Last month, the world lost an amazing educator.
Marva Collins died at 78 in North Carolina and was known for her book about her commitment to achieving high academic results for society’s most marginalized learners. Marva Collins had a far-reaching influence in my pursuit of social entrepreneurship as a means to community transformation.
Learning the Value of ‘Traditional’ Teaching
When I was introduced to Collins’ writings, I immediately felt a familiar kinship.
She garnered respect and loyalty from students perceived to be Chicago’s most difficult children and the advice she gave in her book has been invaluable to me:
I just deal honestly with children. They know I don’t turn my nose down at them. They listen to me because I am not some outsider who comes over here and talks down to them about what it is like to be poor. I’m right here working with them all the time. If everyone in the neighborhood treated these children with the same consistent interest, the children would do for them what they do for me.
I also work with disadvantaged children. I value their humanity and believe in their gifts and their strengths. And I am committed to promoting their achievement at high levels.
But there was also something about Collins that was unfamiliar. From her writings, I saw her as a more traditional educator (teachers who deliver lessons and impart knowledge) when compared to my progressive training and practice (I believe students construct their own knowledge and understanding).
Beginning as an urban teacher hell bent on the success of all students, I was intrigued by her book, “Marva Collins’ Way.” Eventually, I started teaching in one of Collins’ schools. I was willing to forego my allegiance to progressive teaching techniques (albeit temporarily) to immerse myself in traditionalism and discover another side to my practice.
It was her push for urban student achievement, beyond excuses, that eventually moved me into school leadership.
Before she passed, I had the opportunity to connect with Collins.
On a whim I called her, years after being directly trained by one of her designees. Several days after I made the call, she called me back. We talked for an hour not just about instruction and black children but on the politics of schooling. By the time of this call, I was running a school which I had founded and was in need of a deeper understanding of the politics.
So beyond teaching me about the advantages of traditional strategies with disadvantaged learners, she also helped me to better understand the politics of schooling. And she challenged me not to succumb to it.
As a result, I hung up the phone, existentially knowing that my work was about more than just serving as a school leader. It was about movement, transformation and liberation.
From that call, I learned why being a school principal was not enough. Instead of my formal training where I learned how to be a principal of instruction and operations, she trained me, in that one-hour call, on why I needed to be a leader of deep change.
I continue the legacy of Marva Collins, in her push for movement, transformation and liberation. While I will forever be a progressive educator, I am indebted to Marva Collins for helping me to take my practice and my work to the next level.
May her soul rest in peace.