Farewell to a Truly Great Teacher

The recent passing of Muhammad Ali was a sad time for many. Although I was not particularly a boxing fan, I count myself among the millions of individuals around the world who were significantly impacted by Ali’s teachings. As educators and teacher educators, we stand to benefit from discussing and embracing the steadfast resolve shown by this great legend.

My fascination and admiration with Ali began with a personal encounter while I was attending college in Pennsylvania. The champ trained for some of his boxing matches in Deer Lake, PA. Upon a Saturday night whim, a group of friends and I decided to visit his training camp. We arrived there not realizing that there were actually regular visiting hours—and unfortunately, we had missed them.

However, when this gracious man saw the disappointed group of young students wandering around the grounds, he sent his staff to invite us into his cabin. He expressed genuine interest in our college pursuits and even though he was totally exhausted from his practice that afternoon, he encouraged our studies, pretended to spar with some, and allowed us to take photos. Such a moment can make a lasting impression, and this one prompted me to follow his career.

To me, it was Ali’s work outside of the ring that truly should be celebrated. While he was not a professional educator, he taught us many valuable lessons—about fighting for one’s convictions, remaining true to one’s personal and professional values, and protecting and supporting marginalized groups. Most of all, he taught us how to treat others.

As our profession continues to face critics with ill-informed agendas, we would be well served to think about Ali’s teachings. We must continue to fight for what we know as professionals and also for increasing the diversity of our students, teachers, and leaders. How many educators would be willing to risk incarceration for their convictions, as Ali did when he made a commitment not to serve in the war in Vietnam? It is imperative that we uphold our values and not shrink from opportunities to champion the importance of our contributions to the field.

Our obligation to keep up this fight is particularly critical now, for two reasons. First, as we move into the final months of a contentious election season, it will be imperative that we serve as the voice of knowledge and speak out about what we know to be true and important to education. Second, as evolving federal policy, accreditation standards, and opposing viewpoints continue to seek attention, our ability to never relent on what we value and know to be best research-based practice will be essential.

Like Muhammad Ali, we must never back down in the fight for our beliefs. In the famous words of the champ, l embolden all educators to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!”

Jane S. Bray is dean of the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University (VA) and 2016-2017 chair of AACTE’s Board of Directors.

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Jane S. Bray

Dean of the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University (VA) and 2016-2017 chair of AACTE’s Board of Directors.