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Broadening Global Perspectives

Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen shares her thoughts on the increasing focus on global education and how one can think more globally in the classroom.
Jody Olsen
Jody Olsen

Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen sees an opportunity for global education in everything — everywhere. That’s because, she says, being a global citizen has less to do with where you might live or travel, and more to do with how you live.

“Global to me is about — wherever we are — that we think broadly, we hear, we observe, we try something new. We find a person, we find a community, or we find a family and listen, feel, and hear what that community or family is bringing to the situation that we can learn from and share with,” she says, noting that it’s really about respecting, honoring, and sharing culture.

At the root of Olsen's work throughout her career in the Peace Corps is a dedication to education. Her first position teaching English in Tunisia in the 1960s profoundly shaped her views. “You’re an American in a Tunisian classroom and you're supposed to be teaching and you have no way to communicate…,” she says. “I remember standing there thinking, ‘I could walk through that door and go home’… but I am going to stay and I’m going to teach. That experience completely changed my life.”

Work in education makes up 41 percent of the Peace Corps, which today has 7,000 volunteers in over 60 countries. “Our education programs are largely the whole approach,” Olsen says. The way this work is done, however, has evolved greatly from when the organization began in 1961, she says. Rather than being in classrooms, volunteers are more likely to be co-teaching with local teachers, working on curriculum, or working on secondary projects with students.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Olsen shares thoughts on the increasing focus on global education, and how you can think more globally in the classroom.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen sees an opportunity for global education in everything everywhere. To Jody, being a global citizen has less to do with where you might live and more to do with thinking broadly, listening, and respecting people, places, and things that exist all around you. That idea has long driven the Peace Corps for almost six decades. Education makes up nearly 41% of the Peace Corp's focus. Of the total 45,000 volunteers around the world, many have worked in some capacity in education. 

That is also part of what lured Jody to the organization, where she's been involved on and off since she got her start teaching English in the 1960s. She told me that experience of walking into the classroom in Tunisia changed her life. 

Jody Olsen: So you're an American in a Tunisian classroom, and you are supposed to be teaching, and you have no way to communicate because none of our languages fit. And I remember standing there thinking, my third day of being in the country, I could walk through that door and go home as I looked left. And I realized I would disappoint my husband. I would disappoint my parents. 

And then I thought, that's not me. I am going to stay, and I am going to teach. And that experience completely changed my life in many ways. One, I learned English much better. But the important part for me in being a teacher to those boys was-- well, let me give an example for it-- that I had vowed that I would only use English in the classroom so they wouldn't know how bad my other languages were. And so I used a lot of stick figures. And I used to draw stick figures all over the board. 

I would draw stick figures of the vocabulary we were working on. So I would have stick figures of donkeys and of camels and of the food that you eat in Tunisia and the chairs and tables. And I always wore the Tunisian clothes. And as we were introducing the words, my students would go, Mrs., Mrs., you like our food. And I would say, well, of course. And they would say, Mrs., Mrs., you like rugs. Well, of course. And then I would, in simple English, describe the designs. 

You like us. That moment, that conversation was so critical for me because I hadn't understood it until that time that I was honoring them. I was acknowledging their culture. I was acknowledging their crafts, their art, their history through teaching. And they had not had someone from another country, particularly the United States, come and be with them and be like them. 

And I appreciated in that moment that I was teaching who I was. I was teaching respect. I was linking myself with them. And any success I had in teaching had to come through my respect, honor of who they were as individuals and who they were as a community and culture. And I think that lesson has stayed with me throughout my life. 

Jill Anderson: That's an amazing, amazing story. Thank you for sharing that. I'm wondering how the Peace Corps handles education. 

Jody Olsen: About 41% of all the Peace Corps volunteers-- we have 7,000 who are serving now in 60 countries, and a little over 41% are in education. And being in education means a lot. It means, to an extent, being in the classroom. But less and less are we actually in the classroom. We are today more likely to be co-teaching with teachers from the countries where we are. 

We're more likely to be working with curriculum. We are likely to be working with secondary projects with the students so that our sense of education is a sense of being present in their systems in a lot of different ways. This has evolved over our 58 years. And we've had, I believe, about 45,000 Peace Corps volunteers who have been educators. So I can count myself as one of those 45,000. 

And we initially were essentially in the classroom, but recognizing that we are partners with our co-teachers and with the educators and the headmasters of the schools. And part of sustainability and part of strengthening education systems, as the educators ask us to be there, is really in that partnership we create with other teachers. So we work in primary, secondary, higher education teaching, many times teaching English and also math science. 

We work in laboratories and science programs. We set up and manage a lot of English clubs that are after school. We do technology. For example, as part of English teaching, we might be teaching our students how to code on computers. 

I was watching a Peace Corps volunteer working with teachers in Kazakhstan, and she was showing how to look for the truth on the internet in the English that was being downloaded for the classrooms and what teachers can look for to check in to test what they're seeing and reading. We sometimes set up health programs or health activities and sports activities tied with the schools where we are teaching. 

Our education programs are largely the whole approach to the student. And it's getting to know the student, eating meals with students in their homes, taking them to market, having conversations with them about who we are, who they are, and being in that, respecting, honoring, and sharing that culture that the students bring to the classroom. It's not just about a topic. 

In fact, the topic is important. It's what puts us into the room with the other teaching colleagues. But it's only the beginning. Probably 80%, 90% of it is about who we are, who they are, and building that self-respect in the students. 

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering about your own experience and hearing perspectives from different cultures, languages, ways of thinking. These are things you've been talking about, even just in your own experience as a teacher, that really seemed to hit upon what we mean when we say raising children to be global citizens of the world. 

Jody Olsen: Well, let me give a very American perspective on that. I was in Texas several years ago. And the Peace Corps has a program called the Coverdale Worldwide Schools Program where classes in the US can connect with classes in a Peace Corps country. And a Peace Corps volunteer connects, and they share, and they Skype, and they do things together. 

So I was talking to third graders about this opportunity. And I wanted to help them think about something that's very different from themselves. So I started asking them, what's your favorite food? And I had my sense of what a favorite food was. I always think of pizza. And so I assumed that's what it was going to be. 

So the students raised their hand and started shouting out. And what they were shouting out was a particular Italian dish, or it was a particular Korean dish or a Guatemalan dish. They were all in this classroom, and yet at home, they were representing probably eight or nine different cultural heritages. And their favorite dishes reflected that. 

So the students, for the first time, were hearing from each other very different ways of eating and favorite time together at home. And so you would get that, ooh, you like that? It began to get conversations going about how diverse their own eating cultures were at home. 

I was surprised-- the students were surprised at how different and the great variety of food. So I then sent to them, OK, I want you all now to think of another food that none of you have mentioned. And I talked about couscous, which was what I would eat when I was in Tunisia. You are now all going to try couscous together. I was like, oh, my heavens. We have to do that. 

Well, what I watched was that this group went from, oh, my heavens, look how different our eating is, to being together. Because together, they were going to try something that none of them had ever tried before. And they suddenly became one very tight group all trying this very strange food. 

So I come back to that kind of an experience that I think can happen in so many U.S. classrooms of taking advantage of the variety of what students bring in some very exciting ways. And then with the students, introduce something that's different from what any of them have observed before. So global to me is about wherever we are, that we think broadly. We hear. We observe. We try something new. We find a person, or we find a community, or we find a family and listen, feel, and hear what that community or family is bringing to the situation that we can learn from and share with. 

Jill Anderson: You meet with so many leaders around the world. I would love to know what you most often hear from them about their hopes. 

Jody Olsen: I have met with many leaders around the world. And there are two or three pieces that come from these conversations that have really struck me. One is the number of leaders that had been taught by a Peace Corps volunteer growing up at some point and their joy in talking about that. 

They often can name the volunteer. It might be 30 years earlier, 40 years earlier. They can name the volunteer. They can describe what that volunteer wore part of the time. They can remember something that they learned from that volunteer and the subtle influences that volunteer had on who they are today as some of their takeaways of that American that volunteered to come to their school and their community, with often no electricity, and there might not be water and no air conditioning, and how they as a young person were so struck by that American who chose to volunteer for two years in their community and be with them. 

Second, one of the most common questions that I get from a leader is, why do volunteers serve? What is it about the United States that creates a culture for Americans to volunteer? And they ask about it. How can we try to instill that in our own culture? And they remain just awestruck with that possibility. 

And in many of the countries, they have a very high population of young people, particularly in many of the African countries. And they're trying to figure out how to be present for young people because they become very fearful that without that education, that training, that support, that young people could find themselves in trouble. And one of the ways they want to come at it is the idea of volunteering among their own youth. 

And this is one of the key gifts, if I might use that term, that we give, is just showing what volunteerism is. And that has been so important to them. Third, they talk about the technical skill that we bring, particularly into the classroom, and in so many cases, how important English is, English because it becomes the global communication point. And they then indicate that the reason why they want volunteers doing it is because we are present. 

And I have had several leaders say that you can have a contract person come in and teach. The contract person is in the classroom, says goodbye, disappears, comes back the next day, teaches the lesson, and disappears. But what they really want is a person who brings the holistic approach and is present, being with the students, being with the teachers, sharing systems, sharing ideas, being a catalyst. And that's particularly why they want Peace Corps volunteers in their education systems. 

And leaders-- they talk about it personally. They talk about it professionally. But they so appreciate that young Americans in particular-- we have about 6% older Americans who do a great job-- they talk about some of the young Americans that they know. It's that personal interaction that brings a lifetime of meaning to everybody involved. 

Jill Anderson: Wow. This is something I'm curious about, is whether you've ever tracked — and I'm sure you probably have — what happens to your volunteers after they leave the Peace Corps, if they choose certain professions. Have you guys ever done that? 

Jody Olsen: Well, it's complex to try to do that because we don't have a real way of being able to stay in touch. But however, because there are a lot of returned Peace Corps volunteer groups and Peace Corps volunteers stay connected for the rest of their lives one way or another, we can have a good sense that the majority of volunteers come back and go into education, in part because that was an experience that was very satisfying to them. 

So there's a wonderful synergy between the returning education volunteer in particular and the education system in the United States that encourages volunteers, in some way, whether it's on the management side or the teaching or the curriculum or the research side, to go into and stay in education. So we're very thrilled. That synergy goes back and forth. 

And in fact, the teacher of the year this year, Mandy Manning, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia. And she's teaching in a school in Spokane, Washington. And her whole school and her class and her work is with immigrants and refugees. They are students who are new into the US. 

And she talks so poignantly of how her two years in Armenia, going through the experience that I described earlier and the impact it had on her and the ways that she relates to these students, the way she hears them, the way she reaches out and works with their families, the way she helps them understand each other, that is for her absolute link to her own personal experience. 

Jill Anderson: If you're listening and you're an educator — maybe you're a young person, and you haven't chosen a path yet. You're thinking about going into education. Why would you maybe choose to look at something like the Peace Corps or teaching globally in some way versus going just into a K-through-12 classroom? 

Jody Olsen: Well, I'm going to do a real push for Peace Corps or for an international education experience because the U.S. classroom — essentially, every classroom in the US now is diverse and represents a lot of different backgrounds among the students. And to be an effective teacher — I mean, speaking from my own limited experience, both teaching a little bit in the United States and, obviously, being a Peace Corps volunteer teacher— is that the presence with the students is the key to being an effective teacher. Whatever you're teaching, it's more than the subject. 

And in addition to being more than the subject, you're finding where they are so that the words and the examples you give, they can hear. And to me, having an international experience is key to figuring that out because you are confronted. 

The way I was confronted — I had a group of students that I couldn't talk to. How was I going to find their heads? How was I going to find their eagerness to learn? Because it wasn't necessarily there looking at me. I had to do it working from a great disadvantage. 

And the humbleness in figuring that out, in hearing, seeing, feeling, trying to be part of them, gave me so many skills in how to listen, see, observe, and appreciate that difference that any person that I am with brings to that conversation. So I think that an education international experience is so critical to being a successful educator in the United States. 

Now, fortunately, in the United States, we have a lot of opportunities of getting that same experience. And so through Teach for America and several other kinds of programs, we can be in settings and states and communities that are very different from the one that we grew up in. And I think taking advantage of that is also important. 

And even as we're walking into a classroom, what can I find among my students that are backgrounds that are brand new to me? And how do I hear and feel and see them so there's a way of approaching teaching that is like having a global experience? 

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much for coming by today. We appreciate it. 

Jody Olsen: Well, thank you. I've really enjoyed it. 

Jill Anderson: Jody Olsen is the director of the Peace Corps. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education



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