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Small Miracles in Dusty Classrooms

It is almost 9 am and I am finding my way through the meandering streets of the medina in Essaouira, Morocco. I am looking for an open store to buy milk for my coffee but find myself amused at the multitudes of children dressed in white lab coats crowding the alleyways on their way to school. A newbie to Morocco, I wonder, Is it science day?

A few weeks later I found myself in a public school, offering to run a short introductory workshop on sustainability education for second year high school students. Alas, I discover that the white coat is the uniform. I also discover that public school education in Morocco is no different than it is in Mexico and in other “developing” countries that I visit and sometimes have the opportunity to teach in. It is packed full of eager, interested, thirsty students and equally committed, passionate educators and then robbed of this potential by a lack of resources and opportunity. A concrete box of a room, forty kids to a class, one whiteboard and a mostly dry marker- now teach! Honestly, what always strikes me as truly amazing, especially coming out of the resource rich world of international education is what happens in some of those rooms when a passionate educator considers this his calling and his craft.

Khalid Ajou’s father sold mint bundles on the street when he was a kid. Their family of five lived in a single room and as the oldest child he remembers feeling important when he also would work in the streets, helping his father. He studied in the public school, the same one that he teaches at now. There wasn’t much English instruction but he was fascinated by the language and was encouraged by his own high school teacher, now colleague Mohamed Yeou with nurturing his desire to learn more. He practiced English while watching movies, listening to music and trying to talk to visiting foreigners. He recounts being taken to jail once because the authorities thought he was bothering the tourists and selling drugs. He laughs and says, “then they realized I was just this obsessed, crazy kid who would do anything to practice my English and they left me alone.” He struggled through the public education system, earning the equivalent of his bachelor’s and masters and a job as an English teacher at language school. He applied three times for the Fulbright Scholarship and after two rejections he was accepted to the program and would spend ten months at the University of Alabama, a dream well earned. Khalid was excited to invite me to visit his classroom. “You will love them, he says. They are so smart and so good, and they will be so excited to have a real English speaker – talk about anything, I don’t care, anything, will you come?” I laugh to myself because I do care, I care a lot about what I talk about, I care a lot to continue to spread the tools that I too am passionate about. I dream of infusing public education with sustainability education. Oh yes, I’ll come!

I prepared my lesson with the awareness that French was the second language taught in public schools, English was a third language and only taught in high school. The kids I would be teaching were in their second year of English instruction. I speak five words of French and less Arabic, I was counting on Khalid to help me make this all make sense. I stepped in front of a room of 40 lab coat wearing public school kids and started to talk about why my home town in California is quite similar to their hometown and how it matters that we all do what we can to protect the places that we love. I planned to speak slow and use simple vocabulary. I asked them how it might feel if they were to lose the things that they love about their city, and a kid in the back raised his hand and said, “deprived”. Moments later a girl in the front row in shy English explains climate change to me and her classroom, everyone nods their heads. These kids are 15 years old with two years of English and I’m 15 minutes into my lesson and the only word Khalid had to translate was sustainability (sad, but true). When I was a straight-A, second-year language student in high school I would have felt accomplished if I could memorize six sentences and string them together for the exam. These students, all of them, followed my every word, answered in perfectly crafted complicated sentences and dove into the activities. We used the Sustainability Compass to better understand the concept of sustainability in the context of the community of Essaouira and then we used systems thinking and the string game to build on our understanding by recognizing the ways that everything that we love is interconnected and in a delicate balance. We concluded with applause and smiles and a reminder that taking care of each other and our community is the best way to contribute to a better world.

It is a few days later now and I can’t stop thinking about these students. I compare their classroom and the learning resources available to them with their counterparts in private schools and a certain cognitive dissonance happens, how could they be this good? And then I remember Khalid, the passionate educator who invited me to his class in the first place and his mentor and colleague who still teaches English in the school. I remind myself (once again) that education isn’t about what we have as much as what we are willing to open our hearts and our minds to discover. Learning happens in its greatest form when curious, shiny-eyed students connect with inspired, committed and equally shiny-eyed instructors and my cognitive dissonance yields to a soft reflection of the gift of small miracles in dusty classrooms and an appreciation for these many miracles that I have witnessed along the way.

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