Essays

In This Thing Together…

140041When I first started in this master’s program, I knew that I wanted to work toward an advanced degree, but I didn’t really know why, other than perhaps some vague notions that I might get some perspective on what I was doing and that there might be some instrumental value to earning a master’s degree.  My experience and learning in the Michigan State Master of Arts in Education (MAED) program have irreversibly changed how I think about education.  And, while I certainly have a lot of learning ahead of me, this program has helped me to find the direction in which I would like to head with my future learning.  Overall, this program has been invaluable to my development as an educational thinker, learner, and practitioner.

Looking back at the courses I have taken, each has been engaging, stimulating, and worthwhile.  It’s hard to choose from among them in order to demonstrate the value of this program to me as a whole.  Each course challenged me to question my previous assumptions and long-held beliefs and to come to grips with alternate theories, points-of-view, practices, experiences, histories, and more.  I was constantly confronted with the need to broaden my thinking, to deepen my knowledge, and to see more possibilities in every opportunity.  Above all, I have come to more fully and intensely understand the idea that education works best when we believe that we are all in it together.  And it’s imperative that this is more than a mere academic understanding, but one that has to become embedded in our educational cultures.

As I mentioned in my goal reflection essay, I chose my courses in order to support my work toward safer, more inclusive, equitable, and accessible schools.  While each course deserves formal recognition for its benefits, I will focus on a relative few in order to highlight the overall value of this program to me as a person and as a professional.  In general, I will finish the MAED program with a longer and broader view of the history of education, a deeper sense of myself as a leader, a greater capacity to question and shape school cultures, and a stronger ability to have more fun in the process.  Each of these increased abilities and understandings has helped me to more ably pursue the idea that education is a shared endeavor, one that we’re all in together.

A longer and broader view of education

Together, ED 800 (Concepts of Educational Inquiry) and TE 818 (Curriculum in its Social Context) helped me to develop broader, more inclusive, and historical understandings of contemporary education.

Besides being my first course in the MAED program, ED 800 (Concepts of Educational Inquiry) was the first education course I had ever taken.  I had been teaching in independent schools for six years at that point and was certainly no stranger to talking about, thinking about, reading about, practicing, and learning about education.  But, let’s face it, I was still pretty clueless about any perspective that fell outside of my own experience.  I don’t discount the value of experience in any way, but recognize that experience and broader forms of learning can complement and augment each other.  ED 800 and Professor Weiland were invaluable to my development because they connected me with the rich community and history of education.

Described as self-paced, I never felt alone in this course, surrounded as I was by so many influential contributors to educational discourse—Addams, Bateson, Dewey, DuBois, Gardner, Goleman, Greene, Hirsch, Paley, Pinker, Ravitch, Resnick, and more.  Diving in, out, and between their ideas, whole new worlds of possibility opened up to me.  I felt energized, like I was a part of something more than daily classroom tasks.  I couldn’t get enough.  I read, watched, and listened to each assignment, even the optional ones, at least twice.  Being pulled in so many directions by so many ideas, it could have been easy to get lost.  But, whether I was predisposed to see it or not, I found a very important connection amongst all of the readings—education is a collective enterprise, something that is never done alone, regardless of one’s physical proximity to others.

If ED 800 offered me a broader view of education, TE 818 (Curriculum in its Social Context), which I took in the fall of 2011, gave me a longer view.  Looking back over the historical, social, political, economic, institutional, and cultural contexts of the last few centuries in education, I developed a better sense of the complex environments in which we learn and teach.  Most importantly for me, given my passion for multicultural education, I learned how to more thoroughly interrogate the hidden curriculum in schools.  TE 818 sharpened my critical lens, helping me to see and question schools’ (and my own) tacitly expressed values and ideologies.  A firm believer that we can’t change what we can’t see, I feel empowered to be able to make inequities visible and to enable collective democratic change in my schools.

One of the most impactful assignments in TE 818 was reading Melba Pattillo Beals’s memoir Warriors Don’t Cry.  Beals makes it very plain just how damaging a schooling environment can be and just how necessary a deep, abiding faith and network of support are to breaking down cultural barriers to inclusiveness.  She further reinforces the idea that access is only one small step on the long journey toward inclusion.  Beals’s work, when considered in light of current scholarship on inclusiveness in schools, demonstrates the frustrating truth that despite great progress, we continue to have much work ahead of us.  Yet, Beals’s inspiring and heart-wrenching story also shows that we can find success and we can progress if we find the courage to look beyond our fears and do it together.

Taking Care of Each Other

Similar to my experience teaching, I had also held leadership roles in schools before taking my first course in educational leadership.  During the spring semester in 2009, I took EAD 801 (Introduction to Educational Leadership) with Dr. Nancy Colflesh, and I couldn’t be happier that I did.  During this course, I began to think more like a leader and to understand leadership as more than just the authority to delegate responsibilities.  As I wrote in my course reflection:  “Ultimately, leadership is not about getting things done at given places and times, but about inspiring a sense that getting things done is our collective responsibility.  In this way, leadership is less about authority, more about inspiration and commitment.”  In addition, I grew to understand that leadership must be principled in order to be effective and sustainable.  From that same reflection, I noted that

…how things get done is as important as what gets done.  The end does not justify the means, nor do the means mitigate unintended, harmful, or unjust ends.  Both ends and means must be justified by the same principles.  Focusing on the principles that must be upheld by the ends and means exposes as faulty the idea that means could justify ends.  Each can only (and must concurrently) be justified by the same principles.  This sort of coherence should be the result of good leadership.

I finished EAD 801 with a much clearer sense of what’s important to me as a leader.

leading-in-culture-change-michael-fullan-paperback-cover-artDr. Colflesh introduced us to a wide range of scholarship on educational leadership, including our two central texts:  Crowther, Ferguson, and Hann’s (2009) Developing Teacher Leaders and Michael Fullan’s (2001) Leading in a Culture of Change.  In all of our readings, I was taken by the idea of moral purpose in leadership.  In fact, Fullan identifies moral purpose as an essential component of leadership.  Captivated by this concept, I developed my major research paper around the idea of ethical school leadership.  In the process, I learned the value not only of ethical leadership, but the importance of authenticity—being true to self and in tune with the realities of experience—to ethical, sustainable leadership that simultaneously benefits each of us and all of us.

At the end of EAD 801, I was most proud of my research paper, “Think Globally, Care Locally:  Authentic Ethical Leadership Through the Principles of Care and the Common Good.”  Certainly, I put quite a lot of work into this piece of writing, but I’m most proud of what I got out of it—a better sense of what I think is really important in schools.  Even today, four years later, I feel just as strongly about the words that I wrote in that paper’s abstract:

Schools are generally assumed to have good intentions and to work toward positive outcomes in an ethical manner.  Too often, those assumptions leave students not feeling cared about, and allow for competition between individuals and interest groups that are destructive to the sense of community.  In order to build educational institutions that best serve students and society, school leaders must immerse themselves in and continue to learn from their experiences.  They must vigilantly align their practices with the ethical and educational principles of care and the common good.  School leaders must adhere to these principles because our future depends on it.

Deeply Embedded

My experiences as a Diversity Coordinator told me that caring and the common good would never be easily attainable without cultural change in schools.  This fact was further reinforced by my learning in EAD 850 (Issues and Strategies in Multicultural Education).  School cultures are so deeply ingrained with sociocultural histories and expectations that the injustices within are all but impossible for the beneficiaries of any injustice to see without a finely tuned critical eye and the courage to challenge the status quo.  While I’m certainly no stranger to challenging the status quo, EAD 850 helped me to sharpen my critical eye and to more meaningfully question school cultures, histories, practices, motivations, and more.  This course further reinforced for me the idea that taking care of each other and taking each person on his or her own terms are imperative to our collective success.

EAD 850 helped me to see more clearly that culture is all around us and even inside of us.  It’s in the air that we breathe, the assumptions that we make, our facial expressions and our friendships.  It’s in the content of our classrooms and the content of our character.  Culture is, as Michael Fullan says, “the way we do things around here.”  And cultural change, while perhaps the most meaningful and necessary sort of change that we need, is often the most difficult and uncomfortable change to achieve.  It’s difficult because cultural change requires that we examine our comfortable patterns and question the degree to which “the way we do things around here” is justified.  Schools present a particularly difficult challenge because there are so many overlapping sets of cultural expectations, assumptions, and contexts.  I developed a stronger sense of how to understand and positively influence culture and cultural change from the readings and interactions that were a part of EAD 850.

9780316022361_500X500I was particularly fortunate to become familiar with several more influential educational thinkers and practitioners during this course—Dunbar, Freire, Landsman, Obidah, Takaki, and others.  I was very thankful to have become reacquainted with Ronald Takaki, whose books I had read earlier in my career.  For this course, we read Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (2008).  This book served as a lens through which I could consider the history of schooling in the United States and its impact on school and “American” culture.  Takaki helped me to locate my experience and my schools’ experiences within a broader set of contexts, irrevocably changing my approach to the classroom.  As I quoted in my essay “Recycled Expectations, Survival and Success”:  “What happens when, to borrow the words of Adrienne Rich, ‘when someone with the authority of a teacher’ describes our society, and ‘you are not in it’?” (Takaki, 2008, p. 19).  I came to know even more deeply that I had a role to play in defining “our” much more broadly in our success.

Yet, even as a big Takaki fan; in terms of education, my introduction to Paulo Freire during this course was beyond compare.  Assigned to choose, read, and review a book representing a non-U.S. perspective of education, I noticed that Freire was heavily cited in a friend’s doctoral dissertation.  Curious and interested in democratic education, I chose Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom (2001).  Right from the beginning, I couldn’t get enough of Freire’s educational philosophy, as it was so similar (yet far more thorough, developed, and articulate) to my own thoughts about caring and the common good.  As Freire says,

it is necessary to overcome the false separation between serious teaching and the expression of feeling.  It is not a foregone conclusion, especially from a democratic standpoint, that the more serious, cold, distant, and gray I am in my relations with my students in the course of teaching them, the better a teacher I will be.  Affectivity is not necessarily an enemy of knowledge or of the process of knowing. (2001, p. 125)

paulo_freire

Source: Nosso Pensador (Flickr)

I found myself further invigorated by my course of study and unable to see education the same as I had previously.  My frequent visits to my notes on Pedagogy of Freedom are evident in my later writings I cite Freire time and time again.  More importantly, though, my relationships with my students and other members of my school communities have become more meaningful, based on a deeper sense of respect.  “There are two tasks I have never dichotomized,” says Friere.  “One is to make it always obvious to the students that respect for them is fundamental.  The other is to respect myself” (p. 87).  Though I would have considered myself very open minded before reading Freire’s work, I became even more deeply and purposefully open minded afterward.  The sense of internal commitment to our school communities has been palpable as a result.

In This Thing Together

In all, as I have said throughout, Michigan State’s MAED program has helped me to see much more clearly that we are all in this thing together.  And I’m so thankful for all of the people–authors, educators, researchers, professors, classmates, friends, and family–whose work and support has helped me to grow along the way.

(Featured image source: isbg6 (Flickr))

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