Transforming Teachers, Transforming Classrooms: Driving School Change through Professional Development Travel

Jennifer D. Klein

A French-Canadian teacher navigates Quechua in Patacancha, Peru

As teachers, we spend the bulk of our careers playing the expert, whether we want to or not.  It makes perfect sense–we need our students to see us as people whoalready know and therefore have something to teach, and that expert persona often becomes the key to disciplining students and warding off skeptical parents.  That said, teachers know that life-long learning is the heart of good education, and that we are not immune ourselves to the human need to admit our weaknesses and grow beyond them.  It is powerful–fun, even–to turn off the persona and allow ourselves to take the position of learners, to admit what we don’t know and immerse ourselves with the kind of naïve, enthusiastic curiosity we so want to inspire in our students.

Professional development travel does exactly this; it puts someone else in charge of the daily workings of life, and it allows teachers to take off their caps and gowns and immerse themselves in learning and exploring with as much innocence and curiosity as they hope their students will bring to travel.

Amazing things begin to happen the moment teachers let go of the need to have all the answers and direct the experience.  From this comes a sort of surrendering to the experience, and with surrender comes a flurry of questions and new insights, a deluge of creativity and imagination.  The more the teachers are nudged out of their comfort zones by a very real on-the-ground, developing world experience, the more they realize what they’re really made of–and as their resilience and flexibility are tested, their comfort zones expand as well.  Many participants experience an overwhelming fear of the unknown (yes, even among adults), coupled with a need to find their own courage and discover the real limits of their mettle, their ability to adapt to new and uncontrollable circumstances.

And this is where the learning curve reaches its zenith–just as it does for students, service learning in the developing world shows teachers that they’re capable of handling far more than they’ve ever realized, and that they too can develop “global grit” by absorbing, engaging, and asking good questions.

Bringing Global PBL to Life: Lessons for Inclusivity in the Schoolhouse

Just as authentic project-based learning uses an “entry event” to grab the attention and curiosity of students, driving their inquiry and fostering their “need to know” throughout the given unit or project, any professional development experience should include an entry event as well.  On World Leadership School’s faculty development trips, teachers are asked to participate in a Scavenger Hunt, ideally on their first morning in-country.  In the activity, teachers are asked to gather information about their host community–from the most surface-level questions, which can be answered cursorily by pure observation, to the most profound community questions, which can only be answered if one has the language and cross-cultural skills to engage in dialogue with community members.

This activity immediately brings out teachers’ fears and tests the limits of their inter-cultural skills, just as it does for students on WLS trips.  For teachers, however, there are additional insights, particularly for those who work with an international or otherwise diverse student body: an authentic understanding of how hard it is to navigate a foreign environment for many of their students, whether for geographic, socio-economic or myriad other reasons; an authentic recognition of how exhausting it is to navigate a new culture and use a foreign language for even 90 minutes, much less all day; and an authentic understanding of how hard it is to dig beneath the surface of anything as a cultural outsider.

This is true, on-the-ground project-based learning; this initial inquiry sets the tone of an entire trip, setting into motion a process of self- and other-exploration which ultimately leads to more globally vibrant, authentically collaborative classrooms.  Participants figure out who their language speakers are in the group, and the questions begin.  They realize who their most brave and culturally savvy are in the group, and the dynamic shifts.  In other words, through this entry event, teachers learn to navigate a new and different situation collaboratively, making constructive use of every gift across the team–the goal of global learning in our classrooms as well.

Recognizing the challenges involved in authentic global exploration can help educators become far more sensitive to the social-emotional needs of students inside their schoolhouses, particularly their international and second- or third-culture kids.  Whether those students are navigating a new country, a new school culture, socio-economic differences or some other form of diversity, what teachers can accidentally perceive as a lack of core knowledge and academic skill usually comes down to a language or cultural difference.  When we grade students based on their intake and delivery of information in a non-native language, it is far harder than we realize for our students to demonstrate what they know.  And then we criticize international and ethnically diverse student groups for sitting together at lunch, when really we are all exhausted by being immersed 24/7 in a stream we don’t really understand.

There is comfort in a common language, a mother tongue, and we can’t lose sight of that as western educators–we can strive for dialogue and diversity in the classroom, but it may be culturally nearsighted–and even egotistical–to impose that idea of diversity, to assume that a “diverse” student body needs to include a rainbow of colors at every lunchroom table.  A powerful global experience helps teachers understand this better, largely because they are suddenly living their students’ experience.  Teacher groups tend to bond deeply on professional development trips, particularly if the teachers come from the same school; as with students, their fears make teachers seek out support, and being an outsider is balanced by the comfort of belonging to a group.  Recognizing our own social-emotional needs always makes us better teachers, more able to help students feel good about who they are and embrace the world on their own terms.

Developing the Urge to Inspire Change

On a WLS Faculty Development Trip to Peru in the summer of 2012, young non-profit manager Kennedy Leavens spoke to teachers from Ontario, Canada about the weaving cooperative she founded in her 20s, Awamaki.  As she does with student groups, Kennedy traced the growth of her organization and the challenges she’s faced as a local leader in the rural communities in and around Ollantaytambo.   But she also told teachers of her first trip to Peru in high school, and of the teacher who led that trip and first inspired her to want to create change in the world.

Walking back to our rooms after the conversation, I reminded the group that every one of their classrooms was filled with potential Kennedies, the next generation of change makers, and that every one of us had the potential to inspire the young people in our lives, just as Kennedy had been inspired to step up and make a difference in the world.  I’ve never seen a group of adults fall so silent.

This experience moved several teachers in my group very deeply.  One teacher found it initially astonishing that Kennedy had given up bigger career opportunities in the U.S. to run a tiny non-profit in Peru, but ended the conversation just as willing to give up his big-city life as she was, as he captured her passion for the people in how she explained why she’d stayed.  Another teacher told us at the close of the trip that Kennedy had inspired him to be a better teacher, to become the kind of teacher who could inspire his students to be the next generation of agents of change.

These are moments of great transformation–the moments when we recognize our need to grow as educators and humans, our want to be consistently better at what we do, our hope to make a positive impact in the world through the work of our classrooms.  When we are transformed by the world as teachers, we never teach the same way again–we never live the same way again.

When we seek out global experiences which change us as individuals and members of the human family, which remind us of our good fortune and our obligations to the rest of humanity, our classrooms become more global, more vibrant, more a place of inspiration, growth, and constructive change.

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