Around the World in 34 Years: Life in International & Charter Schools

I set off for my first international job in 1978, right out of Bard College, to become an ESL teacher in Bogotá, Columbia and have been indelibly bitten since. Culture has been my elixir. I’ve been educated by the world and acquired cultural fluency by relinquishing the familiar and embracing the diverse. Over three decades, I have lived on three continents, running schools in Mexico City, Mexico; Hoboken, New Jersey; and Barcelona, Spain. In this time, New York has served as my family and professional hub. For the last five years, I have been battling windmills and state bureaucracies as a school head in the contested world of charter schools—a test-centric universe in a city where education is a political football.

Heading a middle school and later a dual-language K-8 school, my work has at times involved being a pastor, a priest, a detective, and a tweeter. I battle for the soul of kids one life at a time. Not a day goes by without a meltdown or an act of defiance. In the charter world, I’m doing less big-picture work and more reaching out to the wounded. I give pounds to kids with pouty faces and pounds to kids brimming with confidence. I take the social and emotional temperature of my students every day: Has Aiden taken his meds? Has Chemere gotten enough sleep? And why was Jackie wearing lipstick? I have always cared about helping young people learn to find their voice, discover their humanity, and learn to use their minds well. But here I find we are measuring a kid’s intelligence through standardized tests and reducing the scintillating gifts of intelligence to a matter of holding a # 2 pencil, being quiet, and staying seated.

I’ve seen both sides now—the international and the charter—and the most differentiating factor is socioeconomics. Poverty introduces a whole new language into an already complex world. Here, complacency and mediocrity are acceptable. Likewise, low expectations and cultures of disrespect can become the norm.

In the international world, one finds bullying, cultural prerogative, helicopter moms, boundary-testing young adults, and the rank-and-file issues inherent in administering a school. But rarely are there shattered families and cycles of social and emotional privation. In the global world of American education, school culture anchors stability, optimism, and a sense of the future. The charter world, by contrast, is a place of uncertainty and “at risk,” where dysfunctionality still prevails. In the international world, we place a premium on care and human development. Test scores are not jugular. In the charter world, testing is the driver and becomes all-consuming. Leading in an international school is more than living in another country. All the core elements of climate and wellness are there to draw on: school pride, mission, parental involvement, community service, resources, responsive boards, strategic plans, a sense of expansiveness and vision.

The fact is, international schools and charter schools are operating on intrinsically different models with different outcomes. One makes its way in the global era while the other, with wonderful exceptions, seems stuck in the industrial one.

My students are no longer third-culture kids who flit from one country to the next, vacationing in Amsterdam over spring break, and being dropped off at school by their nannies. Mine may never leave their neighborhoods. Or be able to find the Netherlands on a map. Some are angry kids with tragic lives. Overweight kids who dream of being professional basketball players. Desperate kids who sit invisible in the back of the room. Deprived kids who have never heard of Shakespeare or Marvin Gaye or Billie Holiday. Kids who shuffle. Kids who can’t sit still, whose bodies are like perpetual slinkies. Kids with “anger management issues.” Kids who carry homophobia, misogyny, and bias around their necks like medallions. Kids covered with labels and stereotypes, who face a lifetime of societal biases and obstacles.
And yet, the bottom line is constant: all students have the same human need to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be loved, to be held to high expectations, and to be surrounded with opportunities to learn. Our job is to set those conditions, be it in East Harlem or Helsinki.

The experience of education according to Ken Robinson, “is always personal. But the issues are increasingly global.” Here is what I have discovered after 34 years: the love for learning and interest in people and cultures develops a broad and generous vision of education and leadership. And the life of crossing many boundaries of language and culture deepens our understanding for and appreciation of how children learn and the varieties of communities that support them. Charter or international, the common thread is passion and commitment—not to any ideology or methodology, but to learning with and from students—and infusing our communities with a culture of joy and a sense of purposefulness wherever we happen to be.

About David Penberg

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. He has held leadership roles in non-profits, community-based organizations, independent, international and charter schools, and in higher education. He has a deep grounding in progressive education, the cross-cultural experience and leadership development. Dr. Penberg has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He was a fellow in the Carey Leadership Program at Bank Street College (1982-84) and Klingenstein Fellow for International School Heads at Teachers College, Columbia University (2008). He was the founding director of the nationally recognized Liberty Partnerships Program at Bank Street College. Since then, Penberg has held posts as Head of Studies and Head of School in international schools in Mexico City and Barcelona. He was most recently the Head of School at Innovate Manhattan Charter School in the lower east side and is an adjunct at Pace University’s Teaching Fellows program. He abides by Auden's dictum "We were put on earth to make things."
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2 Responses to Around the World in 34 Years: Life in International & Charter Schools

  1. Though charter schools do not sound easy, it certainly seems like noble pursuit. Glad to hear you are still committed to learning. I am sure you have helped people develop their passions, like you once helped me get the community service program off the ground in Barcelona. All the best!

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