As vice president of the National Education Association, it’s hard to explain to someone what I actually do.
Constitutionally I do “others duties as assigned by the President”. Fortunately for me, our NEA President, Dennis Van Roekel, assigned me to learn as much as I could about what was going on in the world outside the NEA.
Inside, we are all experiencing times that try educators’ souls as we struggle to make sense of some expert’s solution to fix education’s problems that were caused by some previous expert’s solution to fix education’s problems.
Some of our schools are able to survive the experts and are succeeding on every measure. Some of our schools are failing. Our kids are counting on us to find real ways to turn these schools around.
You might think a poor village in the mountains of Honduras would have little to do with schools in inner-city Los Angeles or Denver suburbs or Broken Bow, Oklahoma. You’d be wrong.
All of our schools can learn from Heifer’s methods of lifting up entire communities to something better; something sustainable that will be working long after Heifer has moved on to help another community.
The Heifer folks told me, “In the beginning, we made a lot of mistakes. But our plan was to stop doing what wasn’t working, and to learn from our mistakes.” (So you can see they don’t have a real future in political office). After 60 years, it’s an amazingly successful process that works whether they’re in South America or South Africa or Southeast Asia.
The nice lady at Heifer said, “Our first mistake was we’d bring in a really smart expert to tell the villagers what they were doing wrong.” (Which I’m sure they really appreciated.) She said, “We showed no respect for the people; it never occurred to us that they might know something we didn’t know; and when we left, they went back to their old ways.”
She said, “Our second mistake was: We always focused on what they didn’t have. They didn’t have money; they didn’t have education; they didn’t have medical care. We depressed them.”
She said, “One of worst mistakes – we’d call all the villagers together and the men would show up, so we just worked with the men. We ignored half the heart, soul and brain power of that community. We didn’t recognize that there was no one we could afford to waste.”
She said, “We do things differently now. We call the villagers together and we insist – not only that the women be included – but the poorest of the poor, the most outcast amongst them. We’re finding strong, creative leaders where no one was looking for them.”
“We ask them what they have – not what they don’t have. They have a love for their children. They’re strong. They’re generous and kind. You build on that.”
“But the most important thing we learned is that the answers have to come from them. We ask them to imagine what their village could be. And they begin to dream of things they never dreamt of before. Buying a piece of land; children who can read; starting a little business.”
She said, “Once they start to dream, nothing can stop them.”
Some of the bridges weren’t safe for our rickety old bus so sometimes we walked miles on dirt roads into the villages deep into the jungles. This was a bring-your-own-toilet-paper affair.
I got to talk to the villagers in my very poor Spanish. (Yo hablo español bastante bien para engañar a los que no lo hablan.) Which means: I only speak Spanish well enough to fool people who don’t actually speak Spanish. But I would explain to the villagers in Spanish why we were there. One farmer looked confused and he didn’t think he had heard me correctly.
And the translator said, “Sí ellos son maestros de los Estados Unidos y están aquí para aprender acerca de tu éxito. They are educators and they want to learn from your success.”
And the gentlemen took my hand and smiled with tears in his eyes and said, “Qué honor.”
What an honor. He was so proud.
And I am so proud to tell you what his success means to our public schools:
First, how many of our struggling school districts hire some expert to come in and tell us what we’re doing wrong and wonder why we don’t appreciate it?
How many of those experts ignore the voices of teachers and support staff closest to the students – the people who teach them and feed them and clean up after them? How many of them see us as the problem that needs to be fixed and not as the source of the solution?
How many of these school communities have been inspired to dream of what they could be instead of being scolded and shamed for what they are?
I am convinced that we have to move forward without the politicians and experts who know nothing about boys and girls. I am convinced that a movement of concerned, caring and creative men and women who know the names of the children they serve will defy the experts and come together to find the answers within themselves.
I’m convinced it’s already happening. You won’t see it on the news.
It’s quiet. Children learning are often quiet. But so many teachers and support staff are telling me what they’re doing for their students without fanfare or permission. They are building a learning community that will feed itself on the love of students and the gratitude of parents and the dreams that they have begun to dream all by themselves.
Their brothers and sisters in the mountains of Honduras understand this language perfectly.