Lessons From a Great Leader

Feyneese MillerOn December 5, the world lost one of the more important leaders of all time, Nelson Mandela.

Mandela epitomized what many in U.S. educator preparation programs hope to instill in our education leaders and teachers—a strong understanding of and commitment to social justice. Unfortunately, although we believe that all children and youth should receive a high-quality education and be treated with dignity and respect in the classroom, this ideal is in sharp contrast to reality.

Far too many of our children and youth, especially those in urban communities, are in classrooms with teachers who are underprepared or simply not equipped to teach those they perceive as different. Even as many of our preparation programs are implementing practices that limit “admission” to the field of teaching to those most ready to enter the classroom after rigorous study and strong clinical practice, the different pathways to the profession that some states have put into place may lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the achievement gap that currently exists between children and youth of different classes and races.

According to recent data, approximately 41% of our nation’s children and youth are eligible for Title I funding, 1 in 10 is a second language learner, 1 in 5 is Latino, and 1 in 6 is of African descent. Only 1 in 2 identifies as White. The numbers paint a clear picture of the demographic makeup of our schools. America is changing, and the way we educate and the reason why we educate must become more explicit—to those being educated and to those who will benefit from having a more educated populace. The changing demographics heighten the need for a social justice perspective as part of the curriculum in educator preparation programs. It would be extreme to suggest that to do otherwise would lead to an apartheid-like approach to education—where the majority group occupies the nonacademic and less rigorous courses, and the “elite” minority occupy most if not all of the seats in the Advanced Placement and honors courses—but we cannot deny that in schools where the majority of students are students of color, they are not adequately represented in the courses that would prepare them for higher education or, in many instances, for a job that would allow for a decent standard of living.

One of Mandela’s goals upon assuming the presidency of South Africa was to reform education—to open the doors for Blacks, Indians, and those of mixed-race heritage to the more elite and previously all-White education institutions, both K-12 and higher education. When I visited South Africa in the summer of 1997, the majority of the universities were then integrated, but schools in the townships were still unequal and plagued by violence. The higher education institutions that were previously open only to Black, Indian, and mixed-race students were still poorly funded and lacking many critical resources. In addition, those Black students who were admitted to the more elite institutions were struggling to succeed academically—not for lack of ability or drive, but because of their poor K-12 education experience. The teachers in the township schools often had less-than-optimal preparation and scant academic materials to educate their charges.

When I spoke with some of the young people enrolled in teacher preparation programs in South Africa, I was struck by the fact that they knew they were underprepared, but were willing to do what was necessary to become better prepared. They were committed, like Mandela, to improving their students’ future opportunities. They believed that a free and prosperous South Africa depended on more highly educated and prepared youth. Just as Mandela wanted to be a part of freeing his people from the economic and racial injustice to which they were subjected, the students wanted to be a part of helping young people become more learned and develop the skills necessary to remain free and participate as equal members of society.

Mandela, despite his 27 years in prison, was the consummate leader. All he did was in service to others, grounded in his belief in a world that is free from injustice, that provides equal opportunities for all regardless of race or class, and that stresses respect and reconciliation in order to achieve peace and prosperity. We have much to learn from him. If we are to prepare our children for work and life in general, we need to implement policy requiring all teachers who enter the classroom to have experienced a clinical internship, have achieved at a high academic level, and believe in and behave in commitment to social justice.

A lesson Mandela taught well was that the power of youth often determines the future of a nation. Our future, too, depends on how well we educate our youth.

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Fayneese Miller

Chair, AACTE Board of Directors, and Dean, College of Education and Social Services, University of Vermont