Notes from Ethiopia, Part 2

I’m back from my week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and thinking about what collaboration looks like.

My charge in Addis was to share ideas about education from here in the United States—like the benefits of student-centered teaching, arts integration, and social and emotional learning.

Overwhelmingly, I found audiences in Addis to be receptive, curious, and excited. Whether I was talking to teachers, students, or the general public, folks were eager to engage in real discussion about the promises and challenges of education. They raised questions that highlighted the differences between their teaching contexts and mine: “How can I do these types of activities when my desks are bolted to the floor?” one asked. Another pointed out that, while student-centered teaching sounded like a good idea, he had 60 students  in his class and wasn’t sure how he could do it well.

At first, in these moments, I tried to play the role of expert by offering (admittedly hypothetical) solutions.

But at a certain point, it became obvious that, regardless of the wisdom some people believed I could offer my colleagues in Ethiopia, I needed to step back and listen, instead. At one workshop for teachers, when a teacher asked how I would recommend he begin implementing innovative strategies when his principal required that he stick strictly to a mandated curriculum, I opened up the conversation to the other teachers in the audience. Their advice for their colleague was grounded in their own stories about having faced similar situations in their schools, and it was ten times more powerful and helpful to him than mine would have been.

One evening, a man in the audience at an event where I was speaking raised his hand during the Q&A and said, “I don’t know why everyone is sitting here telling you all of the things that are wrong with our education system. It’s not your job to fix it. Every time someone comes to our country who is of a different race, people think they are going to fix all of our problems.”

He had a point. Moments before he spoke, I had actually been thinking about ways that I could help fix some of the problems the teachers in the room had raised. It would be easy for me to send supplies to that school, I thought, or I bet someone in America knows a good strategy to handle that issue. 

It is a bad habit of mine to try to be a fixer, to try to solve everyone else’s problems, to avoid conflict and pain at all costs. Sometimes, this prevents me from truly hearing what someone else is saying–or from looking critically at myself.

When I was getting ready to leave Ethiopia, a number of people asked me what I had learned during my visit. I realized that, although I had learned a lot about the country, its history, people, and cultures, I had not learned enough about education. I had more questions than answers.  

How much more could I have learned from these teachers if I’d taken the opportunity to hear their wisdom about teaching, too? If I’d seen these moments as opportunities to collaborate, rather than a one-way street?

This isn’t confined to Ethiopia. How can administrators and teacher leaders ensure that professional development opportunities, whether they are weekly staff meetings or once-in-a-lifetime chances to meet with teachers from another country, are collaborative? How do we honor all participants’ expertise and ideas? How do we stay grounded in the fact that we all have more to learn, whether we’re introduced as the expert or the novice in the room?

Going forward, as I have more opportunities to talk to my fellow teachers from around the country and around the globe, I’m going to work to silence my inner fixer, ask more questions, and remember that, at the end of it all, I want to be able to answer this question: What did I learn?

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