Every teacher needs to break out of his box once in a while. Whether it’s for a professional conference, special field trip, or some sort of community service, I believe it’s restorative and invigorating to spend— every once in a while— a few school-day hours outside the school building.

Last week I had that kind of opportunity and I’m still on a high.

The U.S. Department of State runs an International Visitors Leadership Program, and is currently hosting a delegation of 19 elementary and secondary education specialists from 18 countries. I participated in a panel at Strong John Thomson Elementary in downtown D.C. alongside a DCPS principal and guidance counselor on “DC Schools: An Insider’s Perspective.”

The delegation members came from (in alphabetical order) Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, India, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Suriname, and Swaziland. As they entered and the panelists and I greeted them, nobody could stop beaming. Kumbaya City! I shook hands with several delegates, and was politely rebuffed from contact by the woman from the Directorate of Secondary Education in Bahrain. The gentleman from the Slovak Republic wore a staid grey suit with his grin.

Several questions were posed about charter schools. How are they different from magnet schools? What do the students gain by going to either of these kinds of schools?

One representative asked “who’s most to blame for American schools’ problems?” Another wanted to know my most disheartening teaching experience. I spoke of how, in my rookie year, I failed to see that 4th grader Lakiya Ray was fighting me with ugly behavior because she was always at her academic frustration level.

The professor from Russia asked about American secondary students’ international opportunities. She said they were highly valued in Russia; learning English was a priority. I replied that there are not many large-scale structures in place to help students get abroad, but that I thought America would certainly benefit if we sent our youths out to experience more of the world. I said that we need to look outward more; many of our current problems derive from an empathy gap that grows from most of the country’s not knowing people who are different from them.

This set off a flurry of business card exchanges. Eighteen countries wanted my students. A few representatives said, “Money is not an issue. Let’s make this connection!”

Education is a cooperative, unifying endeavor. Sharing ideas with educators from around the world was thrilling, and I’ve charged back into my school with renewed purpose. The classroom can be isolating and lonely, but when we connect with our counterparts on common issues, it really is a small, inspiring world out there.

Share this post: