The College of Charleston Goes Back To School

University Students Lead the SCEA Student Program

Honestly, I don’t feel like I’m getting older, but when I’m around our NEA Student Program members, it occurs to me that it’s been a while – give or take a few decades – since I was in their shoes at the University of Utah College of Education. I adore them. They are the time machine that takes me back to 30 years of yesterdays when I was one of them.

It was at the College of Charleston on my Back to School Tour that I remembered my friends at the U of U. I remember talking about Paolo Freire and his philosophy of teaching – that you teach to humanize, to enlarge the possibilities of what it means to be alive. I remember debating types of discipline practice. Some believed in the ‘Don’t Smile Until Christmas’ technique. Be extra-hard-core-strict-no-excuses and gradually lighten up so that students have learned your expectations and accept your authority before you risk showing them how much you love them. (For the record, I couldn’t pull this one off. My face would break if I couldn’t smile at a child.)

Leaders of the SCEA Charleston Student Program meet with Lily Eskelsen Garcia
Lily meets with leaders of the South Carolina Education Association Charleston Student Program. From left: Michelle Johnson, Michelle Jenkins, Kelli Mixon, and Lily Eskelsen García.

But I looked at the young leaders of the Student-South Carolina Education Association (S-SCEA) College of Charleston Chapter: President Michelle Johnson, Vice President Michelle Jenkins, and Treasurer Kelli Mixon, and I could hear my old self in their young hopes. They joined the Back to School Town Hall, hosted at the College of Charleston, that brought in community activists, deans, school board members, Association leaders… and them. As we went around the room, they introduced themselves. One of the Michelles said, “We’re future teachers and good students. We’re here to listen and learn.”

Really? Seriously?

These young professionals-in-training proudly took center stage to talk about why they wanted to teach. What they needed to teach. What it meant to teach. They already knew more than most politicians making policy for our schools. Student Chapter President Michelle J. had said in an interview earlier, “Educational legislation treats the illusive student as a statistic. There is no individualization, and everything is standardized. Any human can tell you that there is no ‘standard’ and, in fact, there is no ‘normal’.”

Unlike the historic College of Charleston, The South Carolina Education Association Charleston Student Program does not have a long, distinguished history. Michelle happened to find out about the NEA Student Program and their conference that met just before our mega Representative Assembly in Orlando this past summer. She never looked back. The synergy electrified her.

Michelle J. raced back to Charleston and found true believers and began the Student-SCEA, an affiliate of the NEA. They decided to take on three major issues: personalized education for students; differentiated approaches to education; and an appropriate curriculum. They believe, and I do, too, that they, the students, will be the organization to unify education advocates.

Here she is, months later, making a little history herself. She was glowing just telling me about the energy she found in her colleagues from universities across the country. These young rabble rousers for education left determined to bring to life their ideas; their plans; their hopes and dreams for students they haven’t even met yet.

The last thing I heard Michelle J. say, with her colleagues nodding in agreement, to a group of men and women with many years more experience under their belts and impressive titles in front of their names, was how education college majors could become a force for good in our public schools even before they leave the campus. In fact, she thinks maybe they are more powerful, because they aren’t juggling as much as they inevitably will be when they become teachers…and because they are the compelling voice of the future. In any case, she let us know to watch out for her. She’s on her way.

“I could do anything with my life. I chose to go into teaching because that’s where I intend to change the world. I’m not going to let anything stop me. This is a matter of justice for me.”

She thanked me for coming. I thanked her for existing. For inspiring me. For making the trip worth every mile. Michelle J. and her team are the next, and perhaps the greatest, generation of educators we may ever see. They know exactly what they’re up against and exactly what they’re fighting for. We are passing the baton to young and true believers who are wise beyond their years. They are fearlessly passionate warriors for the Whole Child. They are social justice rabble rousers.

Here it is nowhere near Christmas, and I just have to smile.


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