Teaching Is About Collaborating with Someone on Their Own Development

A tribute to the work and spirit of Mike Rose

Mike Rose is one of the most influential voices in education of my lifetime. He is the author of numerous books, including Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally UnderpreparedPossible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, and Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us, all of which are powerful testimonies to the importance of honoring education and learning as fundamentally human endeavors with all of the mess and complexity that implies.

Mike Rose, professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education passed away suddenly and unexpectedly Friday, August 13th, which means that previous paragraph should have been written in the past tense. However, one of Rose’s own lessons about writing was to use the language that reflects your meaning, and while Rose the man is no longer with us, his ideas and spirit remain.

I only knew Rose through his books, but the tributes from those who did know him have been rocketing around social media in the wake of the news of his passing. 

“Teaching is really about collaborating with someone on their own development,” Rose said on the Pedagogue Podcast in 2019.It is this spirit that animates his work and the work of those who were influenced by him. Rose believed in public institutions and the public good, having been rescued by a teacher of his own when he was growing up poor in Los Angeles. 

That teacher, Jack McFarland, is a recurring character in Rose’s writing. In a 2010 interview with host Krista Tippett on the show, On Being, Rose talks about the “sheer dumb luck” of getting an English teacher who unlocked his curiosity about learning:

“After all those years drifting around and not knowing what was up, we hit this guy who is giving us every other week a new book to read, starting with Homer, and working his way down to Hemingway. And for some reason, some complex set of reasons, it caught my fancy, the guy just caught me. And so when you ask me the question about when did I begin to think about or understand, in some kind of way, this spirit of education, it had to be there.”

Rose’s gratitude to McFarland infuses his life’s work of illuminating the educational journeys of individuals and different ways of knowing. His books are built on an intense and involved witnessing of the world and the complexities with which people live their lives. Education is one element of the social fabric that Rose so fervently believed in, the notion that our individual lives are enhanced by a broader understanding of our role as part of the collective.

As influential as Mike Rose has been in education circles, looking at the current state of our social fabric, he has not been nearly influential enough. The notion of education as a competition against others, of success as a scarce resource that requires the failure of another, made no sense to Rose, and when you read his work, it won’t make sense to you either.

Rose was a great believer in the power of education to transform lives, but he was also clear-eyed on the limits of education to overcome structural problems of poverty and unequal resources. Schooling was not going to save anyone from poverty or hunger, and reformers who promised such outcomes were fooling themselves. 

Rose believed that teaching and learning hinge on the relationships between students and teachers, students and peers, students and the material. He privileged those approaches that figured out how to switch students into the “on” position, whatever that might look like at the individual level.

Spending time reflecting on Rose reveals how essential his spirit has been to my own philosophy, my own work, even as I do not always consciously acknowledge that influence. I want nothing more than to make school a place that students know is good, and where people of power will be good to them. This means respecting students, honoring the fact that they are entitled to minds of their own, and knowing that this respect results in trust, which turns into engagement. 

When I read the news of Rose’s passing, I went looking for my copies of his books and couldn’t find them. Eventually, I remembered that I’d loaned them to an English education major years ago and they’d never been returned. While I couldn’t have the solace of remembering Rose’s writing, it felt good to know that a young person just entering the field had those books on her shelf.

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