Still, I was less excited about an unbudgeted, exploratory trip across nine time-zones. Besides, I was fighting to keep TWB afloat. I’d rather spend funds on programs than flights. We had managed somehow to reach our sixth year of operations, but we were barely hanging on. Nevertheless, a colleague kept insisting that I was missing out on one of my organization’s greatest possible success stories. I conceded that things do move forward when the leader shows up, but if feels so unctuous and self-aggrandizing. He was, however, relentless: “We’re doing even more amazing things than you know; we’re really getting amazing things done! This is huge!”
Each time he called, I came up with another excuse—my mother is ill; I have a conference to attend or give a speech… It took him more than a year to talk me into it. He had lined up funders for an exciting opportunity beyond my wildest dreams–a Teachers Without Borders Sabbatical School—where teachers from around the world could spend a part of their sabbatical as teachers-in-residence. By day, they would teach local children side-by-side with their South African colleagues. By night, the facility would double as a health clinic. “It will be high-tech, high-touch, high-teach,” a soundbyte taken directly from one of my grant proposals. He knew how to pull my chain.
He promised me that it would be better than anything Oprah could pull off, a reference to her newly inaugurated school for girls emphasizing academics and leadership in a state-of-the-art facility. As he spoke, I drifted off, Charlie Brown style, having been immediately put off by the all-too-familiar nonprofit song of sanctimony, false humility, and intense jealousy.
My doubts notwithstanding, it did occur to me that I could leverage this trip into something of real value–and possibly a grant opportunity. (It’s how you reflexively think in this business.) I had been struggling with a hook to encapsulate our mission into a crisp elevator speech. I needed something tangible, something even with bricks and mortar, to translate heart-strings into purse-strings. We non-profit folks, especially in the international development scene, take too long to explain what we do and how we do it. “Global teacher training?” “Teachers and international development?” As a teacher, I know that Charlie Brown look. Bring up the subject of education around the world, and most people immedately call up an image of those girls with pretty green eyes. Buildings evoke stability, gaggles of school-children in tidy uniforms, something from nothing. A donor can show it off: “I built that.”
But then again, TWB was not in the school-building business. At the time, Greg Mortenson seemed to have a lock on that. We’ve always believed we were deeper than the building—more about the people inside and the education they facilitate. But that speech has a quick crowd-pleasing half-life. It resonates with conspiracy theorists and academics, but they don’t have much cash, I mused. “Kids are cute…teachers are a pain the ass,” I’ve heard. But distributing medicated mosquito nets or building a school—well, that’s something they can sink their teeth into. For that, you can display an architectural rendering on an easel alongside of a giving thermometer, followed by a photo of a Rotarian holding the other end of a cardboard check as you smile for the photographers.
So, I reconsidered. In my world, you have to do that a lot. Maybe this Sabbatical School was a new vision of development, something more visible. We could build some momentum here. And having played a substantial role in building two Math-Science buildings at my former schools, I knew a thing or two about capital campaigns.
And I’d kick myself if I passed up another opportunity. Maybe I just wasn’t seeing things clearly. The Sabbatical School could put us on the map. I liked the sound of an organization with a big mission and a foreign address. Word would get out…Oprah might visit….
I convinced myself that this was a good thing and could picture a benefactor in Johannesburg just waiting to hand over such a massive gift of land, if only I would come over to talk with him. I didn’t even have to make my pitch; I could just fly in, observe the teaching seminars we held there every year, and cinch the land deal.
Let’s admit it. We all have an Inner Empire Builder, and now mine was starting to stir. Future grant proposals started taking shape in my mind: a Sabbatical School in South Africa, combining an innovative blend of technology and face-to-face teacher professional development, connecting teachers to each other for a community in need of support.
Such is life when you’re trying to build a worldwide nonprofit organization. You shape programs, raise funds, gather resources—rinse and repeat. You’re accountant and lawyer, spinmeister and teacher, technologist and visionary, CEO and shipping clerk. You read newspapers and tea leaves, iron shirts for conferences, and practice your pitch in the mirror.
Sometimes you wait and pace, write and revise, mock up a proposal, or sketch another idea. You scrounge for good board members in a panic because you’ve spent too much time dreaming in lesson plans and not enough schmoozing rich people. You are so busy building a road in front of a speeding car that you find it hard to think about where, in fact, you’re going.
Or why you’re in an old Mercedes, over in the wrong (in this case the right) lane trying to pass an overcrowded bus growling and smoking up a hill on a narrow highway, approaching a sharp turn.
You are well educated and have a reasonable feel that a given project has more than a fifty-fifty chance of success. But you also know that managing all the moving parts and predictable obstacles is a risky proposition—at best. You find yourself in places where there is no tourist brochure. Places subject to monsoons or civil disturbances. Places where the government may grow suspicious of you (check); the local university may feel threatened (ditto); you may even be accused of being a CIA agent (an accusation levied often in Pakistan).
Why succumb to something so counter-intuitive and with such little likelihood of success? I recalled the fake ad campaign sung by “The Capitol Steps.” Come to Kosovo (they harmonized), where you can get bombed almost every night. This was obvious. I knew what I would expect.
Have we really thought through the plausibility of a Sabbatical School? Wouldn’t the whole project consume us? If I thought a building campaign in the United States was a drain, imagine all the complexities in South Africa.
What if this is a stunning success? Then you’re faced with the expectation that you can scale it up and replicate the success around the world. Sure, you’ve outlined a few key revenue-generating possibilities, even a distribution network that relies less on you and more on local channels, but how do you implement that kind of strategic thinking on an international scale?
I was facing that here. Did I really want Teachers Without Borders to become yet another obsequious nonprofit consumed with buildings? We were about showing that brains are equally distributed, though education is not, and that teachers can bridge that gap? This plan had all the trappings of one of those one-sided, bourgeois, therapeutic edu-tours. I could just smell the noblesse oblige—the cologne of colonists—a mile away. Besides, I thought, how many teachers take international sabbaticals? Last time I checked, teachers in the U.S., for example, were shelling out about $1,200 per year—out of pocket—for school supplies. Weren’t we about local problems, local leadership, local capacity? Who, really, is the audience. Who would be served by such a building project? How would it be sustained?
My questions kept coming at a faster and faster pace. How could a Sabbatical School support the goal of reducing the number of over seventy million primary school children who do not go to school at all? For all the heroic gains in human development indices, we have a long, long way to go to educate them. Who, if not teachers, can do that? Building or no building?
Such questions often turn inward. Perhaps my gut was…misguided. After all, I have taken risks before. Maybe I was seeing a dark cloud behind every silver lining.
None of this analysis paralysis matters in the end. In this business —more often than not—opportunity trumps reason.
After all, everyone else’s gut told them that my vision to connect and support teachers around the world was…misguided. I hung in there, though, and went ahead, regardless. I founded Teachers Without Borders because, at 59-62 million, teachers constitute the largest professionally trained group in the world. They are the agents of good, right in the world’s backyard. I knew then (and now) that teachers were the only consistent agents of change. TWB was conceived to empower teachers, support them, identify leaders, and connect them. I saw, too, that in the grand schemes of global educational change, teachers’ voices are missing.
This is unchartered territory, so you have to make a choice. There’s no recipe or roadmap, just a compass and intuition. Sure, you should learn from mistakes, but the variables change and it’s hard to keep it all straight.
One thing, though, is certain. In development work, you know you’ll never have enough funding, largely because the need you’re trying to meet is more or less infinite, and growing. And on top of the constant chase for new dollars is the constant need to report to your donors. After all, they are entitled to a return on their moral and financial investment in social welfare. And you gave them a solemn oath to deliver, to tell the truth, to grow their trust, to fulfill all promises, to exceed expectations.
No looking back, I consoled myself, though I realized—just moments after I had booked the flight—that I was scheduled to give a web-talk using Cisco’s new acquisition, Webex, an online meeting and web-conferencing tool, soon after I was to touch down in Johannesburg. My Faustian plan was beginning to unravel even before I reaped its benefits.
I would have to make it in a town an hour-and-a-half from the airport, in an area of uncertain bandwidth—at best. Weeks of careful work had enabled me to schedule this time to bring together teachers and also to demonstrate the educational value of Cisco’s product donation. I could not change the date of the webinar, so I focused on the spin—I’d conduct that conference from the hinterlands of South Africa. Timing, however, would have to be precise. Fly. Drive. Teach.
The flight from Seattle to Johannesburg left on time. The only delay on the journey came during the refueling layover in Dakar, Senegal, where flight attendants told us to stand by while soldiers entered the plane and conducted random searches. Then, the search completed, we were told to cover our mouths and noses with a cloth while flight attendants walked the aisles spewing a blue pesticide from aerosol cans—a crop-dusting precaution against Yellow Fever. I have become accustomed to that sickly-sweet smell of generic Raid, and have come to enjoy watching that blue-gray mist cloud linger above the overhead bins.
The customs line was interminable and I had not a moment to waste–the scheduled time for my webinar was drawing ever-nearer.
I met the chain-smoking brother of my host, who guided me to his car, grabbed my suitcase, tossed it into the trunk, and wheezed, “Ready?” I got in and began fumbling for a seatbelt; there weren’t any.
He backed out without looking and floored the accelerator, screaming through turns in the parking structure and pinballing us out onto the highway. He liked to drive, he said, with the air-conditioning on full, the windows down all the way, and the radio blasting. “The best of all worlds! Weather and sports at the same time!”
The highways outside Johannesburg were smooth and tidy enough to ease my fears over my chauffeur’s driving–until I leaned over and saw that the speedometer was registering 120km/hr. It didn’t help that Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” was tearing away at the membrane of damaged speakers. Or that my driver kept assuring me that we’d meet my colleagues with time to spare.
Everyone in the field of development has stories about harrowing car trips (embellished, often after a pint), and I can hold my own—the shrine that appears out of nowhere in the middle of an Indian expressway. Drivers making up time by using the median as an HOV lane. The snow-blind, up-mountain, bald-tire-sheer-cliff-on-either-side climb through uncertain terrain. The child-soldiers loitering and leering from the backs of cattle trucks.
Like so much else, these driving adventures are, simply, an act of faith. When it’s your time, it’s your time, you say to yourself. You feign indifference even though you can imagine the end of your life as a crash-test dummy. You lean back against the naugahyde even though your adrenal glands are screaming fight or flight. You keep your hands in a relaxed pose and pretend to follow the conversation or the scenery, though your right leg straightens out to put on your imaginary brakes. You’re just watching a movie of this, you explain. It’’s not you in this car being pelted with hail, not you accidentally making eye contact with unhappy military personnel just back from furlough. You tell yourself that the subtle communication between drivers on hairpin turns is a perfectly reasonable arterial social contract and that you’ll get to your intended place in plenty of time, sure—no problem, just as promised.
With one hand pulling out the cigarette lighter, and another swinging the wheel, the driver made a U-turn and skidded to an abrupt stop outside a strip-mall and directed me toward a bar that advertised wifi.
Bars are not ideal spots for setting up teacher-videoconferencing shop, but after this Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, at least I did not feel as if my life were in imminent danger. I found the table closest to an electrical outlet reachable by the extension cord I always carry with me, fitted the adapter, and started setting up for the webinar, scheduled to air within a half hour.
The owner/bartender came over to tell me he was closing. Knowing the drill, I bought a few bottles of Castle Lager. He declared that I could stay while he cleaned up–as long as I autographed three five-dollar bills (one for each of his daughters, he said). It seemed a reasonable tip-bribe for my webinar venue.
I moved my Castle Lagers out of webcam view, taking no notice of the wall behind me, on which hung a mirror reflecting a 1960s Hamm’s-like Scene-A-Rama Motion Beer sign, complete with stream, muffled sound-effects, and what appeared to be a bear approaching a fisherman. The internet connection kept timing out, and I couldn’t tether my cellphone because it teetered unreliably between one bar and no bars. I tried to log in by repeatedly finger-punching the Return key, expecting a different result each time in the classic mindless triumph of hope over experience.
Not unlike a typical day in the nonprofit world, come to think of it.
Meanwhile, the bartender collected the two bottles I’d emptied (I was in a panic), and brought two more without bothering to ask if I wanted them.
Then, magically, I was connected. And in one of those classic moments of on-the-internet-no-one-knows-you’re-a-dog, I found myself appearing around the world as the serious-minded Dr. Fred Mednick, Founder of Teachers Without Borders, a global nonprofit with operations in dozens of countries, describing my organization’s mission, demonstrating how teachers are multipliers, how technology can be an accelerator. There was not enough bandwidth to see me and my PowerPoint slides–a blessing in disguise, actually, as that Hamm’s sign would have been in view had I been–nor was there enough internet juice to keep both Powerpoint and voice going. So I had to improvise, sharing administrative privileges with a colleague in Seattle—IMing him each time I needed to advance to the next slide.
Improbably, it worked. The internet-lite and sound quality held up. I welcomed the webinar participants in my best avuncular, foreign correspondent voice. I described how teachers have always been the acupuncture points in their communities, the ones who know who is sick or missing or orphaned by AIDS. I tied teacher development to international development.
I made the case for education as the single-most catalytic tipping point in development. I cited research on the overall benefits that accrue each year a girl is educated, how education leads to better health, cleaner water, and greater social stability. I urged membership in the organization (free), the use of our online tools (free), and access to our content (free). I made it clear (to any donors who might be listening) that the disparate, disconnected, worldwide community of teachers could benefit enormously from organizing and sharing their collective wisdom.
I emphasized respect for the dignity of the teacher worldwide, how investment in teachers is nothing short of assuring a basic human right for the future.
I was really selling well. I completed my presentation with enough time for questions. There were several. Participants asked about the origins of the organization, details about our programs, where we were currently working. I answered as many as I could, wrapped things up with a reminder about the date and time for the next webinar, and privately noted with pride (and astonishment) that the presentation ended on time. I signed another $5, then off my driver and I went at a more leisurely pace.
Another bullet dodged.
After a reasonably good night’s sleep followed by a day-long series of well-attended seminars, I signed certificates for an awards ceremony, sat in planning meetings, and gathered for group photographs. This went on for four more days.
The American organizers were well prepared and dedicated, but they made me feel uneasy, fearful that the South African effort might be turning into yet another one-sided “exchange” of American teaching methods and content, tailored and imported wholesale into South Africa. I have this long-standing fear of Teachers Without Borders turning from a force for local empowerment into a form of drive-by professional development which, more often than not, evaporates within a week. For me, the proof of our success should always derive from the balance of self-reliance and mutuality it fosters rather than the arrival of a well-meaning NGO bearing gifts and banner visible in most of the photographs.
I have always believed that Teachers Without Borders should be a network, first and foremost, and a source for local leaders. That those local leaders should be front, center, and active. The program should be self-generated rather than produced overseas. By those criteria, our “operations” in South Africa felt like a wasteful distraction from our core mission.
But over the course of those five days, I saw both American and South African teachers challenging their old assumptions, comparing and sharing approaches to education. It was pretty inspiring. I needed to remain open to the possibility that some unforeseen wonder was taking shape here. It is easy to criticize and deconstruct, far more difficult to build something or even accept that things can work out.
So I decided to keep an open mind. Since this was all going well, why not appreciate it? Maybe these meetings would prove to be a watershed moment for TWB, topped off by a substantial donation of valuable land–a Teachers Without Borders Sabbatical School.
At the meeting, I would be presented with a concept sketch of an environment into which teachers and students could connect either in person or on line. It would include state-of-the-art equipment, a laboratory for twenty-first-century pedagogy, public spaces, private spaces…and all I could think was, “There has to be a catch.”
My colleague assured me that the land would be donated without taxes and fees, everything taken care of by the donors, that the place would practically run itself, and that Teachers Without Borders and South African businesses could team up to promote a vision of empowerment through education.
We were met by one of the architects and exchanged pleasantries and business cards. I was ushered to a well-appointed Mercedes, complete with seat-belts, and off we went on a tour of the grounds. We passed famrs on our way to what appeared to be model homes and clubhouses on a golf course.
My knowledge of South Africa has always been limited, and I didn’t want to draw unwarranted conclusions from what I was seeing. But the people and scenes visible from our tinted windows struck me as anachronistic. This was the post-Apartheid age? Men and women–all of them black–in rags, women bearing  huge sugar-cane stalks on their heads, men stooped over in the fields, wearing floppy felt hats, hoeing. Children playing with soccer balls made of duct tape and cardboard.
I felt adrift, confused, guarded. I don’t like that feeling where you have no context for what you are seeing, nor any way of filtering what you’re being told. I was clearly at a significant disadvantage and kicked myself for not having done enough homework—about the region, the corporation, this new development.
I view the world through the lens of lesson plans and thought of one right then and there. I set my camera to its sepia setting. At my next public talk or seminar, I would project a photograph and ask viewers to guess the year or era when it was taken. I would most likely elicit a response that this was a 1930s dust-bowl photograph Dorothy Lange or Walker Evans may have taken. My punch-line would surprise them. Nope, I would nod sanctimoniously, I took this photograph in 2006. I imagined the conversation that would follow—about the difference between policy and reality, history and the present day, culture and context, our capacity for gullibility helped along by our vision of history (however accurate) curated by the History Channel. This had “teachable moment” written all over it—a way in, a way through, and a way out—even though it was manipulative and unfair.
My reveries were interrupted by our arrival at what looked like a private men’s resort club. Perhaps, I thought, this is where my colleagues from the previous trip had gone golfing. My guides led me into an elegantly appointed office to meet my putative benefactors. The landowner and chief architect spread out the sketches. I dropped a few sugar cubes in my tea in order to keep busy.
The facility would take up a prime scenic spot—they’d take me there to see it after tea–atop the division’s five thousand acres. Architectural and design charrette sessions would center on what buildings and grounds would work most productively for communities of teachers and their conversations about teaching and learning. Again, I was assured, the fund-raising would be easy, the land donation serving as a visible catalyst to get things started.
We returned to the cars and my colleague and I joined the CEO of the company. The car was already on when I stepped in, and freezing. We circled the property, then sliced off through a dirt-road that parted the sugar cane, like something out of a Field of Dreams cornfield; I looked back to see if it closed up after the dust settled. The architect followed in his truck, along with a passenger in a hard-hat.
We took switchbacks and geometric patterns through hills of cane and a patchwork of vegetable acreage. Field workers took no notice. Suddenly, as we climbed, it all opened up—breathtaking, verdant, breezy, panoramic, seemingly limitless. A shimmering Indian Ocean blue met sky blue. One clearly-defined cloud hung above like a children’s drawing. The host and I crunched our way through machete-cleared sugar-cane until we reached the highest point. And in one of the weirdest moments–it was positively Biblical– he swept his hand across the perimeter as he turned on his heels and announced: “Soon, this can all be yours.”
I did not like the inherited wealth sound in his voice, though I wondered if, again, I was constitutionally unable to accept gifts. But the moment I’d been dreading came soon enough once the architect joined us. A question was raised about the planned height of the building, and with a chilling nonchalance, the CEO said: “See down there? Buildings have to be tall enough to hide the view of those slums down there from the homes we’re building up here. We need to keep these property values high.”
So there it was, the catch. I was a good ‘ol boy, and Teachers Without Borders was there to provide the philanthropic fig leaf over a grotesquely opulent real-estate development for white privileged South Africans. TWB would be little more than a visual barrier.
What was I supposed to do now? Complete the Biblical scene by shouting, “Get thee behind me, Satan?”
Politely noncommittal, I said my goodbyes as the land briefing came to an end. I made perfunctory statements about the need for more planning and analysis.
I waited a day to call and decline the offer.
I also decided to shut down our entire South African operation in its current form. I did not like the model from which we had been operating. Summer seminars (when the Americans are free, and nothing in between). My colleague no longer living in South Africa (though he was born not far from the site). No local leadership. That remote-control, occasional, drive-by feel designed more to make Americans feel good about themselves more than do any real good. This was a surreal nightmare—P.W. Botha and David Lynch all rolled up into one. I felt as if the speeding car had just soared off a cliff.
I hung in there; it was over. I held the phone from my ear in order not to hear the whining, the invectives, the manipulation, the betrayal, the impulsive nature of my decision, and the silence.
As I made my case and faced the response, my colleague’s brother was outside, smoking, ready to take me back to the airport. I was unable to see the American or South African teachers to thank them for their tireless and sincere work.
But it didn’t matter. This time, I consoled myself, my intuition was correct. The whole project was hopelessly compromised and I wanted to start over by responding to demand, rather than being the supply. Today, South Africa is back in the picture, properly teacher-centric, its momentum growing.
I never heard from my colleague again. I thought about reaching out, but never did. Meanwhile, I had gone off to put out other fires. Or start some of my own.