I set off for my first international job in 1978, right out of Bard College to become an ESL teacher in Bogotá, Columbia and have been indelibly bitten since. Culture has been my elixir. I’ve been educated by the world and acquired cultural fluency by relinquishing the familiar and embracing the diverse. Over three decades, I have lived on three continents running schools in Mexico City, Hoboken, New Jersey, and Barcelona, Spain. In this time, New York has been my family and professional hub. The last five years I’ve have been battling windmills and state bureaucracies as a school head in the contested world of charter schools – a test-centric universe in a city where education is a politicized political football.
Heading a middle school and later a dual language K-8 school, my work has morphed into being a pastor, a priest, a detective, and a tweeter. I battle for the soul of kids one life at a time. Not a day goes by without a meltdown or an act of defiance. In the charter world, I’m doing less big picture work, more reaching out to wounded lives. I give pounds to kids with pouty faces and pounds to kids brimming with confidence. I take the social and emotional temperature of kids every day: Has Aiden taken his meds? Has Chemere gotten enough sleep? And why was Jackie wearing lip stick? I have always cared about helping young people learn to find their voice, discover their humanity, and learn to use their minds well. But here its measuring a kid’s intelligence by standardized tests, and reducing the scintillating gifts of intelligence to holding a # 2 pencil, being quiet, and staying in your seat.
I’ve seen both sides now: The international and the charter, and the most differentiating factor is socioeconomics. Poverty introduces a whole new language into an already complex world. Here, complacency and mediocrity are acceptable. Likewise, low expectations and cultures of disrespect can become the norm. In the international world there is bullying, cultural prerogative, helicopter moms, boundary testing of young adults, and the rank and file issues of administering a school. But rarely, are there shattered families and cycles of social and emotional privation. In the global world of American Schools, school culture anchors stability, optimism and a sense of the future. The charter world, is a place of uncertainty and at risk. Dysfunctionality still prevails. In the international world we place a premium on care and human development. Test scores are not jugular. In the charter world, it is the driver. It becomes all-consuming. Leading in an international school is more than living in another country. All the core elements of climate and wellness: school pride, mission, parental involvement, community service, resources, responsive boards. strategic plans, a sense of expansiveness and vision are there to draw on. The fact is that they are intrinsically different models with different outcomes. One (with wonderful exceptions) reproduces the industrial era and the other, makes its way in the global one.
My students are no longer third culture kids who flit from one country to the next vacation in Amsterdam for Spring break and have nannies drop them off at school. Mine may never leave their neighborhoods. Or know where The Netherlands is on a map. Some are angry kids with tragic lives. Overweight kids who dream of being professional basketball players. Desperate kids who sit invisible in the back of the room. Deprived kids who have never heard of Shakespeare or Marvin Gaye or Billy Holiday. Kids who shuffle. Kids who can’t sit still whose bodies are like perpetual slinkies. Kids with ‘anger management ‘issues.’ Kids who carry homophobia, misogyny, and bias around their necks like medallions. Kids covered with labels and stereotypes, who face a lifetime of societal biases and obstacles. And yet, the bottom line is constant: all students have the same human needs: to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be loved, to be held to high expectations, and to be surrounded with opportunities to learn. Our job is to set those conditions, be it in East Harlem or Helsinki.
The experience of education according to Ken Robinson, “is always personal. But the issues are increasingly global.” Here is what I have discovered after 34 years: the love for learning and interest in people and cultures develops a broad and generous vision of education and leadership. And the life of crossing many boundaries of language and culture, deepens our understanding and appreciation of how children learn and the varieties of communities that support them. Charter or international, the common thread is passion and commitment, not to any ideology or methodology, but to learning with and from students, and infusing a culture of joy and a sense of purposefulness wherever we are.