“Why teach that book? Why teach that? Why teach? Why?” An interview with Mary Pat Champeau, Director of IHE’s Graduate Programs

Mary Pat Champeau is the director of IHE’s graduate programs with Antioch University and serves as our head of faculty as well as the advisor to our students. She is a consummate educator, deep listener, expert in facilitation of online learning, and is beloved at IHE and among our students and graduates. Under Mary Pat’s leadership, IHE’s graduate programs have produced leaders in the field of humane education who are working in schools, universities, nonprofits, communities, the arts, and as writers and entrepreneurs who are starting businesses, publishing books (including bestsellers), and creating their own organizations. Mary Pat began her educational career in the Peace Corps in Niger, taught in refugee camps in Southeast Asia, and was a language and culture educator and supervisor at the World Trade Institute in NYC before moving to Maine in 1994.

Zoe: Your career in education has been so varied. I’m curious what you learned from your earliest experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher in refugee camps that you still bring to your work in education today. What are the big, overarching educational “truths” that have stood the test of time no matter where you have taught and no matter how much has changed in the world?

Mary Pat: What I learned from my earliest experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer could fill a book entitled, “Using Myself as a Bad Example.” And then a sequel. For one thing, I’m embarrassed to say, I began my teaching career by blaming my students when my classes fell apart, which they often did. “All that planning down the drain!” I would lament. As a brand new teacher, I spent about 3 hours planning for every 1 hour of class time, and I had several classes, so I was always planning. And exhausted. I worked on my lesson plans all night long, by the light of my little sputtery kerosene lamp, and they were works of art. And then I’d get to class the next day, and nobody seemed to care! Nobody paid attention! Chaos prevailed. I would complain to my friends, “I’d be such a good teacher if it weren’t for my students!”

We had these old British textbooks we were supposed to use. A quick review of the table of contents revealed the first two lessons I tried to teach: “My Trip to the Ice Cream Parlor” and “I Want to be an Airline Hostess.” 

For context, the students in my classes (35-40 in a class, ages ranging from 7-18) already spoke Hausa and French. They were living in rural villages on the fringes of the Sahara with no electricity or running water on compounds where large extended families carried on a rich oral tradition of telling complex, funny, dangerous, and mysterious stories. The year was 1979. Niger had been a French colony from the 1800s until 1960. Elsewhere on the continent, apartheid was alive and well, and Nelson Mandela was in jail. My students were not that interested in learning how to order a rum raisin ice cream cone.

But I didn’t question the book. I didn’t question anything really – I was scrambling to conform in every possible way. This book was what we’d been instructed to use, so I used it. One of the other English teachers in my school, Mr. Ofusu, was from Ghana, and he said, “Why teach that book?” I was taken aback. “It’s what we were told to use.” He waved this idea away. “Who’s going to know? You are already a spectacle in the class. You need to teach about something that makes sense to the students.” 

Wait, what? 

It never occurred to me to exercise any kind of agency over what or how I taught. I instantly borrowed his wisdom and confidence. If it weren’t for Mr. Ofusu, chances are I would have spent the next two years, maybe the next ten, teaching what I’d been told to teach, and how I’d been told to teach it. I might have added a creative flourish here or there, but basically I would have put my best efforts into perpetuating a status quo I never thought to question. Complain about? Yes. Question? No. Not deeply. 

I don’t want to misrepresent my success as a new teacher and falsely report that as soon as I started using the book my Ghanaian colleague recommended, based on folk tales that the students were already familiar with, everything changed and it was smooth sailing. Not so much. But I changed. For one thing, I got to read those stories and folk tales. I got to share them with my students in English, and somehow we all started moving in the same direction. The headmaster had once told me: “Your students are better behaved when nobody is in the classroom than when you are!” This stopped being the case, mostly.  I kind of fell in love with teaching, and with my students.

The question Mr. Ofusu asked, “Why teach that book?” has become one of those diminishing questions that has helped me clarify my own purpose and the purpose of what I teach for more than 40 years. “Why teach that book? Why teach that? Why teach? Why?”

For me, at its heart, educating is essentially a political act. If I have a book that asks me to teach someone how to order a rum raisin ice cream cone, we have to look at the systems that are bringing that ice cream to our table and the systems that are bringing that book to our classrooms.

Zoe: You’ve been at the Institute for Humane Education for two decades, first as a board member and then as the director of our graduate programs. What about humane education and your work at IHE has inspired such a long commitment? 

Mary Pat: Easy answer. I love everything about it. I love the mission of IHE, my co-workers, the board, our extraordinary faculty members, my university team, and of course the students and alumni! I have often said and will repeat myself here for the record: the best thing about our graduate program is the people it attracts.

Zoe: We live in an era of specialization. Many programs forego breadth for depth. What would you say to someone who wonders why they would want to pursue studies that are so comprehensive and bring together the intersectional issues of social justice, environmental sustainability, animal protection, culture, and change-making?

Mary Pat: I would say step into my office or let’s hop on a Zoom call because this is a conversation worth having! We should all be having it. As humans interested in the future of education, we should be entertaining this question not as an either/or, “deep or broad” proposition, but as a way of framing a continuum. We need specialists and experts of course, and many of our students go on to become specialists in a variety of fields – in fact, many come into the grad program having already specialized in a field or two. No doubt about it: experts are needed! At the same time, I believe so whole-heartedly in the fundamental importance of the humanities. In the big lively tent of a broad-based liberal arts education, we are invited into spaciousness; we have a chance to settle in, look around, and get a better sense of who we are in the world, what our core truths are, and where they come from. We sharpen our critical and creative capacities by being exposed to lots of thinking about lots of things. I’ve seen how the courses in humane education help us expand where we might be tempted to contract. And from this expansive place, our ability to do our best, most creative, and impactful work is nourished by the bottomless well of our own self-knowledge. That, in my opinion, is an epic win!