Welcome to Teachers College, Columbia University. Whether you are learning about us for the first time or, like me, have been around for a while, you will find that new discoveries are constantly happening here in our ongoing efforts to improve lives, schools and communities.
The world thinks of Teachers College as a leader in education, and that’s absolutely true. We produce the nation’s finest teachers, school leaders and education researchers. We’re shaping new strategies to engage students from different backgrounds, like using hip hop to teach science or empowering youngsters to think critically about race in our society. We’re leaders in preparing teachers to work with kids worldwide who have been displaced from their homes, and in ensuring the development of technologies that aren’t just flashy and cool, but actually help kids learn.
But there’s so much else about us that many people don’t know. For example, are you aware that more than a third of our faculty are psychologists, working in fields like Latina/o mental health, or exploring ways to help veterans make the difficult transition to civilian life? Or studying the mental health benefits of spirituality, or how genes and the environment interact to shape cognitive development?
Did you know that we’ve got neurologists conducting groundbreaking studies on how poverty affects brain development in young children? Movement scientists who are creating new therapies for kids with cerebral palsy? Health educators who are exploring ways to stop the national epidemic of gun violence?
If you’re wondering why all this different work is happening in a place called Teachers College, the answer is that – like one of our earliest superstars, John Dewey – we don’t see education as something that stands apart from people’s lives. Rather, learning is both a function and a promoter of physical health and emotional wellbeing. And our own faculty, regardless of their areas of expertise, are dynamic teachers who challenge and inspire students and help them become leaders in their fields.
But the really wonderful thing about TC is what goes on when our brilliant people working in education, health and psychology put their heads together.
When that happens – and it does, all the time – we get the kind of multi-faceted approaches that offer the best hope for meeting the world’s most complex challenges.
Take the global refugee crisis – a humanitarian disaster that will play out over decades, as entire generations grow up in a permanent limbo. As I mentioned, ensuring education for 20 million children is absolutely essential. But just as importantly, how do we help their parents cope with depression and hopelessness that can make it impossible just to get up each day and persevere? Our psychologists have literally written the book on this issue. They’ve developed a form of group therapy that helps restore a sense of community and personal agency. They’re on the ground in places like Lebanon and Jordan helping put it into practice. And they’ve been so successful that the World Health Organization is distributing, around the globe, a manual written largely by our people on how to use this technique.
Or take an issue that’s literally front and center in this country – obesity, and related challenges of diabetes and poor nutrition, which are pervasive among our young people. How do we teach kids about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, and of staying fit, when their schools have eliminated physical education and their families may live in neighborhoods that are miles from stores that sell fresh produce? And how do we go beyond education to try to change a food system driven by industries that often pay lip service to terms like “organic” but are making profits by pushing junk food? Answer: By bringing together experts in nutrition science, education and policy – which is just what we’re doing at TC’s Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy housed in our Program in Nutrition. The Tisch Food Center is working on multiple levels, from shaping national legislation to fighting for school gardens and better meals in school cafeterias.
These efforts reaffirm two important lessons that I’ve learned in my own work, and which I know will guide me in leading Teachers College. The first, as I’ve said, is the importance of multidisciplinary work. When we stay in our silos, working separately, we resemble the proverbial blind men and the elephant. Each of us grasps hold of a different part of the problem and works with an incomplete understanding of the true nature of the beast. Only by working together can we truly understand what we’re up against and develop the kind of comprehensive solutions that can be taken to scale.
The second lesson grows out of the first: “Comprehensive” does not mean “one size fits all.” Just as the best solutions result from the interplay of different approaches, they also can be adapted to different settings, cultures and people.
That combination – scalable yet adaptive – is how you get real change, and that’s the kind of work that I believe Teachers College can lead like no other institution.
So if you’re just discovering Teachers College – congratulations, and here’s hoping you’ll join us in our work. And if you’re already part of our community – or returning to it after some time away – look again. Because while no one knows what tomorrow may bring, we’ve got some great ideas.