A Teacher Will Save The World

I am preparing to give the keynote talk at the University of West Indies in Trinidad at the end of September. The theme is “Student/Teacher Partnerships: The Crux of Learning” and is intended to celebrate exemplary faculty and the power of teaching and learning. I was asked to write a short essay for a general audience as a prelude to the conference and thus wanted to share it here as well.

It is almost too impossible to believe.

What if a coin drops from your pocket and the person who finds it somehow, one unlikely step after another, turns it into a fortune. It seems too crazy, too random, too unpredictable. But yes, exactly in this way, deep in my heart and soul, far beyond the research that I read and write every day, I believe that a teacher will save the world.

And so should you.

I admit that usually, traditionally, teaching is far too tedious, far too boring, far too useless. Whether it is in the primary grades or at the university, most students find education something that must be gotten through rather than something enjoyed. Kind of like taking cough syrup. It’s supposed to be good for you but tastes horrible.

This is why educational researchers talk about the problems of shallow learning and disengaged students. This is why the famous Brazilian educator Paulo Freire deplored the “banking” model of education: the teacher deposits information into passive and empty students who then regurgitate it back on the test. Such education, Freire argued, destroyed life and embraced death because it viewed the world as static and mechanistic and students as nothing more than “receiving objects.” Such an education, Freire warned, wanted “to control thinking and action.”

But a true education, a transformational education, is exactly the opposite. It helps and prods and forces students to engage in their learning and in the world, to confront the assumptions they make and the lives that they lead, to learn to ask difficult questions rather than settle for easy answers, to think deeply and act decisively.

This is not easy to do. Far from it. It is actually the hardest thing to do in all of education. To support students to move beyond their comfort zones, to think outside the box, to see the world from a different perspective, to accept that they could be wrong and that it will require work and perseverance and an open mind to find a better answer. No, these are not easy things to teach.

We in education pride ourselves on creating new and better models and methods and strategies and technologies for teaching. And sometimes they work. But all too often we forget that our teaching means nothing if our students aren’t learning. This is why over one hundred years ago the American philosopher and educator John Dewey warned teachers that they were fooling themselves if they thought they had this figured out. Teaching without learning, he cautioned, is like selling without buying. You can’t claim to have sold a car if no one has bought it. It is the same in the classroom. Our success in teaching is absolutely and fundamentally tied to our students’ success in learning. You cannot have one without the other.

And this is why a teacher will save the world.

Because good teachers understand that education matters and help their students understand it, too. They make the subject come alive, become relevant, become useful, become important. They show students how it takes caring hearts and careful thoughts to turn knowledge into action and thus why knowledge is power. They help students glimpse the road ahead, how to successfully navigate what can’t be known in advance, how to be lifelong learners.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of us become smart and happy and successful adults without a transformational education. Many roads can lead to the same mountaintop. But in these cases, I would suggest, we get to the top despite our education rather than because of it. We succeed because we care about our goals and dreams. And that is exactly what a transformational education does. It links theory and action, knowledge and practice, the life of the mind with the work of the hands.

There are teachers all over the world that already do this. These men and women are artisans in the classroom, crafting real-world assignments, developing simulations, building partnerships, fostering problem-solving projects, all of which help students better understand and embrace their education. For such teachers, education is not confined to the four walls of the classroom. Exploration and discovery can of course occur while sitting at a desk. But such teachers see the world as their classroom. They use city streets, online resources, workplaces, riverbeds, laboratories, local schools, indeed, whatever they can find, to turn education into a living process rather than a dead product.

Which is exactly what both Freire and Dewey wanted. Students become teachers and teachers become students. Knowledge becomes something valuable to be used and developed.

I am not naive. I know that all of this sounds utopian and unreal. Universities all too often don’t have the funding to transform how they are structured, professors all too often don’t have the desire or training to transform their teaching, students all too often don’t have the incentive to transform themselves. Everything is much, much easier if it stays static, mechanistic, the same.

Until it’s not. Until we come to realize that staying the same is actually giving up on ourselves, our children, our world. I say this as someone who has been transformed by a teacher and who as a teacher (I hope) has transformed others. And if you are reading this, I bet that you too have experienced something similar. And so both you and I know that it is possible to be transformed. Both you and I know that with the right teacher in the right classroom nothing is impossible.

So in the end, I don’t think of a transformational education as the almost-impossible and accidental end result of a lost coin. Rather, I see a powerful education every day when good teachers involve and engage their students to co-create their futures and fortunes. That is something we should all believe in.

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