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March 12, 2014

Mark Helmsing: Teaching the teachers

March 10, 2014

Mark Helmsing is a doctoral candidate in MSU’s Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education program and has spent five years conducting research, working with future K-12 teachers, teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, and other academic endeavors. A former high school teacher, he plans to defend his dissertation this summer and already has two job offers for faculty positions at universities.

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

This pernicious aphorism is a variation of a maxim the cranky playwright George Bernard Shaw makes in his work "Man and Superman." It has become a prickly retort popular with naysayers of teachers, the teaching profession and public education at large, a position that carries devastating consequences as we argue over the role of education in public culture today.

And yet the truth-value of this put-down is summarily upended when considering the work going on in the College of Education at MSU.

Such work is what drew me from the sundrenched schoolyards where I taught in Phoenix to East Lansing five years ago as a new graduate student in MSU’s Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education doctoral program.

As a teacher of adolescent learners in schools throughout the United States and in Europe, I had been contemplating graduate study in education. I enjoy thinking about education, examining what makes teaching work, studying how teaching and schooling as we know it today in the United States changed and evolved over time, and how we can imagine teaching in radically new ways as learners evolve in the 21st century.

I kept an eye on the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Before they were widely available online, I would peruse the annual issues in my neighborhood bookstores and I always noticed Michigan State was #1 in elementary and secondary education.

MSU’s top-ranked graduate program drew me back to the Midwest by the program’s interdisciplinary scope. Here I have learned from scholars who are examining a wide range of issues in education.

When I spend time with friends from other departments, the first thing they ask me unintentionally echoes Shaw: “Oh, the College of Ed? So does that mean you study how to make bulletin boards?” This perspective quickly changes when I describe the scholarship of my faculty and colleagues, such as their research on the teachings of national museums, the effects of Holocaust education, the histories and consequences of the bell curve, the influence of Harry Potter, the differences of learning math across cultures, the diverse literacies teens practice and acquire in social media, and the importance of helping children understand genetics.

While this only represents a fraction of the types of research that drew me to College of Education, it is indicative that “those who teach teachers” at MSU take teaching and learning seriously and rigorously.  

While considering my options for graduate studies, I also spent time perusing educational reference sections in the bookstores for inspiration to renew my teaching. I came across a book on critical approaches to social studies education edited by three professors of education at MSU. The spirited debates in this book helped bring me to where I am presently, specializing in teaching future teachers of social studies, a subject area deserving of sustained consideration and improvement in schools.

The ways in which today’s youth are learning digital citizenship, sustainable eco-stewardship, empathy for people and places across time and space, and conceptions of living in a transnational global world require broadening our assumptions of social studies beyond that of a quaint school subject many assume focuses only on the duties of patriotism and the responsibilities of being a good citizen well versed in history and geography.

MSU has helped me engage with the puzzle of how one can do more in offering a vision of a critically engaged social education for students that responds to their contexts and communities. As such, I have been a funded fellow for an institute in oral history at Columbia University; participated with a partnership between MSU and the University of Botswana; and worked with faculty from across MSU’s departments in offering an institute for teachers on incorporating knowledge about Africa in world history.

I have received training and support from MSU for my own research projects on how teachers teach about issues ranging from conceptions of 9/11 to contemporary Africa and from debates on learning national identity to the effects of the Great Recession during the past five years.

My experiences at MSU working with education researchers, teacher educators, veteran teachers and students newly prepared to begin their own teaching careers makes me think George Bernard Shaw missed the mark by a long shot. For a more promising perspective, I turn to one of Shaw’s peers in theatre, Anton Chekov, who wrote “The teacher must be an actor, an artist, passionately in love with his work.”

The scholars I have met here in the top-ranked programs in elementary and secondary education are passionately in love with teaching teachers, something they can do—and do quite well.


Photo by Ben Curtis, MSU College of Education