News and Events

MAT Director's Framing Remarks: Teaching, Teaching Today, Learning to Teach
Orientation, Master of Arts in Teaching, 6/21/10
Dirck Roosevelt

We are all so very pleased to welcome you, MAT class of 2011. I am going now to make a few remarks to frame the work at hand: A few remarks about teaching, about teaching today, in 2011, and about learning to teach, in particular, learning to teach in this context, the Brandeis Master of Arts in Teaching program. (Those are big topics, and there is plenty to say about them. I will be selective, I promise.)

First, I want to underscore and to honor the importance of the choice you've made, to invest yourselves, for a very full year, in studying teaching; to realize yourselves as teachers might also be a good way to put it. At any rate, you have chosen to take, or-as so many of you bring with you interesting and valuable prior experiences of teaching, to take another-very large step in taking on the work of "teacher," taking on, let me be clear, both the responsibilities and the pleasures of that role.

You are making this choice at a time of considerable social unease, in the US, across much of the world, and, close to home, in our neighborhoods-and in the world of education, where much (including important issues of funding, governance, testing) is uncertain and debated and where the job market is not in the short term encouraging, certainly in the public sector, but also in the day school world.

And, you can be sure that the broader currents of social unease are felt in the families of many of the youngsters you will work with. This is something you will have to be attentive to in your work. Indeed it is likely that all of us in this room are affected by these broad and pervasive uncertainties, in one way or another.

These circumstances make it all the more impressive that you are choosing teaching now. Again, we wish to honor that choice. I would like in this regard to suggest that one way to think about that choice is to think of it (and to think of teaching today) as devoting yourself to creating spaces of value for young people. I mean specifically, spaces in which their powers of mind will be valued, spaces in which they can come to value their own (and each others') powers of mind, spaces in which they can put their minds to matters of value and in so doing, grow.

I referred to the responsibilities of teachers. What I particularly want to emphasize in this respect is that in the Brandeis MAT we think of teachers as professionals, and we therefore understand learning to teach as learning a professional practice. This has some rather definite meanings, namely:

By professional practice, we mean principled, purposeful, patterned, skilled action.

Principled means guided by defensible values, purposes, and understandings of the role.

Purposeful means neither aimless nor mechanical or rote, but focused on and responsible for, accountable to, worthwhile, defensible educational aims.

Patterned means that the practice is such that professional knowledge, and thus responsibility and power, can accrue over time, that ways of acting can be taught and learned, that reasonable foresight though not absolute prediction can be exercised, and so on. (The situation you encounter and deal with this Tuesday will not be identical to the one you deal with next Tuesday, but there will be some meaningful similarities, as well as meaningful differences, between them.)

Skilled action is knowledgeable, purposeful, and effective. It results in some recognizable accomplishment of purposes in accord with principles. Moreover, it is action that can improve over time. (If we couldn't distinguish between capable and unacceptable performance in teaching, it would assuredly not be a professional practice.)

Action: This is ultimately the point. Teaching is mindful, purposeful, responsible, effective action that makes a difference and warrants public trust.

Teaching is in the end about acting for educational purposes; being a professional teacher means having and owning the reasons for and the consequences of your actions.      

That is the thing always to remember and to come back to: It's all about what you can make happen for and with those youngsters, those whom educational scholar Lisa Delpit, with pointed clarity, called "other people's children." They are the point; the quality of their educational experience is the point. Again, I recommend you think seriously about teaching as "creating spaces of value for young people."


This brings me to pleasures. I referred earlier to "the responsibilities and the pleasures of the role of teacher." It is important to stay well in touch with both. And it is satisfying and right, I believe, to identify a place where the pleasures are powerfully entailed by the responsibilities, where pleasure in teaching is not an add-on nor even a side benefit but is intrinsic to the role. And such a place I would argue is indicated by "curiosity" and "imagination."

Your students' learning is most likely to be deep and long lasting if it is driven by their own curiosity-if, that is, you have elicited their curiosity and their imagination, powerful engines of thought. Absent investment of their own curiosity, lacking an awakened imagination, they will still learn things-but what they learn is far less likely to last or to be of enduring value.

I would also make the case that today-perhaps always, but with urgency today-the growth and deployment of imaginative power is an educational "outcome" of special importance. Sadly, neither curiosity nor imagination are as widely valued, in practice, in schools, as they should be. I do urge you to consider that this is a matter of particular importance at this historical moment.

In keeping with all of this, we do believe that your curiosity and imagination are vital resources for your teaching and for your learning of teaching (learning that in some sense you will always be doing).

If your own curiosity, for example, about reading and literature, about the discovery of pattern in number and in nature, has flagged, you are unlikely to be able to stir it in your students. And if you are unable to imagine how your students see, how any particular student of yours sees the world, you will have a tough time creating dialogue with that student, a tough time making or helping the student to make educational connections. Your imagining of her or his world view will necessarily be partial, incomplete-but to have no such imagining would be a severe handicap.

Finally I should make explicit that here in the MAT program we are sure that good teaching is no accident. It involves forethought, introspection, experimentation and study of various kinds and, yes, often, gifts, but it is not a matter of being gifted with some special teaching gene. It often has something to do with capitalizing on the gifts one brings, converting them into resources for teaching. It also has something to do with the courage of self scrutiny and self knowledge. Teaching and learning how to teach can be pretty demanding on this score: Please don't be surprised.

We take on the challenge of helping you become professional practitioners-educators who understand teaching as a public responsibility, who (as one of our current students is fond of putting it) "own" their purposes, who articulate the knowledge and principles informing their actions, who learn the skills for and take responsibility for the consequences of their actions in young people's lives. That's very "wide awake," mind-engaged, heart-demanding, kind of work. We're eager to help you with it.