March 25, 2018

An Educator at Heart

Written by Education Development Center

This post originally appeared on the Education Development Center website.

Teachers are learners, too—just ask Mary Burns.

In the fall of 1984, Mary Burns began her teaching career in Kingston, Jamaica. She was fresh out of college, and her lofty task was to help 35 high schoolers learn French well enough that they could pass their A-level exams in eight months’ time.

Nobody passed. Looking back, she knows why.

“I had the art of teaching down,” she says. “I had the personality. I liked the kids—I was fun. But I didn’t have the science part down. And the science of good teaching is most important.”

Burns loved being in the classroom, though, so she stuck with teaching for a decade longer. From Jamaica, she taught in the inner-cities of Boston and Omaha, moved to the Texas-Mexico border, and ended up at a private university in Mexico City. And as she worked in the classroom, she gradually became more interested in the professional growth of her fellow teachers. These teachers were learners, too—but their desires to become better teachers were largely going unaddressed.

Burns thought of her own experiences as a first-year educator.

“We had no training. We were just thrown into these classrooms and expected to teach,” she says. Though she didn’t think about it then, it troubles her now.

“When you teach, you are given other peoples’ children. You have to handle them with care. But you can only handle them with care if you know what you are doing.”

So Burns set out to change that. Over the last 20 years, she has worked to improve teachers’ access to high-quality professional development around the world, from Russia to Namibia to Ecuador. She helped build Lebanon’s country-level education technology plan, worked with elementary school teachers in Africa and Asia, and wrote a book about best practices in online teacher training.

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