Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Linda Beardsley, a senior lecturer in the Department of Education in the School of Arts and Sciences, has worked as a teacher across many levels of schooling, as a state education policymaker and as a board member of a girls school in Rwanda. Her work focuses on the role of students as being central to their own educational experience. Beardsley sat down with the Daily to discuss her work and what brought her to Tufts.
Tufts Daily (TD): How did you get interested in the field of education?
Linda Beardsley (LB): I’ve always been interested in teaching from the time I had a younger sibling and friends and we used to play school. So it was something I’ve always done. And of course you spend a lot of time in school, so you get to know school and how to do school and all of that. Actually, when I was in college, I initially wanted to be in advertising, but after a few experiences that led me to believe I wasn’t so keen on advertising, teaching seemed to be the natural progression, because I was always interested in writing, reading, English, humanities, so I went into teaching.
TD: What brought you to Tufts?
LB: I started by teaching high school and I had two maternity leaves in that bit of time. It was actually through raising my own young children that I realized even though I knew how to do what I thought was a knockout lesson plan on “The Scarlet Letter,” I had no idea how people really learned. I mean, watching my own children learning just the basic things that a toddler learns — I was fascinated. I had an opportunity to apply to Tufts, to the [Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development], and I did my graduate work there. When my graduate work was done, they asked if I’d like to stay and teach there, and that was a great opportunity to work with young children after I had been working with high school-aged students. So that’s how I first got to Tufts.
TD: What is your role here now?
LB: A senior lecturer. I was at Eliot-Pearson for 14 years at the children’s school. I did a lot of teaching, research, that kind of thing. I left when there was a class action lawsuit in New Hampshire to close the institutional schools and bring students that had been institutionalized back to their neighborhood schools. So I did that for a few years, which was very rewarding and really taught me a lot about school. And then when I was finished with that role, Massachusetts was starting its education reform work and I was encouraged to apply to the [State] Department of Education to do that… I spearheaded the development of the first [Massachusetts] Curriculum Frameworks and worked a lot with schools until John Silber was elected to the Board of Education in Massachusetts, and he had a very different idea than I did about how one reforms schools and it involves teachers in particular … so I knew I had to leave. I was at a conference and happened to meet one of the professors I had when I was at Eliot-Pearson who said you should think about coming back to Tufts. And I thought to myself, all the work I did in policy, I learned it really is about the relationship between students and their teachers that makes a difference, so I thought if I could get to work to train teachers to have those relationships, I would do more to reform education than sitting in board rooms.
TD: What was your research at Eliot-Pearson about? And what have you learned now that you’ve become a lecturer and are interacting more with students?
LB: My areas of research … [in] the years when I first came here was really about how to train teachers. I believe in partnerships between higher education and K-12 schools, so that was a lot of the work I did my first decade back here was looking at how you establish partnerships with schools. I was very interested in attracting more young people of color and so did a lot of work in that regard, and the university was very supportive of that kind of work, so that was really gratifying, [especially] working with the school in Rwanda, and looking at the global perspective of education. I worked on education reform, curriculum standards, frameworks, all of that kind of thing in a place that I know very well — Massachusetts schools — but to realize that the rest of the world was doing that too was pretty amazing to me. The thing about Rwanda, and certainly I think other African countries as well, they’re trying to adopt the way we do things and I don’t think we necessarily always do things well. So helping to steer some of that work, to work at a school that really is trying to provide some models of more hands-on learning, more STEM-focused work with girls especially, has really been interesting. That’s been a lot of my work, as well as a course that I developed called “The Role of ‘Story’ in Education,” helping people look at the narrative of their education and worlds it’s opened up to them, as well as boundaries it may be putting around their thinking. Those are the two areas that I’m most enthusiastic about at this point.
TD: So on the other side, what was your experience working in the field of education policy?
LB: Education policy is like — you always hear that idea — you never want to know how the sausage is made. I think I was very fortunate to work at the [Massachusetts] Department of Education at a time when there was a lot of progressive thinking, a lot of people who had been teachers, like myself, who were actually now looking at policy from the perspective of the practitioner and not just from the perspective of the academic or the political side. Because I think that to me what is often missing from the policy level is the real perspective of the practitioner, [and] also the perspective of students. When I was helping to design the process for developing the curriculum frameworks, we were one of the first states to include students on our framework committees. I’ll tell you, that was like “Wow!” Hopefully in my own teaching I give students a sense of how important it is to think about their own voices in shaping [policy]. We don’t have to shape policy at the big national level, we can shape policy by talking with the schools we work in about what we believe is good practice.
TD: On that note, is there anything Tufts is doing or should be doing in terms of their practices in education?
LB: First of all, I believe in a liberal arts education. I think it’s wonderful. I think the time you spend as an undergraduate in an institution should be a time when you can really try some things, grow in ways that maybe you can’t believe — I can’t believe I love acting, I can’t believe I really enjoy calculus — it should be all those kinds of opportunities. I’ll tell you a story. At the beginning of classes, I often ask people what they want to learn, because I think that’s an important thing to do on the first day — find out what your students know already about what you’re going to be teaching them and what they really want to know. It’s the way I kind of develop my own rubric for the year. A couple of years ago when I asked that question on the first day and asked them to jot some things down, someone looked at me and said “Nobody has ever asked me that before.” I mean I think it’s so typical, especially in the K-12 experience, and especially now with so much standards-driven education, that we trust the fact that the schools know what we need to learn. I think we need to think more about how we incorporate student voice at every level, and that includes here at Tufts.
TD: Lastly, do you have any words of wisdom for Tufts students?
LB: I don’t feel very wise. Especially after 3 in the afternoon. I feel as though I’m someone who’s always learning and I learn a lot from my students. I always have, whether they were kindergarteners at Eliot-Pearson, or graduate students here in the department. One thing I would hope is that Tufts students really know that they should have and they do have a voice in their own educations and what they want to pursue. I would encourage them to use them here. To help all of us who are their teachers to understand what they see, because they see the future all in front of them. You know a lot of us who are their teachers are looking backwards and I think it’s important that we always have conversations about what you will need to know and how you will need to make meaning out of this crazy world we’ve all created for you. I was thinking about that the other day — I was reading about Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist, and just thinking about how brave she is to raise her voice. The students from Parkland, how brave they were to raise their voices. I just hope that’s one of the things a student learns here, is how to raise your voice, be brave. Tell truth to power, as they say.