I first heard about Education International in 1996. I had recently joined the staff at the World Bank, on a leave from Harvard University, to lead their education projects in Mexico, and I was invited by Maris O’Rourke, then director of the education group at the Bank, to meet a delegation from Education International that was visiting the Bank.
It was at that meeting that I first met Fred van Leeuwen, one of the architects of the idea of an international federation of teacher unions, and began to learn about this intriguing organization. Our conversation at the time focused on the role of teachers, and their organizations, in the design of efforts to improve education. Since I had just co-authored, with Eleonora Villegas-Reimers, an academic journal article titled ‘Where are 60 million teachers: The missing voice in education reforms around the world”, Maris thought I would enjoy, and perhaps contribute, to this conversation with the leadership of this nascent organization about which everyone at the Bank knew very little. Fred explained, as I remember, that one of their goals was to advocate for teachers, and for teacher organizations, in the transnational space in which some consequential decisions about the future of education were being made. It seemed like a sensible idea, that teachers should have a voice in these conversations, and a practical mechanism to enact this goal, although I was agnostic as to how a federation of organizations from the entire world would manage to effectively represent 60 million members.
In the years since that first meeting, I had numerous occasions to meet and collaborate with Fred and his colleagues. I am especially fond of memories of the ambitious partnership Fred crafted with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and with the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, in a series of annual convenings to address the future of the teaching profession. As a result of this partnership annual meetings took place at which ministers of education, and leaders of teacher unions, participated together in discussions focused on how to improve the quality and relevance of education, and how to strengthen the preparation of teachers in service of these goals.
I participated in other convenings organized by EI over the years, including at several of their global Congresses, as well as several thematic conferences. Among these, a conference to advocate for the education rights of refugees and migrants a few years ago stands out as especially timely, courageous and visionary.
Over the years I have known him, Fred has also been generous in accepting to come to Harvard to speak to students in the International Education Policy program I direct, and from which EI’s Deputy General Secretary David Edwards is a graduate.
As a result of the conversations that these collaborations allowed, I learned to appreciate the importance of the vision Fred, and other founders and supporters, had for Education International. A global institution that would support dialogue and collaboration among all those interested in advancing educational opportunity globally, while supporting the critical role of teachers in that global education movement. I learned about Fred’s profound commitment to human rights and to democratic values, with the courage to expel from the federation national organizations who were not abiding by those norms, a man with sincere respect for the work of teachers, and committed to doing all in his power to advancing changes that would provide teachers the necessary support to do their work well.
At times when human rights remain a contentious idea, and when democratic institutions are challenged in many different parts of the globe, a federation of teacher organizations aligned with the goal to advance educational opportunity for all, on behalf of advancing human rights and democracy as a way of life, is more necessary than it was when EI was founded. I admire Fred’s vision and leadership in having brought what was once an idea into the reality of an institution that has demonstrably advanced the teaching profession and educational opportunity. I hope that the next generation of leaders of the institution will have the same vision, integrity and courage, to educate all people in a manner that advances a world that is more humane, more inclusive and more just, even in places when these goals become more contested and the work necessary to advance them fraught with peril.
On 26 January 1993, Education International was founded through the merger of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU) and the World Organisation of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP). On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, a special series of blogs, “#EI25: reflections”, will be published throughout 2018, bringing together voices and thoughts of unionists, education activists, partner organisations and friends, reflecting on past struggles and accomplishments, from which the organisation has drawn strength and inspiration to address current and future challenges facing education and the teaching profession. If you want to contribute to the series, please write to Sonia.firstname.lastname@example.org.