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Where We Are From

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Why education faculty should stay powerfully connected to the schools—and how to do it.

In talking about our childhoods, we were more than a bit surprised that our parents, particularly our fathers, were so similar in their outlooks and worldviews. Both of our fathers were hard-working men from lower-middle-class backgrounds who by virtue of an incredible work ethic, an expectation that little or nothing was due them without their effort, and supportive families achieved much in the world. They raised children, purchased homes, and went from virtually nothing to achieving a very respectable middle-class life. Both of our fathers, however, never forgot where they came from. They were modest men who understood that others in less fortunate or merely different circumstances were to be respected and appreciated.

Largely due to their support and sacrifices, we now both work at large universities where we do a very different kind of work than our fathers did for so many years. We are faculty members in schools of education. We work in offices. We teach adult students, we think and write about schools, and occasionally--very occasionally--we go into a real school and spend a very few minutes talking and working with real teachers and real children. Though we began our careers as teachers, we are no longer ruled by the confines of class periods and bells, no longer worried by the misbehavior of an unruly student, and blissfully unconcerned by the lack of orange and black construction paper as Halloween nears. As academics, we are concerned with other matters: Will our research project work out, will we get that grant, will our students leave our classes with all the knowledge we want them to gain?

These are not trivial matters, but they are very different from those faced by practicing teachers and other school professionals. We rather reluctantly admit that at least to some degree, we have forgotten where we came from. As the years go by, we, like many of our colleagues in higher education, become less and less connected to schools and those who work in them. We believe this is wrong.

We need not only to remember where we came from, but to do much more to reconnect with that place. Toward that end, we offer the following recommendations:

  • Sabbaticals. Every six years or so, college faculty members are awarded sabbatical leaves, ostensibly to revitalize their professional lives and return to their academic posts with new insights, new ideas, and a renewed energy and commitment toward their work.
Faculty members should actively practice their profession and only then be allowed the luxury of reading, thinking, and writing about schools.

To return to our roots as educators, sabbatical leaves should get faculty members reacquainted with the realities of life in functioning schools. Education faculty should no longer be permitted only to read about, think about, and write about what practicing teachers and learners do. They should do real work in real schools. They should teach. They should work with administrators and parents. In short, they should actively practice their profession from time to time and only then be allowed the luxury of reading, thinking, and writing about schools and schooling. Without this occasional grounding, what faculty members read, think, and write about is of dubious validity and relevance.

  • Search committees. Some schools of education require that one or more practitioners serve on selection committees for new faculty members and administrators. But many do not. This should change. Can a search committee seeking someone to teach a variety of very practical classes, such as methods of assessing learners and pedagogical techniques, really do its job adequately if none of its members has managed a real classroom of learners during the previous decade? Would they not benefit from coupling their understandings of what the ideal candidate should be like with the practical and applied perspectives of people who actually do such work every day?

Collaborating with practitioners on faculty searches is not easy. Schedules often need to be adjusted and special attention must be given to some practitioner members to make them feel welcomed and valuable members of the team. But the efforts are well worth it.

  • Curriculum reviews and revisions. Sometimes it seems that the curriculum in teacher education is never really final. Faculty members are constantly altering their programs of study to try to keep pace with the best practices and research. These revisions can range from minimal tinkering (changing the sequence of classes or adding a new course objective here and there) to major and total revisions taking years to complete and hundreds of hours of faculty time. The process typically involves countless meetings with immediate colleagues and careful consideration of standards and guidelines approved by professional and accrediting organizations. Rarely does it seriously involve teachers and other school professionals. This, we believe, is unacceptable.

Practicing teachers are in an ideal position to assist us in improving programs. It's not unusual for very good teachers to be more in touch with the newest trends in professional practice than university personnel are. Good teachers share information with each other. They read journals and magazines. They are often more likely to attend sessions at professional meetings focusing on applied aspects of professional work. In short, their immediate business and concerns focus on what they need to know and do on a daily basis. It would be inappropriate to design any teacher education curriculum solely on the basis of what teachers need to be able to do and what is immediately useful and relevant to them. But thoughtful and reflective practitioners not only know what to do, they also know why their actions are consistent with best practices and have some understanding of the theoretical basis of those actions. They can assist us greatly in designing programs that emphasize both.

  • Faculty service activities. Despite some efforts to broaden the scope of work in the academy, the triumvirate of teaching, research, and service still reigns, representing the principal criteria by which faculty are judged. Of the three, service remains the most amorphous and, in some ways, the most difficult to assess. Typically, schools of education differentiate among service activities: service to the department; service to the school or college; service to the institution as a whole; service to the profession; and, occasionally, service to the community. Determining the importance or the value of service activities can be tricky. Faculty members may agree to serve on a departmental or collegewide committee, but miss meetings and attend others without being prepared or engaged. They may serve on boards of professional organizations and, again, simply attend a few meetings (often at university expense in highly desirable locations). Some faculty even go in search of activities merely to flesh out their r‚sum‚s. This all seems ludicrous when we consider the pressing needs of teachers and others who work in America's public and private schools.
Schools of education should work harder to build stronger collaborations with practitioners.

Knowledgeable adults are always needed in classrooms to provide extra attention to students, give much-needed relief to teachers, and add to the intellectual life of the school. In theory, what better person to provide such service than a highly trained professional educator who probably has not only taught children for many years, but also studied and reflected on the larger issues in the field?

  • College and departmental advisory committees. Some schools of education maintain advisory groups that provide feedback to the faculty and administration. Meetings of such groups are usually infrequent and often regarded by some as a waste of time and money. Recently, many of these advisory groups' members have been prominent business people and others with access to financial resources. While we understand the value of courting people with money and an interest in giving it away, we have privately wondered how valuable it is to have a wealthy banker or the owner of a large car dealership review the teacher education curriculum in our colleges. We are not denying that such people have a right to their opinions, and we also acknowledge that good ideas can come from many sources. But the real value of such an exercise is questionable and probably about as relevant as having a group of physicians ask us our opinions on the best way to remove an appendix.

Others could provide input to administrators and faculty members that, if heeded, could be extremely valuable. Arguably, those best suited to this task are those who have done and are doing the teaching in American schools--namely, teachers and other school practitioners. They could--and should--not only review curricula and programs, but also provide important information about trends in the field; perceived strengths and shortcomings of recent graduates; in-service interests and needs; and collegewide organizational issues, such as the ease or difficulty of registering for a class.

  • Other connections. Schools of education should work harder to build stronger collaborations with practitioners in other ways as well. Some classes could be collaboratively taught by a faculty member in higher education and one or more teachers with special interests and expertise. The mutual benefits of such arrangements are obvious. Research collaborations also should be more strongly encouraged and, ideally, the school-based collaborators should play roles in all facets of the scholarly work: targeting important and interesting research topics, designing studies, collecting and analyzing data, and disseminating results. Such work would benefit both faculty members and teachers.

Teaching-exchange programs could also be devised whereby a faculty member assumes the duties of a teacher in a local school one or more days per month and the teacher assumes the duties of the faculty person. Again, the power and value of these arrangements could be considerable. But simply discussing these options as possibilities will do little to change the low level of collaboration between many schools of education and K-12 schools. Leaders will have to reinforce the importance of such work by word and deed, possibly including the provision of tangible incentives for participation.

Some measure of our fathers' success was due to the fact that they never forgot where they came from and continued to honor that tradition throughout their lives. We feel that we and many of our higher education colleagues have forgotten where nearly all of us began our careers. If not forgotten, we have consciously or unconsciously become too disconnected from it.

Education is a highly practical and applied profession. What we do as faculty members in schools of education should have some bearing on and relevance to real schools, real teachers, and real learners. For that to happen, we need to get and stay connected to schools. There is really no alternative.


Sam Minner is the James H. Quillen chair of excellence in teaching and learning at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn. Greg Prater is an associate professor of special education at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz.

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