Learning from the Energy of Our Differences

Several years ago, I was invited to work with a school in Georgia to help the administration address very serious problems relating to student motivation and engagement, teacher burnout, and what they described to me as “quickly deteriorating atmosphere of resentment and disengagement among our staff.” I was asked to offer a series of teacher development workshops on 21st-century skills and student engagement. The principal sent me a rather comprehensive letter outlining their teacher development needs and painted a grim picture of the school, using language that I found honest and direct, but generally unsupported by any specific examples or detailed information about the school, its students, and the teaching staff. I read and reread the letter carefully and, still interested in learning more about the school and its challenges, asked to spend two days at the school before facilitating my workshops. I wanted to get a more complete sense of the place.

On Day 1, at lunchtime, after meeting a number of teachers and visiting a few classrooms, I found a comfortable armchair in the staffroom, placed my laptop on the table in front of me, and prentended to work while I focused on listening to about three or four conversations taking place around me.

Soon, one conversation really grabbed my attention. Three female teachers were talking about Natasha and a group of her friends and classmates. I learned that there was a high rate of teenage pregnancy in the neighbourhood served by the school, that many of the students dropped out to become teenage moms, that it was not uncommon for both boys and girls to be swept into the gang culture and drop out, and — perhaps most importantly — that the teachers felt powerless to effect change, to motivate the students and help them see opportunities that come along with staying in school.

On Day 2, also at lunchtime, the conversation continued, this time with a few more teachers adding their thoughts and experiences. I listened intently, and the more I learned about the students, the neighbourhood, the challenges, the school culture, the more I realized that the workshops I had prepared for my visit needed to be seriously reworked.

I had prepared the workshops based on information received from the principal, information that did not include any of the facts I had learned in two days in the staffroom and from many informal conversations with the teachers. I could not deliver these workshops knowing that they had only a very faint connection to the daily lives and challenges faced by the school’s teachers. At the end of lunch on Day 2 I knew that I needed a completely different strategy — one built upon the realities I had learned about and witnessed, and on the power of dialogue.

My “True Voice”

As I was listening to many negative and discouraging comments about a certain group of grade 12 girls, three of whom had gotten pregnant, were spending too much time with the wrong crowd, or started dressing inappropriately for school, one name continued to pop up — Natasha’s. Of course, I had no idea who Natasha was, but the conversation I was listening to, in the school’s staffroom and as a complete outsider, was gradually painting a picture of someone who was a fairly good student, resposible daughter and sister (often taking care of two younger siblings), good athlete (“girls’ basketball wouldn’t exist here if it wasn’t for her”), and who was also “absolutely gorgeous and likely to end up pregnant, too, like all her friends.” This last statement was acknowledged by a few teachers, some of whom added their own comments, while others nodded, dejected.

The conversation then continued for a few minutes, but that statement about Natasha being destined to end up pregnant “soon” really got to me. Finally, in response to yet another comment about Natasha, I couldn’t resist jumping in and blurted out, “Maybe, instead of accepting the seeming inevitability of her pregnancy or some other mistake she’s likely to make soon, someone here should tell Natasha how proud you all are that she’s not pregnant, that she’s not in a gang, that she’s not going out with some low-life, and that she’s keeping up good grades and being a great daughter and athlete.”

Silence. Oh, I’m sure you can imagine the silence.

Surprisingly enough, I did not make enemies that day. I started a fantastic conversation that provided a valuable and practical building block for the workshops I facilitated the next day. Looking back, I know that this perhaps reckless act, in a still unknown context and in front of teachers I hardly knew, was the sharing of my own genuine voice. What those teachers heard was not some “expert” invited to facilitate workshops at the school, not an official guest invited by school administration, but a human being and a teacher who cares about teaching and learning.

The teachers responded to that voice. The ensuing conversation before the end of the lunch period and after school became the foundation of my workshop the next day. It all worked out precisely because I engaged in the act of speaking my “true voice”, one of the four key practices of what William Isaacs calls Dialogic Leadership.

Dialogic Leadership

Isaacs, a lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, believes that

In the new knowledge-based, networked economy, the ability to talk and think together well is a vital source of competitive advantage and organizational effectiveness. This is because human beings create, refine, and share knowledge through conversation. In a world where technology has led to the erosion of traditional hierarchical boundaries … the glue that holds things together is no longer “telling” but “conversing” (Isaacs, 1999). 

Of course, the school where I was invited to facilitate workshops subscribed to the traditional model of “telling.” All of the school’s professional development events involved an “expert” who told the teachers what to do in their classrooms. Needless to say, the teachers resented that approach and, faced with a number of serious challenges that the invited “experts” merely glossed over, felt unsupported and disempowered. The professional development strategy implemented to help effect change and improve morale had the opposite result.

It’s important to point out that this approach to teacher development is alive and well around the world. In fact, teacher professional development has traditionally been something done to teachers, not something that we engage in with our colleagues and use to build knowledge. To this day, teacher development often reduces teachers to handout technicians and implementers of other people’s ideas and strategies, many of which are conceived far from the classroom and with no understanding of the specific context where the teachers work every day.

William Isaacs’ organizational leadership work suggests a much different approach: The school’s teachers can play an integral role in helping, supporting, engaging, and motivating Natasha and her friends — they can develop the strategies and solutions the school needs; the only way they can be successful is through what Isaacs calls “conversing”; and the process that can help them achieve their goals and address challenges they face is what he calls Dialogic Leadership.

And so, the next day, having completely abandoned the workshops I had been asked to deliver, I restructured my approach to build on Isaacs’ concept of dialogue, which he defines as a tool that “surfaces ideas, perceptions, and understanding that people don’t already have.” It’s the basis of Dialogic Leadership, “a way of leading that consistently uncovers, through conversation, the hidden creative potential in any situation” (Isaacs, 1999).

It worked. We spent a full day together talking about being a teacher in that specific context, about the students and their problems, about the curriculum, about testing, and a myriad of other challenges and — also — opportunities. Solutions and suggestions emerged from dialogue. There were no “experts” in that room; no one had all the answers, but everyone had questions, and it was through these questions that a way forward emerged. We built valuable professional knowledge together. Even my statement, blurted out a day earlier in the staff room, was subjected to serious scrutiny. Many other “true voice” statements were made, and they led to a sense of openness, unity, and possibility. They were treated with respect and as building blocks to help move towards meaning and practical solutions.

We spent many wonderfully productive and inspiring hours together. The dialogue helped us explore “the uncertainties and questions that no one ha[d] answers to.” We began to “think together — not simply report out old thoughts. In dialogue people learn to use the energy of their differences to enhance their collective wisdom” (Isaacs, 1999).

Unfortunately, it’s this sense of collective wisdom that’s often missing from teacher development initiatives. We need more of it, much more. We need to ensure that, as teachers, we always have the time to engage in dialogue and learn with and from each other. The way we learn as professionals must be based on questioning our practice, learning from it, and engaging in dialogue with colleagues. Administrators, education leaders, and classroom teachers must learn to listen and create environments that make dialogue possible, that encourage it and build on it.

The work of William Isaacs gave me a solid foundation to implement professional development that builds on multiple voices and helps access collective wisdom. I believe it deserves wider adoption.


Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogic leadership. The Systems Thinker, 10(1), 1-5.

Article 26

Take a close look at the photograph above. What do you see? School courtyard? Teachers? Children?

Let me tell you a little about what I see when I look at this photograph. This is East Africa. The photograph was taken a couple of years ago, at an elementary school in a small town. I was standing inside the school's staffroom, looking out the window at the school's playground.

At first glance, there's probably nothing extraordinary about this photograph: it looks like it's recess and the children are enjoying their time away from their desks and textbooks. There are two teachers interacting with the students.

But look closely. Look at the teachers' faces.

This story begins with those faces because they are not happy faces of teachers interacting with their pupils at recess. Both faces are serious. The teacher on the left seems lost in thought. She seems sad.

Let me tell you why.

Only 10 or 15 minutes before I took this photograph, these students were in class. Many of their classmates remained in class. But these students, the ones you see in this photograph, were asked to assemble in the courtyard. If you look closely you will see that the teacher on the right seems to be checking something, perhaps a clipboard or some notes. What she is holding in her hand is a list of students who have been asked to leave their classrooms and assemble here. The reason they had been instructed to leave class and meet the teacher here in the courtyard is because their parents have not paid their school fees. These students are being sent home.

Why am I telling you this? I wanted to share this story because today is Human Rights Day. As a teacher, whenever I think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whenever I think of Human Rights, and whenever Human Rights Day comes along, I think of Article 26:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

And that's exactly what I kept thinking about on that cloudy morning in East Africa, standing in front of that window, looking at a group of elementary school children pulled out of class to be told that they were being sent home. I wanted to help, and I knew I couldn't really do much. I was angry. I was devastated.

All of this took place in a country that had abolished school fees several years prior to this morning assembly that I recorded with my camera. Yet, this was not an isolated incident, and later on the teachers explained to me that this happens throughout their country and many others in their part of the world. Yes, the tuition fees have been abolished, they said, but parents are still asked to pay for meals and for uniforms. In some cases, they have to pay to help cover maintenance fees. In many areas, parents chip in to cover the teachers' salaries. So, yes, it's true, the teachers said to me, the tuition fees don't exist anymore, but education still costs money.

I live in a country where Article 26 is taken for granted. It is taken for granted by teachers, parents, children, teenagers. I also know of many other places around the world where Article 26 is taken for granted. But, I also know of and have visited places around the world where Article 26 and many, many other articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are fundamental human rights only on paper and where, for many different reasons - some of them very complex - human rights, including the right to education, are not respected.

As someone who cares deeply about education, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do and what my colleagues - teachers around the world - can do to ensure that education is not taken for granted and that access to education is respected around the world as a fundamental human right. I believe that it is our responsibility as teachers - the largest professional group in the world that currently includes almost 60 million of us - to teach, every day, about Article 26 and the other, equally important articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Whenever I raise this issue, I am often asked to recommend organizations that accept donations to help improve access to education around the world. I am not going to do that here. In fact, I want to challenge you today not to donate money. Instead, I hope that you will do what you do best: teach.

Make sure that the students in your own classroom know about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that they know that education is a fundamental human right (most of them don't, believe me), and that they also know and are deeply troubled by the fact that there are children around the world who do not attend school and who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot attend school. In doing this, you will be helping to build an army of human rights advocates, of young people who will grow up valuing their education and committed to human rights and global peace. That alone, that focus on human rights in your classroom, will do much more to advance human rights than your cash.

Think also about your own professional development. Teacher professional development needs to be more than attending conferences, reading professional journals, and engaging in online communities to exchange lesson ideas or links to valuable resources. Teacher professional development includes a responsibility to raise awareness about issues that affect teachers, classrooms, and students around the world. If our colleagues working in states run by dictatorships or rebels, in places plagued by conflict or poverty, or in places affected by natural disasters, cannot count on their fellow teachers around the world to make their stories heard and work towards global peace, who can they count on?

The photograph I shared with you at the beginning of this post does not depict an isolated incident. You and I know that access to education is being curtailed around the world. According to estimates by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 68 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2008. The reasons are varied, but this fact remains the same: millions of children around the world do not have access to education, to a fundamental human right.

Take a look at that photograph again and imagine being one of the teachers in that courtyard who have been told to interrupt their class, stop doing what they so passionately love, assemble a group of students, check off their names on the roster, and send them home.

Then, imagine walking back into your classroom to face their classmates, those fortunate enough to be allowed to stay, and to learn.

There's a lot of work ahead of us, but I am hopeful that we'll manage. After all, there's almost 60 million of us.

Virtual Kenyan Classroom

In August I traveled to Kenya with Teachers Without Borders - Canada. We delivered teacher professional development workshops to elementary and secondary teachers in a rural region, located about eighty kilometres outside of Nairobi. When I returned, I started looking for a creative outlet to reflect on my experiences. I wrote about my experiences on this blog, but merely writing about them didn't seem sufficient. So, I started sifting through almost 3000 photographs that I took while in Kenya and it occurred to me that they tell a story that is much more powerful than anything I could ever hope to convey in a blog post. The next day, I started building a virtual exhibit in Second Life.

TWB-Canada Exhibit Poster for the 2008 jokaydia Unconference

But in the process of building this exhibit, I also realized that it could be so much more than just a virtual gallery - it could become a learning environment, a place that anyone interested in education in Kenya could visit and explore. So, the initial virtual gallery idea quickly morphed into "unfinished ..." - a project to build a virtual Kenyan classroom, a typical classroom in a typical rural school in Kenya.

Virtual Kenya Exhibit - Second Life

Of course, some will say that I didn't have to use Second Life, that a blog entry, a Flickr set, or a PowerPoint presentation (or maybe all of them combined) would have been just as effective. That's why, before I began, I asked myself: What can I do in Second Life that I cannot do on the world wide web? Why do I need a multiuser virtual environment?

I wanted the visitors to be able to experience, even if only virtually, what it is like to stand in a typical rural Kenyan classroom. I can’t do that on my blog, but in Second Life I can create that classroom. I can try to re-create that environment. Of course, as a visitor to my classroom exhibit in Second Life, you won’t feel the fine Kenyan dust on the floor - the kind of dust that penetrates into everything in Kenya. You won’t be able to interact with Kenyan students or look through their notebooks. I cannot create tactile experiences in Second Life. What I can do, however, is create a visual experience that is very close to what I saw in Kenya. I can create a replica of a typical classroom and then use it as the setting for tours, presentations, or conversations about education in Kenya. I can create a virtual environment that provides a meaningful context for discussions about education in developing nations.

That environment wouldn't be complete without photographs of children and school life that I took while in Kenya. You will find them scattered around the exhibit. You will see photographs of children and classrooms leaning against a virtual fence or the classroom wall.

Miti Mingi Primary School, Kenya

Again, an argument could be made that all those pictures could have been shared on Flickr. True. I did share them on flickr, but as soon as I uploaded them I realized that they didn't fully represent my experiences, that individual photographs, when placed against the white backdrop of a flickr photo page, lose their richness and become just another snapshot. In Second Life, however, I can create an environment for them, a context that will help the visitor see them as part of a larger story.

When building this virtual space, I tried to make the environment as reminiscent of the actual schools in Kenya as possible. Many of the textures I used for walls or corrugated iron panels were extracted from my own photographs of Kenyan schools and imported into Second Life. Before I built the desks for the virtual classroom, I scrutinized the pictures I took of student desks in Kenyan classrooms. Before building the classroom itself, I carefully analyzed my pictures of rural schools in Kenya.

Why "unfinished ..."?

I chose this title because when I first walked into a classroom in rural Kenya, everything around me seemed ... unfinished - the bare walls and gaping holes instead of windows all contributed to that impression. It seemed that the classrooms were still under construction. Of course, the sad truth is that the classrooms I visited were all finished - there simply isn’t enough money at many of the schools in Kenya to put in windows or buy new desks. There simply isn’t enough money to put plaster on the walls, buy bulletin boards, or put up posters.

Not every classroom in Kenya looks like the one I created in Second Life. Some schools are better equipped than others. Some classrooms have windows and plaster on walls instead of bare bricks. Some have new desks. Many have electricity. The classroom I built in Second Life, however, is not atypical of rural classrooms in Kenya. It represents rural schools and the country itself quite well. In Kenya, many things, including roads, schools, buildings, and public services, seem ... unfinished.

The work that Teachers Without Borders - Canada has begun in Kenya is also unfinished. We had initiated great projects, worked with many teachers, and established valuable contacts with ministry officials and other NGOs. We look at these accomplishments as work in progress and an opportunity to continue to move towards our goals. One of those goals - and my goal for this virtual exhibit - is to raise awareness of some of the challenges faced by teachers, students, and administrators in developing nations.

I hope that you will take the time to walk through the exhibit and experience school life in a rural Kenyan classroom. The following link will take you into Second Life, to the island of jokaydia where the project is hosted: (SLurl to the Virtual Kenya Exhibit).

Virtual Kenya Project Machinima (Link to the original file on blip.tv)

Interested in a Tour?

If you like what you see and would like to bring your students or colleagues into this space, or learn more about education in Kenya or the work of Teachers Without Borders - Canada, please feel free to contact me. I've given a number of tours already and would be happy to chat about the space or help you build a lesson around this virtual exhibit.