Education and politics


By Vivian Blevins

Contributing Columnist

Curriculum wars. What is to be taught? Who makes the determination? How are faculty who teach as they see fit being threatened? Why are significant numbers of teachers making comments that express anger or defeat? “I’ve had enough” or “I’m retiring early” or “I’m getting a different job.” Faculty are being bombarded throughout the country by legislators who are attempting to mandate what they should and should not teach. Some are insisting that lesson plans be submitted a year in advance, that they be videoed as they teach, and that hotlines be established so that dissatisfied parents can report on faculty who can then be fined or fired.

A Newsweek article dated Feb. 17, 2022, with the title “America’s Teacher Exodus Leaves Education System in Crisis” reports that a recent survey conducted by the National Education Association indicates that 55 percent of teachers are considering leaving the profession earlier than they had initially planned.

For some time I’ve wanted to write about a professor at Southeast Community College in Harlan County, Ky., and three of his students. Some have yet to acknowledge that brilliance can come from the hills of Appalachia. Maybe I can convince them as I write about Professor Lee Pennington and three of his former students: Dr. William Bruce Ayers, Professor Emeritus James B. Goode, and Dr. William Turner. An internet search will reveal the extensive achievements of these three men.

Professor Pennington shares his philosophy of teaching, “Each time I walked into a classroom, there were two major things I hoped for: that students’ lives were made better through an awakening of the life that existed all around them. I hoped that through the process of writing, students would be elevated by their own discoveries. I wanted students to realize their own uniqueness no matter where they came from, that each was capable of seeing something, understanding something, witnessing something, writing something that no one else in the whole universe was capable of doing.

“I wanted all of them to realize that I did not look on them as students but as equals, as fellow human beings, who had something valuable and important and that they were as likely to get something published or rejected as the writer next door: it was a matter of matching what they had to say with the needs of a publisher.”

Acknowledging such respect and belief in their abilities coming from a professor led Ayers to tell me of Pennington, “ I have the greatest respect for Lee. He inspired us and worked with us to bring that inspiration into fruition. There are so many professors who get students inspired but are not willing to get down in the trenches with them and turn that into reality.

“Good teachers have a symbiotic relationship with students, and it’s hard to know where a good teacher ends and a student begins.” Ayers sums it up beautifully when he says, “All of the good ones are now a part of you.”

Appalachian poet Goode, the son of a Benham, Ky., coal miner, writes of Pennington, “I recall him saying that we should strip naked, blindfold ourselves and feel the bark of trees as part of our total immersion in the nature around us. I was smitten. He was a freewheeling kind of professor who was great at inspiring his students to examine where they were to focus on subjects that were germane to their place and lives. Lee was not the typical lecturer. He was good at putting provocative statement on the board which led us to high-spirited discussions. I remember one line he penned in chalk across the green board at Southeast: ‘I am where I am going.’” And Goode has traveled far from Harlan County as a visiting professor at the University of Wales at Swansea, Wales; at Changsha University in Hunan, China; and at Maseno University in Kenya, Africa.

A third student of Pennington, Turner came from the coal-mining town of Lynch, Ky., and writes that Lee Pennington entered his life “ at a time when my otherwise isolated and cloistered life was serene, yet was also in a whirlwind of change.” He reports that Pennington introduced him to Kahil Gibran who wrote, “The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.” He indicates, “Mr. Pennington made me believe that my stories were important” and “put me on his creative shoulders and took me to the march from Selma to Montgomery, figuratively.” Pennington encouraged Turner to explore a host of social issues, and Turner reports, “I still write about critical issues involving race, politics, and culture. I intentionally travel to faraway places to meet faraway people. I still smile; and, like Mr. Lee Pennington modeled to me, I still see the best in mankind, in the world, and I try to be one of them, at least to be a wise teacher.”

These three men have to their credit dozens of books, endless publications, roles as university and community college presidents, and a host of prestigious honors and awards. They are proof positive of the impact of an excellent teacher. Who are the teacher/faculty/professors who had a positive impact on you? What was the nature of that impact? Seek their addresses and send them a note of affirmation.

Vivian B. Blevins, Ph.D., a graduate of The Ohio State University, served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints nor the independent activities of the author.

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