The Power of Teaching
Linda Woolf, STP President
April 8, 2022
Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
Kofi Annan, Former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, 1997
Kofi Annan (1997) was not only the 7th Secretary-General to lead the UN but also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who’s worked tirelessly for human rights, sustainable economic development, and international peace and freedom. Originally from Ghana, Annan worked his way up through the ranks of the UN to become a powerful voice—a voice aimed at lifting up those living in fear, conflict, and deep poverty. When given the opportunity to speak before the World Bank Conference on “Global Knowledge,” held in Toronto in 1997, he spoke about the power of information and education, as key to addressing local and global problems. He stated:
We at the United Nations are convinced that information has a great democratizing power waiting to be harnessed to our global struggle for peace and development. We believe this because we are convinced that it is ignorance, not knowledge, that makes enemies of men. It is ignorance, not knowledge, that makes fighters of children. It is ignorance, not knowledge, that leads some to advocate tyranny over democracy. It is ignorance, not knowledge, that makes some think that human misery is inevitable. It is ignorance, not knowledge, that make others say that there are many worlds, when we know that there is one. Ours.
With these words in mind, I celebrate that I am a teacher. I love teaching and I am passionate about what I teach. I love psychology and appreciate all of its underlying theoretical and philosophical ambiguities, its methodologies, and its concern for individuals, organizations, communities, and the planet. Psychology is a complex, challenging, and important discipline—a discipline interconnected with numerous other fields of study and practice. Fundamental to my passion for teaching is the belief that what I teach is important—it has value to people’s lives individually and collectively within a multi-cultural global community. What we teach and what our students learn make a tangible difference in their lives and the lives of others.
Sadly, teaching is often undervalued. We see this marginalization of teachers in many forums within the United States (US). Indeed, we too often see a perceived hierarchy of value within psychology related to who teaches what kind of students and in what type of setting. In meetings, I have seen celebrations and congratulations when a colleague’s university has moved “up” the rankings of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The intention of these rankings is purely classification and based on number and types of degrees awarded (e.g., Doctorates) and amount of research. It is not designed to imply that one school necessarily is better than another but rather just documents differences in institutional focus. Yet, movement from an R2 to an R1 is often celebrated because it is perceived as an increase in status, prestige, and overall worth of an institution and the individuals who study/teach at such institutions. The rankings imply a hierarchy of worth.
Occasionally, I will meet someone, and they will ask the proverbial, “What do you do?” question. I answer that I am a teacher. Occasionally, the person will get excited and comment that they are also a teacher. The conversation is off to a good start! Then they ask, “Where do you teach?” and I name my university. It saddens my heart, when on occasion they reply, “Oh, I only teach . . .” adding high school, junior high or at some other level. Why the modifier of “only”? Of course, I experience the flip side when I meet a person and I hear the disappointed “Oh” and loss of eye contact when they learn I do not teach at an R1/2 university.
Now I personally think that high school teachers of psychology are absolute heroes! They represent the front line of bringing psychology to hundreds of thousands of students each year across the US. These students may never attend a college of any sort, but they will bring what they have learned in their psychology classes into their future careers and lives. And it is not just content (i.e., psychological literacy), but these students also have learned the fundamentals of scientific thinking and reasoning—skills aimed at making them better consumers of information and better citizens. They learn about the diversity of the human experience and ethical reasoning. High school teachers are the front line in the fight against ignorance, as described by Kofi Annan (1997). High school teachers of psychology are some of the best-prepared and most knowledgeable teachers of introductory psychology that I have ever met. And while I am at it—I can say the same thing about community college teachers. Our community college colleagues are excellent teachers, who are focused on providing high quality educational experiences to students across a range of psychology courses. Remember that First Lady Jill Biden is a proud community college teacher!
Although, within some circles, a hierarchy of worth exists based on where one teaches, I think it is important to know that this belief is NOT supported within the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP). We are all teachers, and all of our voices are valued. Regardless of who you are and where you teach, your voice is welcome and heard. Everyone can join in discussions, ask questions, engage in professional scholarship (e.g., conference presentations; eBook chapters), apply for grants/awards, participate in committees and task forces, and run for office! There are many opportunities and resources, some of which are focused specifically for high school and community college teachers (e.g., High School Teacher Travel Grants; Wayne Weiten Teaching Excellence Award—2-year colleges; Mary Margaret Moffett Memorial Teaching Excellence Award—high school). Regardless, we are all teachers, and we share that common bond.
I should add that I had the privilege of working with APA Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) a few years back. What an amazing group of individuals and indeed, many within STP have been involved in TOPSS over the years, such as Kristin Whitlock, current STP Vice President for Programming, who teaches at Davis High School in Kaysville, Utah. If you haven’t checked out the TOPSS webpage, run and take a look at all the resources, which you too can use in your courses!
Kofi Annan (1997) spoke of “What can we do, what can you do” in relation to education on a global, as a key element of international peace, sustainable development, and human security. Some of his key points involved global access/reduced censorship, with a focus on shared information between countries across a range of technologies with improved infrastructure supports. Certainly, STP’s international initiatives and partnerships fit within this vision. But Annan also included the following:
- Initiate innovative approaches to education and learning at all levels, understanding the cultural contexts in order to ensure the greatest achievement of knowledge.
- Ensure that the young will be the first to gain this knowledge and to make it their partner in the pursuit of a better, richer life for themselves and for their peoples.
Recognizing the value of K-12 teachers, community college teachers, teachers on tribal lands, teachers at HBCUs, online teachers, programs aimed at first generation college students, teachers in prisons, and others reaching out to make education inclusive and accessible for all students fulfills the vision of Kofi Annan. Eliminating our beliefs, both implicit and explicit, about not just a hierarchy of what students are worthy but also the value of different educational contexts is essential. We need to change the hierarchical narrative to a vision that values diversity, equity, and inclusion for students, for teachers, and across educational contexts and opportunities.
Certainly, these ideas are mirrored in the STP Mission Statement (just in case you haven’t seen it!):
The Society for the Teaching of Psychology promotes excellence in the teaching and learning of psychology. The Society provides resources and services, access to a global collaborative community, and opportunities for professional development. It endeavors to promote equity and social justice for teachers and students of psychology with marginalized, racially minoritized, and intersecting identities. The Society also strives to advance the scholarship of teaching and learning; advocate for the needs of teachers of psychology; promote diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within the teaching and learning of psychology; foster partnerships across academic settings; and increase recognition of the value of the teaching profession.
Annan, K. (1997, June 23). Press release: 'If information and knowledge are central to democracy, they are conditions for development', says Secretary-General. https://www.un.org/press/en/1997/19970623.sgsm6268.html