It is comprehensive exam time at my university for our Master’s in Education program and today I had a vivid reminder of what education should be and can be about–transformation. I frequently tell my students that the Latin root of education is educare, which means to bring out, change, grow, and I got confirmation of that perspective today while scoring one student’s self-chosen exam question. For the written comprehensive exam (which is one choice among three for our students’ exit requirements) students answer three major questions, one of which they have some say in writing. One of my students, Taryn, a kindergarten teacher with 12 years of teaching experience, asked us to ask her something along the lines of how she has changed as a result of studying for her Master’s degree in Education. She had a week to craft her response to this question and submitted her 12-page answer last night.
As I read through her beautifully-written answer, I was moved to tears. I suspect that she was a top-notch teacher when she first enrolled in our program, for, in my experience, it tends to be the most dedicated and passionate teachers who choose to enroll in graduate studies while also carrying the burdens of full- time teaching, and juggling family and other responsibilities. Even with this as her starting point, the transformation she described as being the result of her Master’s study was stunning. She articulated how her education in our program helped her to revisit her philosophical rationales for being involved in education, and helped her to more closely tie her practice to that philosophy. She related specific vignettes of things that have changed in her teaching and in her relationships with students, parents, and school administrators. My heart swelled when I read how readings and discussions from my class impacted her outlook and pedagogy. Her response made me feel as if I had made a difference in her life.
Transformative education, then, is clearly not something that merely changes or transforms one person. Yes, Taryn as a person and as a teacher had changed as a result of her involvement in our graduate program–but she also changed me. She made me realize that what I do as her teacher can make a difference. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I am frequently riddled with self-doubt over whether my professional work makes any sort of ripple in the educational waters. It is a rare occurrence when I get to see the impact my work has. Too often my efforts feel a bit like spitting in the wind!
After reading Taryn’s response today and writing this post, I feel compelled to get in touch with some of the educators I have in my past who really helped me transform. I want to say to my religion professor from my undergraduate program (I wish I could remember his name) how much his class on religion in America made my brain go “zing” and broadened my understanding of not only religion, but also of what a truly engaging class looked like (dialogue-rich, active, involved in community, etc.). I want to let my sociology professor, Dr. Phyllis Kitzerow, know how powerful her many classes were (e.g. Minority-Majority Relations; Sex Roles; Gender, Work, and Equity) in helping shift me from being dependent on others for my opinions to someone who now seeks out data and verifiable sources before drawing conclusions. I want to let my first foundations of education professor, Dr. Scott Baker, know how much his class and his providing me of reading lists when I kept asking, “but what can we do about the education problems we’re exploring?” propelled me into my passionate life interest in alternative (non-conventional) educational approaches! And I want to tell Dr. Svi Shapiro how much the Cultural Foundations doctoral program changed me as a thinker and as an actor in this world. When I entered my Ph.D. program, I was very much inactive in the world, never viewing myself as an agent of change, always just keeping my head down and aiming for the next hoop that someone else told me to jump through so as to reach that mystical place of “having arrived” (see this great video for a cartoon example of my schooling experience up to the point of enrolling in my Ph.D.). It was not until my time in this program, significantly impacted and developed in part by Dr. Shapiro, that I ever realized that education is (could be, should be) about something more than getting one’s ticket punched to go on to the next arena in life. My exposure to critical pedagogy under his tutelage and the idea that teachers can work for Tikkun Olam (to heal and repair the world) altered me irrevocably and very much for the better. It was the freedom built into this program that allowed me to pursue research that I was intrinsically and passionately interested, and which led me to the Albany Free School and my life-changing experiences there (in fact, my book Free School Teaching was originally titled A Teacher Transformed).
You might wonder, how does a person who had over 23 years of formal schooling only come up with about four teachers to thank for their help in her transformation? Perhaps I am just not recalling all those who helped transform me, perhaps part of it is a recognition that transformative help doesn’t just come through formal schooling (everything is educative and thus everything has the power to help transform us), or perhaps it is because so much in our conventional education system is not about “bringing out,” but rather is more about molding people into pre-set patterns (the very opposite of true transformative education). I lean more toward the latter as a reason, and I am thus doubly thankful that these teachers were in my life to show me education’s potential.
These teachers helped to transform me, I perhaps helped in Taryn’s transformation, just as she will work to help in her students’ transformation into “creative, respectful, compassionate, thinking individuals who have the ability to cope with life” (quote from Taryn’s comprehensive exam response). Transformation begets transformation and that is the true power of education. We must look for every opportunity in this world to alter who we are and what we do for the better.