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The best educational thinkers rarely work in schools.
Jane Goodall, Daniel Goleman, George Lucas, Sir Ken Robinson are revered by teachers — but they don’t teach kids. The formula is: get famous outside of the field, then be an educator. From most appearances, you can hardly do your best work these days inside of a school.
Last year’s Teacher of the Year award went to Ann Marie Corgill. After winning the award, here is what she did: she quit teaching. “It’s all paperwork,” she said. United States National Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto  famously did that same thing years earlier, and spent the rest of his days in an effort to promote healthier communities than he could find in any school he knew of.
I read widely and hungrily as a part of my efforts to advance education. I have travelled the globe for four decades studying the world’s greatest and most inspirational schools, educators, and educational movements and shakers: Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilio, free and democratic schooling, classical education, one-room schoolhouses in Montana, the massive Peking University, and Texas A&M. I support all these great movements and traditions which have supplied me with heroes, wisdom, and mentors. But the noble teachers I find are real people, teaching the young.
In education, the real heroes go unrecognized. People are leaving the field—or not entering it. Where are the John Deweys or Maria Montessoris or the Paolo Frieres? I worry these people would be considered madmen today. (Actually, Rudolphe Steiner was a bit of a madman.) At any rate, I don’t find the smart money going in the trenches with teachers and students. Instead, I find people hawking their edu-brands.
I don’t find the smart money going in the trenches with teachers and students. Instead, I find people hawking their edu-brands.
Who and where are the greats? Sal Khan, arguably. He got famous for teaching his own nephews and nieces. Now that he’s famous, he focusses expressly on digital/online education. Carol Dweck, author of Mindsets is huge, but she writes books and does not teach kids. Of course, Sting and Frank McCourt were English teachers, and both quit when they had “hits.” Thích Nhất Hạnh, the revered Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and real teacher is now 92 and nearing his end. And Deb Meier, a major leader in the small schools movement has been retired from schools for quite a long time. And I think Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone ought to get hero status. Look him up. Inside my field, I find many Grauer teachers to be lifelong heroes to our students. None of them teach to the masses: they teach individuals.
The research on great teaching today comes in the form of cold prescriptions, systems, and metrics—not role models. It does not come from school sites or interactions or observations, it comes from graduate students and professors with a pipeline to Gates Foundation or thinktank money, and the work is recycled and rebranded. It’s the same-old stuff, now called “grit” or “data-driven learning” or “common core.”
I looked up Edutopia’s list of “Big Thinkers on Education,” and none of them were teachers.
If you look up great baseball players, every one of them went out on the field and hit or pitched. I looked up Edutopia’s list of “Big Thinkers on Education”, and none of them were teachers. They are financiers, professors, technologists, entertainment people, and media specialists.
National Public Radio’s "50 Great Teachers" project included relatively few actual teachers in actual schools. As they note, “A lot of people who show up on lists of great teachers, when you look carefully, aren't really known for their teaching: John Dewey, for example, is remembered more as a philosopher and reformer than an actual teacher. Maya Angelou's writings can certainly teach us a lot — and she was a professor at Wake Forest — but she was essentially a poet, author and civil rights leader. Einstein? OK, sure he taught, but only after his theories had made him famous—so Princeton gave him a professorship. In fact, when he was a young man he sought a teaching job but failed to find one."
To be clear and fair, historically, I have not even read primarily in my own field. I have built my own vision of great education by reading widely in the fields that “surround” it: psychology, leadership and organizational development, adventure, anthropology, fiction, architecture, philosophy, religion, history, and parenting books line as many of my shelves as the (many) education books I own. But I am a teacher. I estimate I have spent around 30,000 hours directly with teens and pre-teens—in addition to a great many with their parents and other teachers. (True confessions: my only current teaching assignment is Surf PE class, though I have well over 35 years of direct classroom experience.)
I actually have written two books that deal primarily with my search for great teachers - Real Teachers and Fearless Teaching. When I want teachers, I often don’t mind what field they are in. Last year I spent a couple weeks studying with an oil painting teacher and a couple more with a yogi—I did not pick them because I want to learn oil painting or yoga. I was studying great teaching! I would study boat building or shoemaking if the teacher was great and, actually, I’d go to Isaac Langen’s singing class any day because, man, have you seen that guy teach! Every time I leave there I feel like I can sing, I don’t even know how.
Find someone who is a kid believer, who lives that life, someone who knows how diverse the paths of the young can be on their way to becoming great, and who provides an experience of great and deep listening. Make them your hero.
 John Taylor Gatto died 2018 - see Dr. Grauer's Column "John Taylor Gatto: Teacher as Un-Hero", November 15, 2018
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