Interview with Fred van Leeuwen of Education International [Exclusive]

Jose Vilson Interviews, Jose

Fred van Leeuwen, Secretary General, Education International

Fred van Leeuwen, Secretary General, Education International


I had the pleasure of talking to Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary of Education International (EI), a 30-million member federation consisting of the world’s teachers unions and associations. [NB: NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten have seats on the executive board for this organization.]

For the average teacher in North America, we mostly focus on our local union chapter or district locals. The more active participants are familiar with the work of NEA or AFT, but we don’t necessarily hear about EI’s work around the globe. According to van Leeuwen, EI not only works in industrialized nations, but also non-industrialized nations, including countries like Ghana, Mozambique, and South Africa. They’ve prompted governments across the world to invest in teaching.

When I asked him what he meant about investing in teaching, and what were some important factors in transforming teaching, he said resoundingly that the focus has to be on professional space. When schools and teachers are given the autonomy to improve student learning, everyone wins. He cited the recent PISA tests, noting that the highest-performing countries have schools with great learning / working conditions, and cooperation amongst teachers is paramount. I agreed, noting that, as a teacher, the best environments I’ve seen engender collaboration amongst colleagues.

He then noted the trend in certain countries towards deprofessionalization, meaning that the amount of autonomy and professional space is shrinking. “If we compare the freedom teachers had 30-40 teachers ago now, we see that, not only has the profession of teaching diminished” in the eyes of the public, but “also the respect given to the teaching profession, making it less attractive to some.” EI’s job then is to challenge deprofessionalization.

Van Leeuwen laid out EI’s plan for doing this, which included supporting sharing innovative ideas with other countries. He mentioned, for instance, how the AFT had started the ShareMyLesson project, an online database of lessons shared by teachers across the nation. [NB: my Civil Rights lesson plan is up on there.]

In this vein, he also talked about EI’s new initiative to encourage organizations worldwide in unison to take initiatives / action for one full year. It started on World Teachers’ Day on October 4th, 2013 to World Teachers’ Day in 2014. Some of the manifestations locally we’ve seen include NEA’s Raise Your Hand campaign and AFT’s Reclaim The Promise campaign, both parts and parcel of this worldwide effort.

He said that EI mainly there to voice teachers’ concerns, but he also saw teachers’ organizations retaking responsibility for their profession, including standards and teacher development. He also felt the nations’ orgs can do better with respect to using teacher talent within their ranks. He sees EI takes a proactive role in improving teaching quality. He noticed that “many of the problems teachers had in the United States are shared across the globe,” hence the need for a united front.

As a sidebar, I asked him about Nelson Mandela’s legacy, and he instantly saw a connection between some of the work EI does with Nelson Mandela’s legacy. He saw Mandela’s education legacy as a need to make education a human right, not something to take for granted. He tied it into why, for instance, we need public schools, because without public schools, education becomes exclusive to some. He saw, as Mandela did, that education wasn’t just about “reading words and writing numbers,” but a way to gain entry into the world and gain a sharper lens. “These can’t be measured by PISA tests or standardized tests.” Education, for van Leeuwen, is a goal in itself.

I saw lots of positives with showing a worldwide united front, as was shown during teachers’ strikes in Spain, Mexico, England. Yet, I also shared my concern that, as much as I appreciate the symbolism, I wanted to know what happens after World Teachers’ Day next year. “Ultimately, we depend on the support of the general public, so, without question, we need political action.” Political action, to him, enables countries to provide a quality education, which is why we need unions. Unions are the best way to exert political pressure for improving working conditions right now. When asked for an example, he mentioned Cambodia, where EI was able to compel the country to raise their national budget 20% to address educational issues.

Lastly, he called upon all 30 million of its members to mobilize. He also called on non-unionized teachers to join their local and be a part of this worldwide movement. I agreed with him.


photo c/o