Because You CARE, You Will Make A Difference

In February of 2020, I traveled to Baku -- the capital and largest city in the country of Azerbaijan. While there, I had the great pleasure of addressing a group of young teachers along with the Minister of Education. These were my remarks to the group at this Colloquium:

Good afternoon dear colleagues, and warm greetings to the honorable Minister Bayramov, a special friend whose vision of the future of Azerbaijan education is an inspiration to us all. I am in Baku today with a small delegation from the George Washington University, proud and happy to advance our collaboration with the Azerbaijan State Pedagogical University, an institution with a noble mission to propel young Azerbaijanis toward economic and social opportunity. With great thanks to Rector Jafarov, our senior partner in this exciting endeavor, I am honored to be with you all today.

In my brief time I’d like to share four ideas that may give the wonderful young teachers here some new ways to imagine your careers and rise to the challenges that await you.

First, based on my research and experience, I have concluded that teaching is an act of sublime complexity. What do I mean by complexity? Think about chess, a popular sport in Azerbaijan. Although the rules of the game are easy to master, playing it is rather more complicated. The great psychologist/economist/philosopher/educator Herbert Simon taught us many decades ago that a chess player looking ahead just eight moves would need to consider and compare about 1016 possibilities -- thousands of billions of options. Good and excellent chess players don’t even try to imagine them all, nor should they (a famous chess master once noted that there are more ways a game might unfold than there are atoms in the universe.) Faced with such complexity, rational people apply a different strategy, one based on prior experience, intuition, and of course skillful knowledge of what their opponents might also be thinking. Now, is teaching a classroom of 30 children that complex? I’d say in some ways it is even more demanding. In many ways your work as teachers requires you to handle decisions and make choices that are at least as hard as the decisions faced by chess players, and, on top of it you are dealing with the lives of people and not with game pieces on the board. I believe that teaching young children how (and why) to divide fractions is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, maybe even more complex than what most lawyers, neurosurgeons, pilots, and other professionals encounter in their normal work. And you don’t just teach the material: you must attend constantly to the multiplicity of your children’s social and emotional and economic and health needs too. Talk about complexity!

How can rational and skilled teachers cope with all that complexity? That brings me to my next word of advice: aspiration. Just as chess players don’t look at all their options before moving (by the time they look at even a tiny tiny fraction of the possibilities, the game clock would have expired!) you teachers cannot wait to find the “optimal” solution for all your children. They come with a wide and deep and diverse set of backgrounds and abilities and emotions, such that their learning will be subject to a constant, largely unmeasurable, and mostly unpredictable set of stimuli and dispositional differences. Rather, then, you must aspire to do the best you can, which usually means finding reasonably good rather than optimal strategies to enable progress for as many of your children as possible. Yes, it’s good and natural to strive for perfection; but as Voltaire recommended a long time ago, it’s not wise to let perfection be the enemy of good. As you aspire to success, you will inevitably encounter evidence that you are not succeeding fully and always with all your students. Don’t take that as failure: the most noble of aspirations are the ones that are the most difficult to attain. Keep in mind that in aspiring to do “the best” there will be moments, and days, when you know you are only reaching some of your students. In those moments, I suggest you try to recall a beautiful teaching from the early 3rd century to help you sustain your morale and energy: if you save one soul you have saved the universe. Yes, you’d like to save “all your souls” in your classrooms; but the fact that you’ve reached one or several of them is already progress worthy of at least some celebration. With aspiration comes humility…

My third suggestion is about the importance of research. Teaching is an art probably as much as a science: you bring intuition, creativity, experience, passion to your work. But you also can avail yourselves of the fruits of formal and rigorous scholarship. How should you decide among competing curricula or programs, say, for early reading or mathematics? What is the most sensible way to assess your students’ academic performance? Is homework a good thing? Should you try to advocate for smaller classes? Fortunately, scholars here in Azerbaijan and their colleagues around the world have made good progress in understanding the underlying processes of teaching and learning, and have contributed useful insights about the relative advantages (or weaknesses) of alternative programs, practices, and policies. Perhaps most important, research has given us a way to approach these tough choices logically and carefully, with the help of data and analysis to inform judgment. But the value of research hinges on its connection to experience: one of our great philosophers of teaching, Lee Shulman, has referred to “the wisdom of practice,” which means that what you do in your daily work can and must be incorporated into the work of researchers who aim to improve education. And sensible balance is required: even the best researchers do not necessarily have the answers, and often their findings are packaged with many cautions and caveats and considerations of context. A final bit of advice about research: don’t take too seriously advice from scholars who haven’t worked in real classrooms, as often because they lack the wisdom of practice their findings will have limited use.

And for my fourth word of advice, I’d like to suggest that you view yourselves as enablers. You can’t possibly “deliver” all the relevant knowledge to your children that they will need to become productive and healthy adults, and that shouldn’t be the way you define your purpose. Rather, it is to give them the skills and confidence they need to adapt to changing environments, to learn and apply knowledge, and to become thoughtful and productive citizens, all of which adds up to my belief that you play a crucial role in helping them become increasingly capable of acquiring and using knowledge, or, as I said, enabling them more than “forming” them. You are change agents, because you equip your students with the capacity and love for continual learning and adaptation, and give them the awareness of their own potential. Here’s a good example from our experience in Washington, DC. Through our “community-engaged teaching” program, we aspire to give future educators information and experience that will help them become enablers in communities that are in many ways different from the communities in which they were raised and educated. Engagement with the realities of communities – their social and emotional and physical health, their economic constraints, their cultural norms – helps us craft strategies that can work. One recent example, tells the story: a teacher and principal in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Washington started a book club for young black boys, whose exposure to the wonders of literature were otherwise quite limited. In another case, a kindergarten teacher coping with a greatly complex set of social and emotional needs of her children partnered with a fifth-grade teacher and developed a “buddy” system that proved to advance the opportunities and outcomes of children who might otherwise have fallen further behind. Did these educators “solve” all the problems of our complex society? No, but they enabled progress.

If you put my four words together, you’ll see that the initials spell out why you are in this business: C[omplexity], A[spiration], R[esearch], E[nabler] = CARE. Because you care, you will make a difference, in your classrooms and ultimately in your society.

Thank you and good luck. I look forward to seeing you all again soon!

--Dr. Michael Feuer, Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University