Madame President, Our Teacher

The primary role of parents applies also to teachers and world leaders:

Dear Madame President [though of course, you may turn out to be a man]:

Teaching and teacher education have traditionally been viewed as women’s work and practiced by women. Like nursing, teaching has never been taken seriously among the more august professions….

I suspect that most of my fellow correspondents will urge you to pass new legislation to encourage young people as well as career switchers to become teachers by improving salaries and working conditions, by removing the oppressive sanctions associated with No Child Left Behind (while I hope retaining its emphasis on standards, attention to groups traditionally underserved, and the need for well prepared teachers who can assume professional responsibility for learning) and by developing a federal education policy that works through rewarding good work rather than by punishing “evildoers.”

I have a somewhat different request of you, Madame President. I want you to support the work of teachers at all levels by serving as a persistent, relentless, and self-conscious model of an educated person. I further implore you to define the president’s role as the principal teacher of our nation, the model educator, whose responsibility is to exemplify the habits of mind, habits of practical judgment and action, and habits of the heart that we associate with our ideal for all well-educated citizens in a democracy. Even more important, I implore you to define your role as the principal learner in our society, taking every opportunity to make your own intellectual and moral development visible and transparent to your fellow citizens.

I’m interested in your actions and your thoughts, because you are on TV every day, on the front page of the newspapers every morning, on the Web incessantly. You are, whether you like it or not, both a positive and a negative role model for all Americans. I write to implore you to become self-consciously, intentionally, and willfully a persistent model of an educated person in a democracy, in all its many manifestations.

I further challenge you to become a model of leadership through pedagogy, that is, to recognize that a great leader does not inspire unquestioning, mindless, and slavish followers and does not substitute dogma for reason. A great leader instead leads through teaching, enlightening, and persuading her fellow citizens to think in new ways, to behave more thoughtfully and morally, and to care for her fellow citizens of the world more generously….

And to the extent that in [rendering your judgments and decisions] you model the attributes of learner and teacher, of someone who leads through pedagogy, and generally of a transparently educated person, you will do more for the quality of American education than any law you propose or policy you advocate.

From Lee Schulman’s contribution to a collection of letters to our future President of the United States in the Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 59, No. 3, May/June 2008 257-261.

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