There’s something I need to get off my chest, and that’s what a blog is for, correct?
In recent months, a particular student has been thrust into the spotlight as a passionate advocate for progressive values in education. This young person, who is of high school age, wrote a book about it. Upon completing high school early, this individual is now touring the country, giving speeches, and writing articles on education for mainstream sources.
Being acquainted with this individual via social media, I am updated on his or her progress and ideas. I’ve spoken to this person and will meet them in April. But I’m starting to get a little leery of the newfound fame this person is experiencing as I learn more about what they’re saying and to whom they are saying it.
This young activist’s enthusiasm is palpable and well-deserved. In fact, they likely do a whole lot better than the thousands upon thousands of teachers and education faculty members and graduate students in getting a good and decent progressive message into the mainstream. Sure, this person can lead a horse to water, and I’m sure they’ve lead some pretty big horses so far, but ultimately we can’t be sure they’re drinking. Because, after all, it’s nice that a student is featured on a panel, yet “we” don’t have to really listen to them, right?
In any event, recently, this individual expressed some ideas about teacher preparation and is writing what seems like an extensive new piece on the New American Academy as a new model for teacher education. This is an organization with which I was not previously familiar, so I’m going to have to take a look. Although, I will say that I hardly think of Harvard as a bastion of progressive values, so let’s just admit for now that my enthusiasm is muted.
In support of this Academy, I found this student activist’s comments to be rather, how should I say it, naive and unsophisticated. Look, I’m not trying to sound like a killjoy here. But this person is making broad and ill-conceived pronouncements about teacher preparation and they are being asked to write thousands of words on the topic for a mainstream publication. I’m sorry, but I’m just going to have to pull rank here: I didn’t spend over a decade in this business to sit idly by.
I know what the devil’s advocate positions might be on this. You’re just jealous. Or, who do you think you are, an expert or something? Maybe, this person’s just a kid, leave them be and let them have their progressive dreams. On progressive values in education reform, I’m all for that. But I’m having the same problem here as I do with any faith-based reformer out there. They have not taught and until such time, you’re just going to have to leave commentary on teaching to those who know what they’re talking about, especially teacher preparation.
We desperately need in this debate the voice of students. Students need to affirm their rights in this. And they have innumerable ideas on which to comment, like the effects of testing at their level, how it’s affecting their futures, how they feel prepared for life or for higher education? What do they feel are the costs and benefits of a college education? We should even go all the way down to elementary students and ask their feelings. The student perspective is diverse and important.
But I cannot sit here and have that same student telling me how I should do my job, especially when they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. I get it. As a student, it is possible that they know a thing or two about good teaching. They can contrast the better teachers they’ve had to the ones that are not as, well, interesting, or something like that. This would then apply to the K-12 level. It is a bridge too far, however, to sit on my hands when they presume to comment on the preparation of teachers.
Teacher education has a long history with, to say the least, complications. Colleges of education need to be understood within the context of the wider university because many land granted, public colleges started out as Normal Schools. They then expanded beyond those original missions of training teachers. It is also an important observation that Ivy League institutions do NOT typically have an undergraduate college of education. This has both to do with their history and also the status of teacher preparation in general. If Ivies like Harvard have ventured into the world of education, they do so mainly from a graduate standpoint. Teacher preparation is not a huge chunk of that mission.
The fault is partly our own, as educators and perhaps faculty members. I’ve said this many times before, we isolate ourselves and only talk to and write for each other. In the meantime, we leave it to authors and journalists to tell our tales only to distort them in the process. We must do better, even if for our own survival.
In our enthusiasm for the student voice, in wanting to give a future leader a leg up, we must not allow the message to be compromised by misconception. This student activist’s enthusiasm and precocity is admirable and inspiring. We could all learn a valuable lesson. But in certain instances, I have to call out BS when I see it and especially when I smell it. In particular, I will not sit idly by while someone who has no idea tells me how I should be doing my job. I can take it from someone who’s in it with me, but not from a person who has never taught.
I won’t stand for it.