member of the faculty for IHE's graduate programs, Mary Pat spends her days -- and nights -- nurturing and supporting students through their IHE journeys with wit, wisdom, and wild tales.
Mary Pat has an M.A. in English from New York University; she has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa, and has supervised teacher training programs in Southeast Asian refugee camps in Indonesia and Thailand. Before moving to Maine in 1994, she taught at NYU, worked for a number of organizations serving refugee populations and coordinated English language and American culture programs for the World Trade Institute in New York City. Mary Pat has worked with IHE since 2002. She currently lives in Maine with her husband George, son Liam, daughters Claire and Jing Hui, and animals too numerous to name. We asked Mary Pat a few questions so that you can get to know her better, and be dazzled and delighted by her, as all of us at IHE are.
IHE: What role does education play in creating a better world?
MPC: I think education, in one form or another, is at the root of all positive change. It doesn't have to be formal education — classroom education — but through some venue, a new understanding of an old assumption is brought into the world, usually by a forward thinking person or group of people, and popular consciousness begins to shift. Attitudes, behaviors, and accepted norms all follow this shift. Time goes by. The new idea becomes an old idea, and we wait for the next forward thinking person to come along and help us evolve our thinking. Or we don't wait for someone else to come along: maybe that someone is us. I think it's a squandered opportunity in education that we teach history, basically, as the history of conflict. Of course, conflict (such as war) is one way in which people, cultures, language, and lands are altered — but it's only a thread in the weave. Imagine if we learned about history through a different lens; the history of ideas, or the history of invention. We might all see ourselves in a historical context as changemakers then; taking our place in a long line of innovators that stretches back to the beginning of recorded time. Maybe this view would encourage us as humans to dominate a little less, and think a little more.
IHE: What personal and professional experiences have led you to focus on educating others as a method of changemaking?
MPC: I love school. I love learning, I love teaching, I love reading and writing. After college, I joined the Peace Corps and was posted for two years in a small village in Niger, West Africa. My time there gave me a great appetite for teaching in situations where I had to live in a state of learning; places where the language and culture were new to me, or, better yet: teaching something I knew nothing about. I once taught a short course in American Sign Language in a Southeast Asian refugee camp. Nobody (including me) knew how to sign and there were a number of U.S.-bound refugees in the camp who were deaf and needed to learn American Sign. I got a copy of the book, The Joy of Signing, and started teaching, trying to stay one step ahead of my students. Needless to say, the students were accustomed to signing (in their own languages) and caught on immediately. They were often surprised that I couldn't follow their conversations even though they were using the signs I taught them! We had a lot of laughs about this: I was both the designated teacher and the slowest learner in the class. (Anyone who has children or classroom students is probably familiar with this role). Anyway, it was a good experience for me. It took the pressure off thinking I needed to be an expert in order to teach something of worth — not true. If we offer what we know with a sincere heart and a desire to help, it’s enough. The students will do the rest, easily surpassing our own capacity and imagination.
IHE: What do you see happening in the world that gives you hope for a more just, compassionate, sustainable future?
MPC: Every time I open a newspaper or magazine or read publications online, I read about humane education. I see articles on climate change, GMO’s, the expansion of organic markets, shareholder activism, corporate responsibility, environmentalism, globalization, sweatshop labor issues, human rights legislation tied to trade agreements, gender and sexual-orientation equity, sustainable practice in the agricultural and corporate sectors, burgeoning awareness of how animals are treated in our society, the dangers of rampant consumerism. Two decades ago, very few of these issues were being written about in mainstream media, and now they are a routine part of our national (and global) conversation. It’s a very exciting time.
IHE: What are the biggest challenges in creating a humane and peaceful world?
MPC: Our own trepidation.
IHE: What advice do you have for aspiring humane educators?
MPC: Find a way to use and nourish your own gifts and interests in your teaching so you don’t suffer the fate of so many crucial, creative educators: Burnout.
IHE: What is one book, film, or story that has changed your life?
MPC: The Italian film, Life is Beautiful. In the film, a father convinces his little son that their life in a German concentration camp during World War Two is actually an elaborate game of strategy and intrigue. The father is so spontaneous, imaginative and funny that there are moments in the film when, despite the horror of the scene, we in the audience were laughing out loud, sometimes through tears. The father doesn’t make it out of the camp, but the little boy does, with his innocence intact. Although (as far as I know) the film isn’t based on a true story, the triumph of love over fear has never (in my opinion) been so beautifully expressed as in this film. I saw it a long time ago, but still feel amazed by it.
IHE: What tools do you use to stay grounded and balanced?
MPC: I like to read students’ assignments. These always give me great hope and inspiration.
IHE: What feeds you in your non-work life?
MPC: My husband and lifelong partner, my children, extended family, friends, good conversation, literature.
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