ok for now. Active engagement has a far more powerful effect on a school than material resources.

I find Mkunku a remarkable story. It’s a story that’s left me pondering the power of a community to find solutions when the possibility of resources from the government is written off completely. It has me thinking more deeply about what it means for a school to be part of a community, or more specifically, how a community can be part of its school.

  • Will

Photo Credit: Emma Scarborough

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

Elizabeth and I have a lot of experiences walking into classrooms. We’ve done it hundreds upon hundreds of times. The basics of the scene are generally the same. The teacher usually talks while students listen and take notes. Sometimes students work in groups or independently while the teacher circulates. Either way, it’s normally possible for us to find a few students to talk with. We ask students what they’re learning and if they can explain it to us. This is one of the most informative parts of any classroom visit. But at St. Andrews International School in Blantyre, Malawi our attempts at conversation were continuously foiled. The students were simply too busy working together to have time to talk with us.

We walked into a science classroom where students stood in groups of four around lit Bunsen burners. Each member of each group was focused and occupied. They were using sulfuric acid to make some kind of salt. Occasionally students would turn to each other to discuss observations or next steps and record their findings. The teacher circulated, but the only thing we heard him say was to emphasize elements of the safety protocols.

Next we were taken to an 8th grade classroom where students were preparing food. They chopped vegetables, walked around with pots of boiling water, and spoke quickly to one another. The teacher told us about the emphasis on healthy eating and about how after the pizza lesson last week many students went home and cooked for their families.

We visited a geography class where students were analyzing different methods countries use to control population growth around the world. In a French classroom, every student was engaged and the teacher consistently asked questions to put thinking on the class. When students made jokes, she laughed along with them and redirected the conversation.

We were invited to join a meeting of the heads of the math department and asked the department head about his priorities. “First you must love math. Love is contagious,” he said. “First comes love and then comes progress. If students don’t look forward to your class then you are failing. And ‘chalk and talk’ is not going to work.”

international school students cooking education

The visit ended in the drama classroom where students were finishing their monologue unit. Over a dozen students were spread around the room dressed in casual clothing (they change for drama class). Each of them was in the midst of an animated performance of their own monologue. As time passed, some would naturally pair up to offer one another feedback. At the end of class, students gathered to take turns videotaping their monologues so that, they could be sent to England for evaluation.

Like I said, Elizabeth and I have visited a lot of classrooms in a lot of schools. Sometimes we find a school where one or two classrooms have this level of student engagement, but we’ve never seen a school where the quality of engagement was so consistently high across every classroom. We were impressed, but we were also alarmed at how different St. Andrews was than the other schools in Malawi we’d seen or heard about.

St. Andrews is an International school, which means it teaches the British curriculum to the children of ex-patriots from around the world, as well as the local families who can afford it. Since the ex-pat community in Blantyre is relatively small, there are a large number of local students, but they come from the super-elite of Malawi society. Most people in Malawi make less than two dollars a day. St. Andrews costs tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Our experience with other schools in Malawi was very different. Most students are in overcrowded classrooms where they engage in antiquated curriculums that focus entirely on identification and repetition. They end up learning more about following directions than they do about the world. The result is an education according to one’s class. The wealthy learn to think, and the poor learn to listen.

The consequences of this reality are disheartening. Education should be the great equalizing force in a society, the foundation for development and social mobility. But the failure of this promise isn’t unique to Malawi. The way education perpetuates inequality in the United States may not be quite as pronounced as in Malawi, but that’s not saying much.

We can and should learn a lot from the quality of the learning at St. Andrews. But we can also use Malawi’s system as a whole as a window to judge our own. Do we think all students deserve access to the same educational opportunities? How many American families can afford to pay for college? What kind of country to we want to be?

  • Will

For more about the different types of education offered to students of different income levels in the US and Latin America, check out our previous post about poverty and education.

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

Phillip is a young man with a broad smile. He’s not a teacher, but the school where we’re sitting wouldn’t exist without him. He enjoys talking about how it all started; how he and the village chief met a British expat, named Kevin, and approached him about financing a school, “And then we needed bricks, and we could either buy bricks or we could make bricks. And since buying was too expensive, we decided to make the bricks.” He talks about how they built the ovens for the bricks, and how he contracted with bricklayers to make the buildings. And then there were issues with the government, who said they couldn’t open a school with only one building. So, they had to secure funding for a second building and make the bricks and create that building as well. Desks were built and latrines had to be dug. Phillip speaks with a smile on his face and a tone of kind-hearted ambition. When he finishes, I ask him something I ask of nearly everyone, “What are you most proud of?” He straightens his posture and smiles even more broadly, “I’m very proud because, before there was no school, and now we have a school. Now we have education.”

At first, I was enchanted by the story of the school. But as I visited classrooms and talked with students, that enchantment began to sour. I saw very little evidence that ‘education’ was taking place.

making bricks in malawi

Bricks must be stacked and burnt before they can be used in construction

I visited four classrooms. All of the rooms had students but only one had a teacher, and she was a visiting teacher from Belgium. The rest of the teachers were in the administration building, chatting and watching a Nigerian soap opera while students were left to socialize. In one classroom, I asked students to tell me something they had learned in class this week. After a bit of silence they began to stand, one at a time, “I am studying English.” “I am studying physics.” “I am studying math.” I thanked them and asked if they could tell me something more specific. After a brief silence, Mr. Bamda, the head-teacher escorting me, explained that their English wasn’t strong enough to answer that question. This struck me as problematic, since all of their national exams will be in English.

This school, about a 40min uphill walk along a dirt road from Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi, has a lot of advantages. There are several shelves of donated books and a room with computers (though no electricity). The school charges fees that limit class size. (It’s common at public schools for classes to expand to fifty or even ninety students per teacher, but here the largest class I saw was around twenty students.) The faculty all have college degrees and the students are so committed that, many of them travel for hours each morning to reach the school.

school resources education in malawi

The computer and resource room

Later on, I met with the teacher from Belgium who had been enthusiastically leading her class through a text. I asked what surprised her the most about education in Malawi, and she said it was the attitude of the teachers, “They will just write on the board and leave the room. They’ll give students an activity and then go watch a DVD. There is not the idea that, they have a role to play when students are working.” She was also frustrated with the prescribed English curriculum, which focuses almost entirely on grammar, identifying parts of speech in sentences disconnected from any larger context. “And they never practice speaking [English] because there is no speaking on the exam. But I don’t know how you can learn a language if you never speak it.”

I asked about student participation and she said that they’re not used to it, “You ask them what they think and they don’t know what to do, because no one ever asks them that. It’s all just listening or repeating what the teacher says.” Still she hasn’t given up, and a couple months in she has one class where students are getting more comfortable with the idea of sharing their ideas.

head-teacher school in malawi

Mr. Bamda

When I spoke with Mr. Bamda, he talked inspiringly about the need for education and the school’s goal of producing quality students who can contribute to the development of Malawi. He talked of the need for leaders in Malawi’s villages and the importance of listening to other people’s opinions. He spoke about how people need to understand that education is not just for white collar jobs but that, it can help everyone. A farmer with an education will be a better farmer than one without an education.

But it was also clear that, he hadn’t given much thought to what must be true in the day-to-day life of the school for these goals to become reality. He explained calmly that they do not choose what to teach but follow the government curriculum. When I asked what makes a good teacher, he talked mostly about a teacher’s dress. When I asked what he meant by a ‘quality’ student he described someone who has good behavior. When describing his challenges and priorities, he focused entirely on infrastructure projects like building a new administration building, houses for the teachers, a new class block, and a girls dorm*. Ideas like helping teachers to improve or creating opportunities for students, didn’t come up. At one point, he even said that he didn’t need to worry about the teachers.

When I think back to this school, my first feeling is still one of admiration. I didn’t expect to find a ‘model of excellence’ in a rural village of one of the world’s most undeveloped countries. In many ways the visit surpassed my expectations. It’s hard to imagine many communities in the US organizing to build a school from mud, water, and cement. But there is an unavoidable sadness around my reflections as well. I think about parents around the community struggling to save for school fees, and the students who walk for hours each day as an investment in their education, and I wonder what, if anything, the sacrifices will bring.

The school exists, and people seem to be content with that fact. The resources inside are confused for the learning they’re meant to facilitate. Students show up, and there is an assumption that they must then be receiving an education. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. It actually takes a lot of focused effort to turn a school building into a place where education happens.


*The school does seem to be fairly progressive in its commitment to girls’ education. Phillip explained that the motivation for this came from the international community. He also explained that while it’s OK for boys to commute, girls should live at the school because, if they live at home, they end up being tasked with all of the labors around the house and can’t get away to attend school.

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

Every school has a vision statement nowadays but most don’t take them very seriously. I remember talking with a student in Baton Rouge several years ago about his school. “Everybody is always talking about helping us ‘Be Great,’” he said, referencing the school’s vision. “But they’re not even giving us the tools to be alright.”*

I recently spoke with the head teacher at a school made of mud bricks in rural Malawi. He was quick to hand me the school’s vision statement, which talked about preparing students to contribute to the future development of Malawi. But when I asked what he wanted to prioritize to make that vision a reality, he raised his arms and laughed.

James Baldwin, the great black American writer and intellectual, has a line about how artists and revolutionaries are both “possessed by a vision and that, they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it.” Most educators talk about vision as something that provides direction. But it was this more radical idea, of a vision that possesses and drives that came to mind when Elizabeth and I met Dee Moodley, Blended Learning Lead and instructional coach at SPARK schools in South Africa.

Dee is a remarkable woman. She is quick to laugh and reflexively curious. She’s concise and passionate in her views but also eager for feedback. When you talk with her, the conversation seems to almost overflow with ideas and reflections gathered through her almost two decades of experience.

Dee Moodley

Dee Moodley

When Dee talks about SPARK’s vision, the ideas are inextricably linked with the priorities to make that vision a reality. SPARK wants their children to be able to compete on an international level, so they use the most rigorous international curriculums. Most schools in South Africa let out around 1:00. SPARK goes until 4:30. The vision is also a central part of the teacher recruitment process, “We’re employing individuals for what they believe in… We need teachers to believe that children can succeed. One-hundred percent. And that’s not a dream for me, it’s a reality.” But making it a reality for other teachers can be tricky. Many teachers who come to SPARK have been in schools where the students struggle to meet the much more basic local standards. So, getting them to expect students to master the most rigorous curriculums in the world can be challenging. (For more on the holistic support systems SPARK creates for its teachers, check out our previous post)

One teacher with almost 10 years of experience talked to us about how starting at SPARK was disempowering. Initially he felt that the expectations were too high and the rigor too fast-paced, “and your planning is different because the outcomes you’re going to reach are completely different than what you’re used to.” But he was originally attracted to SPARK by the vision and values so, he chose to see the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Now, this sense of continuous growth is what he enjoys most about SPARK.

Several other teachers had similar stories. Taking the vision seriously made their work much more difficult, but it also made the work more rewarding. In every group we spoke with, people would bring up SPARK’s vision as something that motivated them and bound them together. There was a clear pride in their conviction that, the school would do whatever it takes to make sure every student could succeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable comments came from Patience Ndlovu, a staff member who was first introduced to SPARK as a parent. She spoke about how she was initially skeptical of ‘these new schools,’ but when she first visited SPARK she was struck by the warmth that welcomed her. She was further impressed by the positive feedback from her child, “I could see that this is coming from an educator who is positive. The minds that created SPARK are coming right through to my little child. I was imagining this just seeping through the whole community and I just love that. I was thinking that this is where education should be going. That’s why I love being part of this, I don’t know, this goo juice seeping through to the next generation.” You know a school is truly vision aligned when a parent sees a direct link between the founders of the school and the attitude of her child.

At SPARK, the commitment to students (and to the personal growth necessary to help students) really is like a ‘goo juice’ that seeps into every decision at the school. Talking with the faculty, there is a sense that they are part of something exciting. Something that may have the potential to ripple across South Africa to redefine what people should expect from education. But for this greater vision to become a reality it will take a lot more than SPARK showing the way. It will take many more people who are willing to be possessed and driven by a new idea of what’s possible in education.

  • Will

This is our second post about our day at SPARK schools. Our first piece can be found here.

*This student, Dominique Ricks, has since gone on to graduate from college and become a teacher. He was recently voted ‘Teacher of the Year’ at his school outside of Baton Rouge.

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

We sat down with Hillary and Jody over lunch to talk about the Social Club they organize for students at the middle school in their community. We left quite impressed. Hillary is an alum of the program but neither of them have any kind of formal education training. They haven’t read a lot of youth development literature. They didn’t use the phrase ‘social-emotional learning.’ But they grew up in this community and they know that the children here need more than the content knowledge they get in school. They need a place, “to talk about their lives and the issues in their community.” What’s the goal of Social Club? Hillary hesitates and then raises her hands from the table, “I want them to change their idea about what is possible in the world.”

To arrive at the school, we had to drive through nearly the entire community. The streets are unmarked and the road is crumbling at the edges. There are many wooden shacks, but nearly as many larger brick homes, and an occasional two story house. Children walk and play in the street and adults cluster at the corners. In America we would describe the people here as black, but most of them identify as ‘colored’ – what Americans would call ‘light-skinned’ or ‘mixed.’ This was a distinction codified by apartheid and is still very real in South Africa. The first language in Kurland is afrikaans.

kurland south africa

Hillary asked us if we’d like to run Social Club for a day, and we happily agreed. The room the Social Club meets in has a number of posters that were clearly created by their previous activities.

We showed up to find a dozen children already circled up, about to play a round of ‘two truths and a lie.’ They laughed as we went around and Elizabeth and I were again reminded that children are pretty much the same wherever you go.

social-emotional learning

social-emotional learning

We planned a theater based activity inspired from my time with The Possibility Project. We would ask the students to identify some challenges/issues effecting their community and then talk about what was good in their community. After we had the lists the children would form groups and create ‘mini-plays’ inspired from their lives to perform for each other. I was nervous about the activity for several reasons. These kids were younger than the teens I normally did this with. Also, they didn’t know us and I was afraid they’d be too shy. How much experience did they have with acting? Creating, casting, and rehearsing a narrative arc in 30 minutes is a lot. What if they weren’t able to pull it off?

It turns out these fears were entirely unfounded. The all had experience with acting at some point and they were not shy about listing the issues effecting their community: drugs, violence, robbery, HIV. On the positive side they put: church, school, Social Club, friends and family. We got silly with some wiggle warm-ups and then they jumped into the scene creation with unbridled enthusiasm. We had stressed that these mini-plays were entirely theirs to create and they took this license very seriously. Several times, I approached a group to offer support and was shooed away because they were in the midst of a focused discussion or rehearsal. They got very creative very fast.

social-emotional learning

The first scene was about a boy who turned his younger brother on to drugs. They were visited by a friend who talked about how much they could achieve in life and that doing drugs would get them nowhere. They ended up at church giving their hearts to Jesus. Afterward, Hillary said that this exact thing had happened to someone at her church.

The next group performed a scene where a child was sent by her father to buy beer. On the way, she ran into a friend who said her father shouldn’t be drinking, he should be visiting his mother who was dying of TB. The seen ended with her father asking his mother’s forgiveness for forgetting her and wasting his life with beer. Hillary was especially struck by this scene because sick people in the community are often ignored. Apparently the children have noticed this and don’t think it’s OK.

The final scene was the most dramatic. A sister poisoned her brother out of jealousy, realized the error of her ways, and then prayed for forgiveness. Forgiveness appeared to be a theme throughout.

social-emotional learning

In our last education post I wrote about how poverty is not the fundamental issue with education, like many make it out to be. But I also mentioned that the effects of poverty are real and can’t be ignored. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience trauma than their more privileged peers. Too often these traumas are responded to with a sense of pity and lowered expectations, ‘He can’t be expected to do this, do you know what he’s been through?’ But Social Club takes a different route. Social Club gives the children a place to share and process these traumas peer-to-peer while holding steadfast to the idea that they can achieve great things in the world. Hillary and Jody don’t think of it like this though. They just know it’s what their children need.

  • Will

For more on the importance and power of social-emotional programs check out our piece on The Possibility Project here. Or peruse our in-depth interview with that program’s founder, Paul Griffin. He’s really sharp.

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

When we’re young, we tend to think that all schools are like the ones we attend. Even as adults, people who went to well-functioning schools tend to think that all schools offer a quality education. If students who attend some schools lack basic math skills, act out in class, or have trouble decoding a text written for their grade-level, then the problem must be the student or their environment. The problem must be poverty.

But the way students are treated and what’s expected of them, varies dramatically from one school to another. Even a school’s attitude towards itself, how seriously it takes its obligation to educate, can vary drastically.

I recently visited a school in Santiago in a relatively low-income area. We arrived during a break and students mulled about in the large courtyard. When the bell rang, I assumed that we would head to a classroom but nothing happened. Students continued to loiter. Ten, then fifteen, minutes went by. My host explained that the teachers were in a meeting that was running late.

Poverty and Education Students Loitering

Students loitering after the bell has rung

Class eventually started. The teacher had all the students stand and greet him and then spent about 10 minutes hooking up a projector. The lesson’s objective was on sorting information with charts. Students ‘accomplished’ this objective by watching two commercials and sorting the problems and solutions described by the commercials into columns in a table. The teacher then spoke over a chattering room to instruct them to apply this skill to interviews they had conducted. I circulated to three groups during this part of the lesson, but none of the students could show me the interviews. The class was essentially free to socialize. When I asked if all their classes were like this they laughed and said ‘yes.’

In the late 1970s Jean Anyon conducted intensive research to see how schools that served different economic groups in the U.S. treated students. What she found was troubling but, sadly, not surprising.

Anyon observed that working-class schools mostly prioritized order and discipline. Instruction was organized around copying and memorization, while larger concepts were ignored altogether. ‘Good teachers’ were those with quiet classrooms and discipline was often enforced with sarcastic or derisive language. Students resisted this treatment by rejecting the legitimacy of the school and the relevance of the work in front of them. When students were asked if they could ‘create knowledge’ the answer was almost uniformly ‘no.’

In Affluent-Professional schools (think accountants, lawyers, engineers, small-business owners) things looked different. Students wrote essays and engaged in projects. Creativity was valued and it was emphasized that each students’ work should be unique. Consequently, students showed immense pride in the products of their work. Discipline was maintained more by influence than outright control. The teacher would regularly initiate conversations with the class about the type of behavior she should see and why. When students were asked if they could create knowledge nearly all of them said ‘yes.’*

Poverty and Education talking with students

Talking with students at the working-class school

People often say that students in low-income communities have trouble focusing or act out in class because they are mimicking the unstable environments they live in. They come from ‘broken homes’ where they can’t be expected to have learned values like respect and responsibility. But in my ten years of working with low-income communities, I’ve seen that values of responsibility and especially respect, are emphasized more, not less, in low-income communities.

I have experience teaching in both working-class and affluent-professional contexts, and I know that if I treated my affluent students the way working-class students are treated, they would rebel. They would reject my legitimacy as a teacher and, at best, put forth some minimal effort to complete the work I gave them. Later, they would then talk with their parents, who would quickly express their concerns to the principal. The principal would listen to these concerns with a great deal of respect, and I would very quickly find myself in a serious talk about my teaching strategies.

“Teachers with other ideas, systems they bring from somewhere else, they generally don’t last,” said Shannon Watt. We were talking about how the affluent Southern Cross school was able to maintain such a strong culture. I asked what she meant. “For instance, we’ve had teachers who want their class to stand up and formally greet them at the beginning of class. No. Here the teacher comes in and they may say ‘Hi,’ but there’s no formal greeting. That’s not going to work here. If a teacher tries to be overly strict it’s not going to work for the students.”

When Shannon showed me around some classrooms, I saw 4th graders solving problems with multiple different strategies. I asked a student how he completed a math problem and he jumped right into an explanation, including the reason he used a certain the method.** Later the class was asked if there’s a relationship between multiplication and division. There was a thoughtful silence. The first student response was that, ‘they both involve numbers.’ This caused a laugh, but the teacher let them think about it some more. A few other students offered answers, and soon they were explaining how knowing your times tables makes division easier. When I asked this class why they like school, almost all of them said, “Because I like learning.”

Poverty and Education southern cross

Ms. Javier, the 4th grade teacher at Southern Cross

It’s true that many students from working-class communities put forth less effort in class and act out more often than their more privileged peers. But when they do this, they are not normally ‘bringing their home life into the school.’ They are simply having normal human reactions to the way they are being treated. If anything, students with unstable home lives are those who yearn the most for school to be a sanctuary of caring and support. When schools fail in this responsibility, these young people often feel it as a kind of betrayal.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that poverty is a non-factor. The effects of poverty on young people are real and can be very deep. Nor do I want to suggest that teachers in working-class schools should go into work tomorrow and pretend that they can reverse their students’ relationship to school with a new management plan. Questions about where to go from here are tricky, and I’ll explore them later in this series. For now, I’ll just say that poverty, in itself, is not the primary problem holding schools back. The way schools react to poverty, how they choose to treat students from low-income backgrounds and the stunted expectations they communicate; those are the principal problems facing education.

  • Will

*Anyon also profiled middle-class and executive elite schools. For a full description you should check out her paper. But a general overview is that middle-class teachers give students some more choice but the focus of most work is finding the ‘right answer.’ Students are more engaged but don’t feel that the content is relevant. Executive elite schools actually offer less opportunities for creativity than the affluent schools but the workload is generally much higher. There is an emphasis on ‘excellence’ and students behavior is corrected by reminding them of the ‘responsibility to succeed.’

** I also visited a 1st grade classroom where the teacher talked about how challenging it was to get students to explain their work. But she also talked about why it was incredibly important. This was interesting. The 4th graders were obviously used to explaining their work and they were quite good at it. Some people may attribute this skill to their more affluent home lives, but doesn’t it make more sense to credit this skill to the perseverance of their earlier teachers?



Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 2)

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 2)

“Lesson study is the way change has been able to come to elementary,” explained Shannon Watt. “We plan our lessons as a team. And we’ve done it, so if it doesn’t work it’s the team’s responsibility, not just one teacher. Lesson Study is what’s enabled us to open our minds, make mind shifts, to leave the traditional.”

As she spoke, Ms. Watt began to pull books on Lesson Study from the shelves in her office and slide them towards me over the desk. Lesson Study is a Japanese methodology where teachers plan and analyze their lessons together.

“And the best thing is that lesson study makes them open their classrooms, so now we have middle school teachers who go to see elementary teachers. Which is great because now they feel empowered. Observers come, and they are impressed and then they adapt what they see for older students. There’s more sharing ideas.”

But Lesson Study is a difficult system to get going in a school. In the West, teachers are famously attached to their autonomy. In a system that makes them feel embattled on all fronts, it’s often all they have to cling to. Even in a more affluent school like Southern Cross, teachers often invest a tremendous amount of personal pride in their particular way of doing things. Getting teachers to plan and evaluate lessons together, to get them innovating, is often a tremendous challenge. The “Team Time” in my first school back in 2006 often devolved into a round robin airing of grievances. Many of the teachers I’ve worked with over the past few years have shared similar experiences.

Lesson Study - International education

When Shannon Watt first introduced Lesson Study, she knew that she had to be delicate. She first started with a team she thought would be more amenable. Only after they shared how much they liked it, did she encourage the more skeptical teachers to try it out. There were problems at first. It’s only now, in the third year, that she feels Lesson Study is working as it truly should. All of the teachers are engaged and invested. They see how Lesson Study helps them. The issues with group work, which resulted in the slow but enthusiastic adoption of Kagan strategies, were originally surfaced in Lesson Study meetings.

Spending a day with Ms. Watt at Southern Cross, and talking with her teachers, was extremely illuminating. She seems to have created the kind of professional culture that many schools in the States aspire to with a kind of wistful idealism, an unstated recognition that the barriers are actually too great.*

More and more, people are beginning to realize that teaching needs to be a more collaborative profession. Just the night before, I was at a talk with a Chilean Education Professor who discussed how teachers’ tendency to view their classrooms as independent fiefdoms was one of the major barriers to reform. More collaborative faculties not only give people more opportunities to collaborate and share ideas. It also helps with morale.

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Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is much more thoughtful. It’s characterized by a patient perseverance that is far too rare in most schools.[/pullquote]

In the last post, I mentioned that the Harvard Business Review has found that having opportunities for professional growth and feeling trusted by one’s supervisor are two of the most important factors for job satisfaction. A third factor highly important factor is having close collaborative relationships with one’s colleagues.

The importance of collaboration is something many schools in the U.S. seem to know without understanding how to make it a reality. Too often the strategy is to block off time on a calendar without any context or guidance. Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is much more thoughtful. It’s characterized by a patient perseverance that is far too rare in most schools. And it’s an approach that’s created results.

As an 18 year veteran teacher I met at Southern Cross told me, “I’ve worked at a lot of schools. And what I’ve learned is that the role of the instructional coordinator is really very important.”

– Will

*There is a very real barrier in many U.S. schools though. Mainly the amount of time teachers are expected to be with students. At Southern Cross, the teachers told me they spent 27.5 hours a week with students. In many U.S. elementary schools that number is closer to 34 hours. Those extra 6 hours a week for things like Lesson Study can make a big difference.

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 1)

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 1)

The teachers Shannon Watt works with talk about her in tones of grateful reverence. If you’ve spent much time in teachers’ lounges, you may appreciate how unusual this tone of voice is. Especially when the topic of conversation is school administration.

“She trusts us. She gives us freedom,” began one, 18-year veteran, teacher.

“But its freedom with responsibility,” added another.


We got to this point after I asked them why they think the culture at Southern Cross (one of the best private schools in Chile) is so strong. First, they spoke about the strong relationships between students and teachers. They said teachers aren’t seen as a ‘big authority,’ and that it’s important to help students understand that behavior corrections are meant to help them become better people. But they quickly switched to talking about their own development.

“And the teachers here are always studying.”

“It’s tough, but nice. Like Kagan… It was difficult at first but now I love it.”

By ‘Kagan’ the teacher meant a set of cooperative learning strategies that are quickly gaining popularity in the United Sates as well.

“Cooperative learning started because the teachers wanted it,” explained Shannon Watt. “They saw that kids didn’t know how to work in groups. They made group work and it didn’t work. The kids had to learn how to work in groups.” Ms. Watt is also a trainer for Singapore math and, interestingly, it was a teacher from Singapore who recommended Kagan. So Ms. Watt bought the book, travelled to the States for training and then returned to try the strategies out with her own class.

“So, I tried it. The first weeks I thought, ‘this is terrible, this book was phony.’ Everything was ‘Ahhh!’ I didn’t know if it was going to work. And then the third week kids started engaging and it went well. I saw them working. And then I invited other teachers to come see my classes. They liked what they saw and that was the way we put it in.”

Shannon Watt
Shannon Watt

I think there’s a lot to learn about effective administration from this account.

  1. The teachers identified group work as a priority. The reform wasn’t coming down from out of the blue.
  2. Shannon did exhaustive preparation on her own and then piloted the strategies in her own classroom. In this way, she was in a position to truly empathize with the challenges her teachers faced later.
  3. She stuck with it for three weeks before it started to work. For me, this emphasizes the unwavering expectations she holds her students to. I’ve seen many teachers from working-class schools attempt and then abandon Kagan strategies after a few days. They say the initial disaster is proof that these strategies won’t work in ‘their environment’ or for ‘their students.’ It’s worth noting that a veteran teacher at a prestigious school encountered the same difficulties, she just reacted to them differently.
  4. Before pulling teachers into trainings, she invited them to her room and allowed a ‘buzz’ to build around the techniques. When the training finally started it was something they were eager to learn.

It’s not hard to see why her teachers love working with her.

The Harvard Business Review has done a number of studies about why people do or don’t like their jobs. Two of the most powerful factors for job satisfaction they’ve found are:

  1. Feeling trusted by your supervisor.
  2. Opportunities to develop professionally in a meaningful way.

Too often in the United States administrators limit their communications with teachers to discussing evaluations and obligations. This approach fairly quickly chips away at the trust most teachers initially feel toward their administration. And it’s a cliché by now for teachers to be bombarded by new waves of ‘teacher proof’ classroom strategies every few years; strategies devised without their input, and without any concern for the specific dynamics of their classroom. Teachers end up feeling that the school or district doesn’t understand them and doesn’t care to. The idea the district ‘trusts’ them is often almost laughable.

Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is clearly different. Her teachers love working with her because they feel trusted. And the way their development is set up makes them excited to grow in their craft. It’s amazing the differences happy teachers make.

But before Shannon Watt helped her teachers create a collaborative environment for her students, she first had to work on creating a collaborative culture amongst her teachers. Shannon is quick to point out that the above story never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Lesson Study. For more on that story, check out tomorrow’s post.

  • Will
Mindsets, Expectations, and Classroom Culture

Mindsets, Expectations, and Classroom Culture

I arrived at Liceo Domingo Santa Maria unannounced and was greeted with a sort of excited confusion. After explaining myself to several administrators around the enormous Pre-K–12 campus, I ended up in a high school English classroom. The room was noisy. Most of the 30+ students chatted casually with unmarked worksheets in front of them. Occasionally the teacher would step out from behind his desk, pace impatiently, and then speak over the chatter to remind the students that this work was important, and they should be taking it seriously.

I spent most of my time talking with a group of boys by the windows who were wearing straight brimmed baseball caps. They asked me about music and said that they liked American rap music, especially Wiz Khalifa. When I said I was more interested in Chilean music, they smiled and made me a list of bands to listen to. I asked them if students at the school were always like ‘this’ and gestured to the chatter around us. They laughed and explained that students pay more attention in classes that they like but that no one likes English. I turned the conversation to their blank worksheets (they were supposed to be describing pictures of people’s faces) and I discovered that they all had several pages worth of English vocabulary copied into their notebooks. I realized, at some point, this class must have been quietly and diligently copying these notes from the board. Having students silently copy notes is a favorite management strategy of teachers in working-class schools. It brings order, but unfortunately, not much thinking.

International Education School Facilities

Liceo Domingo Santa Maria is a large school with nice facilities

Around the room, a handful of students seemed torn between the noise around them and the confusion of their worksheets. They ended up staring blankly forward, pillars of stoicism in a loudly social scene.

When class ended I walked up to the teacher, Javier, who was obviously embarrassed by his class. The first thing he said to me was, “These kids, you wouldn’t believe the problems they deal with at home. Drugs, violence, hunger…”

International Education enrollment sign

An advertisement for the school’s special program for students with speech problems

Javier got me a sandwich and a coffee from the school cafeteria, and we talked for the better part of an hour. He’s a 10-year veteran teacher and he explained that he enjoys it because it makes him be creative and keeps him sharp. When I asked about obstacles, he mentioned the focus on standardized tests and the amount of time it takes to design lessons, “There’s no time to create activities and so you have to do it at home and then you spend this time working at home but the students don’t care. Neither the students nor the bosses care about the teacher’s well-being. It’s run like a business. It’s all about results.”

Javier told me that the test scores in Arica are the lowest in the country and hypothesized that part of the reason could be that a large percentage of the population has been exposed to unhealthy levels of lead. He lamented how frustrating it is when students don’t pay attention and again connected it to their home lives, which he described as ‘heart-breaking.’

Education - Teacher with paperwork

Javier working on paperwork. Paperwork is so onerous, the school offers bonuses for having it completed.

During our conversation three things became very clear to me:

1) Javier works very hard over long hours,

2) He is emotionally invested in his students, and

3) He is not a very effective teacher.

And this is an important point to realize about education: many ineffective teachers’ work and care just as much as effective teachers. A teachers’ effectiveness is less a function of how much they work or care and more a function of what they believe their students are capable of achieving. Javier expressed what in the U.S. we would call a ‘deficit-based mindset.’ For him, the barriers his students face outside of school predicts a negative attitude toward school. The difficulties in their lives eclipse any more ambitious vision of what they could be capable of. As Lisa Delpit (amongst others) has pointed out, this kind of mindset is attractive because it frees the teacher of responsibility for their students’ learning.

Of course, the stresses Javier faces are severely exacerbated by the fact that he has more work to do than hours to do it in. Remember, Chile and the U.S. require teachers to spend more time in front of students than any other country in the world. And at least in the U.S. we have computers to help with paperwork.

After our conversation, I walked around the campus glancing into windows. I saw a wide variety of student engagement. A room of nearly 40 students was transfixed on a teacher who paced and smiled while tossing an apple into the air. Another class quietly copied notes from a PowerPoint.

Students in math class - international education

Students in math class

I ended up in a math classroom. There was no lesson, students were to get straight to work on their packet. I stepped into a familiar role, floating and trying to help students with math. But, while my Spanish is good, I often had difficulty decoding what the questions were looking for. After a short spurt of effort, I would give up and suggest we work on a problem that was more pure algebra. It gave me an experiential glimpse into what it’s like to struggle with text heavy problems.

In this class, students were more attentive to their worksheets, but there was still a lot of confusion, and they worked very slowly. After about 20 minutes, I realized I should be going.

One of my guiding principles for this trip is to avoid comparison: to let each place be what it is. But I can’t shake the similarities between Liceo Domingo Santa Maria and many large working-class schools I’ve been to in the United States. In the absence of a strong school culture, teachers end up creating unique cultures within the walls of their classrooms. The quality of these cultures nearly always a product of the disparate expectations they have of their students. The result is a wide, wide difference in how students behave and engage each hour of their day.

It’s interesting… I didn’t know what to expect from schools in Latin America. Still, I guess I assumed that there would be some clear difference in quality compared to working-class schools in the United States. But so far, that’s not what I’m finding at all.


Respect for Teachers in Peru: A Familiar Struggle

Respect for Teachers in Peru: A Familiar Struggle

Milagros is much loved by her students. When we passed through the gate of her school a pair of them ran up and embraced her on either side, pressing their cheeks against each of her hips. In class the students are anxious to show her what they’ve done. During our conversation later in the day, children came to hug her and offer her parts of their lunch. Her school is far away from the more developed center of Arequipa, Peru and while the surrounding area doesn’t resemble the archetypical images of poverty in the developing world, it’s clear that there isn’t much money here. Milagros transferred to this school to have the opportunity to teach 2nd grade because, “Many of the children don’t know how to read or write. And that is something very important to me.”

I asked Milagros what surprised her the most when she started teaching last year, “The teachers, because they don’t have any passion. But I think I understand maybe why, because they always have trouble with money and time, and the government doesn’t respect their jobs. But many of the teachers get so angry with the students.”

International education school classroom in Peru

Milagros reminding her class to raise their hands to speak

A couple weeks earlier I spoke with a pair of young German women who had just finished a year of teaching in Peru. I asked them what they thought the biggest problems with education in Peru were and they were quick to answer, “The problem is the teachers.” They described classrooms where the teacher would simply sit in the back of the room and read PowerPoint slides. “The students aren’t motivated but I wouldn’t be motivated either… And who would want to be a teacher when you get paid around 350 Euros a month?”

The other German explained how her co-teacher at a private school had to share a house with five other teachers, and then the more animated one spoke up again, “I think a lot of it is how…” she had trouble finding the words, “In Germany, if you say that you’re a teacher, it’s like,” her face lit up, “‘Oh, you’re a teacher!’ but in Peru if you say you’re a teacher,” her face turned sour, “It’s like ‘Oh… You’re a teacher.’”

In a taxi in Cuzco, I asked the driver what he thought about public education in Peru, “The main problem is that there isn’t very good instruction. The teachers don’t have a good education and they don’t know how to teach.” He then spoke with pride about his son who had recently graduated and was now studying biology. But he was certainly not impressed with his son’s teachers.

School in Peru International Education

Milagros’ school and the volcano that looks over it

Even Milagros’ principal was critical, “The teachers here,” she said with some hesitation, “keep to themselves. They are not always trying to get better and sometimes they lose patience when they get older. But this is something we have to work on.” Talking with Senora Mamani was interesting because her demeanor reminded me so much of the sharp and dedicated administrators I know in the Unites States. People who are trying to do as much as they can with limited resources. But Senora Mamani’s resources are even more limited than her U.S. counterparts, since she is the only administrator at the school.

And this may be the single most startling fact I’ve learned about education in Peru. Jose Revilla told me that while there are about 60,000 schools in Peru there are only 48,000 people in administrative positions other than principals. When you consider that many wealthier schools have many administrators the situation looks even more dire for schools like Milagros’.

How can you expect teachers to get better if there is no one to coach and support them?

“Ojala que vengan. We don’t have personnel here. We don’t even have anyone to clean,” said Senora Mamani when I asked about other administrators. She then offered the same resigned but committed smile-shrug I’ve seen so often in administrators in rural Louisiana.

International Education Principal in Peru

The School Principal, Senora Angelica Guispe Mamani

An article in El Comercio (a major Peruvian paper) quotes education experts saying that the main reason most people become teachers is because more selective fields are out of their reach. They’re looking for an occupation that’s easy to get into.

Senora Mamani cited a lack of parental support for their children’s academics as the primary obstacle to education, but when I asked why parents aren’t supportive it turned out that this too was connected to the prestige of teachers, “I think it’s because they don’t respect the teachers. They think that teaching is a simple activity when, in reality, it’s completely the opposite. It’s the most difficult.”

/international Education - Students at recess Peru

Elizabeth with students at recess

Teachers are the foundation of a country’s education system. In the United States, public policy focused on merit pay, and the transformation of tests from tools for student assessment to weapons for teacher evaluation, has triggered a backlash to this kind of ‘blame the teacher’ talk. But the reality is that the U.S. suffers from many of these same problems (though to a lesser degree). And with this in mind, I think it’s interesting that none of the people I talked to in Peru spoke of a need to fire or punish bad teachers. People only spoke of the need to provide more support, more training, and more resources for teachers.

It’s true that teachers can’t be the only agents of change in turning education around, but we shouldn’t forget that they are by far the single most important force in the lives of students and that the spectrum of teaching is very, very wide indeed. Unfortunately, policies in many U.S. states have served to poison this conversation and have scared many accomplished people away from, or out of the profession. I wonder how different the dialogue in the U.S. would be if policies focused on how to help teachers develop instead of how to rank them according to their students’ scores on multiple choice tests? As Jonathan Kozol once said, in a less than eloquent metaphor, about students and testing: “You don’t fatten the sheep by weighing them.”

It seems that in Peru people know what to do but they don’t have the resources. In the U.S. we have the resources, but we don’t seem to know what to do with them.