At the commencement ceremony for Columbia University’s Teachers College on May 18, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond—a nationally renowned leader in education reform and former education adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign—was awarded the Teachers College medal for distinguished service. Professor Darling-Hammond marked the occasion by delivering the following address:
I could not be more honored than to be awarded this recognition from Teachers College, one of the places of all those I know in the world that holds the tightest grip on my heart and best represents my values and beliefs. Thank you for this recognition—and, more important, thank you, Teachers College faculty, trustees, students and graduates, for who and what you are.
My first real glimpse of what Teachers College is and does occurred not in New York City but in a school in Washington, DC, where one of my children had transferred into a first grade classroom to avoid the truly terrible teaching that was literally undermining her health in another school. In her new school, Elena’s teacher, Miss Leslie, had created a wonderland of stimulating opportunities for learning: children experimenting and investigating in the classroom and the community, designing and conducting projects, writing and publishing their own little stories (one that my daughter wrote after the birth of her little brother was entitled “Send Him Back”). This teacher—who was in her very first year of practice—not only had created a classroom that any mother would want to send her child to, but she also had the skillful eye and knowledge base to figure out within weeks that Elena was severely dyslexic, to teach her to read without her ever being labeled or stigmatized, and to instill in my daughter a lifelong love of books and learning that has led to her being a literacy teacher working with special needs students today.
One day, I asked Miss Leslie how she had learned to do this miraculous work as a brand-new teacher. And she told me that she had learned to be this kind of teacher at Teachers College, Columbia University. She listed the courses she took in the Curriculum and Teaching department and the Special Education program that built her knowledge base and described what she learned with intensive supervision in a carefully designed clinical placement. It was then that I knew that a profession of teaching was possible, and I learned much more about what is possible in building a profession from my colleagues here and in our partner schools when I later came to teach at TC. I became persuaded that policy-makers needed to understand how to enable all educators to acquire the knowledge and skills that could truly allow all children to learn—rather than to try, as so many have, to manage teaching through mind-numbing, and ultimately futile, prescriptions for practice.
Teachers College has, for more than a century, represented the heartbeat of the education profession in the United States and our deepest aspirations for a democratic system of education. When TC was founded by Grace Dodge in 1887 as the New York School for the Training of Teachers, it was intended to provide a new kind of schooling for the teachers of the poor in New York City, one that combined a humanitarian concern for helping others with a scientific approach to human development and learning. At that time, when most teachers had little more than a high school education (and were frequently taught primarily to follow scripted textbooks that were popular at the time), TC teachers—a group of extraordinary women and men of all races, who came from all parts of the country—were earning masters degrees and were prepared for a research-based practice that was informed by the educational research also planted in the college: in psychology and sociology, in the content areas and in pedagogy. They, along with administrators and researchers in training, were also expected to develop a deep understanding of the history, philosophy and purposes of education and to be grounded in a set of strong values and ethics that guide all professionals.