Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author, and publication in the Graphic in no way represent an endorsement of any opinions published. This space is provided to allow public response and commentary on articles and issues which are covered by the Graphic and important to its readership.
At the time of this writing, it’s been a week since our federal Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, was honored to speak at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy. As you have read in The Graphic, the event was part of the “Patricia Tagliaferri Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series.” It was not publicized, and it was open only to invited guests, which seems to have included select Pepperdine officials and SPP students. All I knew about the event until yesterday was what was written in The Graphic.
A little context: I am an associate professor of Education at Seaver. My colleagues and I prepare Seaver students to become teachers. Our students take a 34-unit course of professional study in education, in addition to their majors, including an entire semester of full-time student teaching. When they finish our program, they earn a California teaching credential. You may have a friend in our program. Check us out.
No one associated with Seaver’s teacher preparation program was invited to the Secretary of Education’s talk. We did not even know it was happening. From what I’ve heard from administrators I trust, we were not intentionally excluded, just overlooked. Being overlooked by SPP is a problem solved with just a little respectful communication, and that has happened. All is good there.
A bigger problem is that being overlooked (or ignored) by education policymakers is something that education practitioners are used to. I do believe that this problem is another one that can be solved with respectful communication, and this open letter is a request for such communication, starting with Seaver students, and ending with Ms. DeVos.
First, I ask all Seaver students to respect the depth and complexity of teaching, to know that what you saw your own teachers doing for you and your friends is only the tip of the educational iceberg. Having been a student for many years does not make you an expert in education. Learn from reading, and learn from teachers. Learn how to question the slogans of politicians and policymakers, standardized test score reports and interpretations, expensive technology-dependent educational fixes, the influence of billionaire philanthropists, the involvement of for-profit private corporations in public schooling and anything flashy that promises to shake up education as we know it. Question and care why students of color and students from poverty are consistently under-served in educational policy and systems. If you become parents, support your own kids’ teachers, and support the teachers of other people’s kids. Understand that teachers are humans with expertise, talents, needs and lives. Understand that teachers’ working conditions are also students’ learning conditions. Adulting is indeed hard, and I know that I’m asking you to take on an extra burden that you haven’t asked for. But life will be better for all the adults if all our children (not just our own) have access to rich, human, relationship-based teaching and high-quality educational opportunities.
Second, I ask students who are interested in “getting into education policy” to understand that education policy and education practice (teaching) are intimately involved. Do not be one of the all-too-common policymakers who come into education policy with minimal understanding of education practice and keep a protective distance from education practitioners. If you want to make good education policy, you must listen carefully, widely and deeply to educators. That will take lots of wisdom because including educators’ perspectives will complicate what you may hear from fellow policymakers, business leaders, lawyers and lobbyists. It will take thick skin because educators are passionate about bringing good to their kids. Better yet, learn what good education practice is for yourself in a serious teacher preparation program (not a five-week summer institute) and some thoughtful years in the profession before you get into education policy.
Third, to our own teacher preparation students and everyone who has made a commitment to serious teacher preparation, I see your courage, and I pray all the time that your courage will sustain you in the coming years. When you are faced with harmful education policy and practice — be it from federal, state, county, district or school site — may you keep to your moral purpose and do what you can to prevent harm to your students. Be ready to communicate to administrators, parents and even the federal Secretary of Education how education policy affects your teaching and your students’ learning. When your community misunderstands your work, and your country devalues your profession, remember that teaching students in a classroom is the essence of the Pepperdine trinity: service, purpose and leadership. Teaching students in a classroom is leadership.
And finally, to Ms. DeVos, I invite you to shadow some Seaver student teachers as they learn about educational practice. Spend some extended time in real public school classrooms with your sneakers on and your hair pulled back. Feel the struggle and hope that teachers feel. Listen to their concerns. Don’t give up on public education. Reconnect education policy to education practice.
—Prof. Carrie Birmingham, associate professor of Education
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