It was a lovely October day when Ali Dimashkieh and I met at Roadster in Hamra.
I’d read about Teach for Lebanon, then in its first year, in the Daily Star. Fascinated by the concept, I sent Ali, conceptualizer and founder of TFL, an email.
I was teaching history and English at ACS for a semester and had some free time. Maybe I could help?
See, I’d been involved in a similar Teacher Corps internship program—as what TFL calls a Fellow—several decades before, working with African American kids in a small city in West Virginia.
Like every conversation with Ali, this one was full of energy, hope and possibility.
As we wrapped things up he said he’d get in touch.
And indeed, he did, inviting me to offer an evening of training for the Fellows. I agreed, and met the group in their office in Beirut. We discussed, I think, Formative Assessment. The Fellows were interested and interesting, full of the same energy and inquisitiveness that Ali had projected. Then I left Lebanon, returning a year later. Again, I offered my services. Again, he invited me to help, so I provided several workshops for the cohort of new Fellows during the next Summer Institute in Saida.
It was all very pleasant. Pleasant and rewarding.
A few months later, however, just before a celebratory dinner where my wife—who had joined me at ACS—and I were to meet TFL staff, board members and Fellows, the TFL world fell apart.
Ali had been hit by an unknown but incapacitating illness. What would happen to Ali? What would happen to TFL?
Since Ali didn’t seem to be getting any better, everyone was asking these questions, staff, board members and Fellows. The question was all the more urgent because there didn’t seem to be enough money to train and pay for another cohort. The staff started looking for work. It was hard to blame them, but it did seem a shame to let this promising organization fall apart just when it was gaining momentum. Moreover, a small group of Lebanese ex-pats living in the US was creating TFL-US, which would probably be able to add significantly to the organization’s coffers. But it would take a while to cross all those bureaucratic t’s and dot those i’s.
It turned out that there was enough money provide the current cohort with a second year, but not enough to start up a new cohort.
Hey, how about this?
TFL wouldn’t recruit a new cohort, but I’d round up some volunteers to meet with the second-year Fellows four or five times during the school year to maintain their momentum and keep the program alive. Maybe TFL-US would wrap up its paperwork and start raising money.
Maybe we could save the organization.
Salyne, the only staff member to hang on, agreed. Ali agreed.
So I asked a couple of ACS colleagues if they could give a few hours on a half-dozen Saturdays to keep things moving, offering trainings in whatever interested them.
So Wade and Andrea and I began meeting with the dozen or so Fellows. We spent the first part of each meeting debriefing about what they’d been learning, wondering about, coping with, and hoping for. Then we provided some training.
About half-way through the year we asked the teachers to develop an Action Research question that they’d like to study in their classrooms, and the Saturday workshops began to focus on what they were beginning to learn about their questions. Somewhere along the way, word came from Charbel Tagher, the Lebanese-American businessman who made TFL-US possible, that TFL-US was up and running and was attracting a fair amount of funding. Salyne organized a Summer Institute for a new cohort.
Ali was, very slowly, getting better, but was nowhere near ready to pick up the leadership reins, so Salyne agreed to run the operation. Ali asked if I would work as teacher trainer.
My relationship with this fledgling operation—the dream of a man who had seen Lebanon’s public schools at first hand and realized that something needed to be done—had morphed and blossomed.
But mainly, TFL had survived.
Nicholas Boke is currently an international education consultant working in the Middle East and Africa, including a variety of projects in Lebanon. He lived in Beirut in the late 1950s, attending the American Community School before moving to Rio, then studying at the University of California at Berkeley. He has worked as a classroom teacher, journalist, family and adolescent literacy expert and now lives with his wife, Buffy, in Providence, Rhode Island.