Making History: BU’s Dr. Hardin Coleman Discusses the Community’s Role in Education Equality and Student Success
This podcast episode is part of the EdTech Times series “Making History,” highlighting black leaders in education.
An educator with over 40 years of experience, Dr. Hardin Coleman has a biography for the history books.
His mother was an educator, born to a family of advocates for equality. His grandparents entertained Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Dubois. His father, William Coleman, served as a lawyer and leader for the NAACP, co-authored the legal brief for Brown vs. the Board of Education, and also happened to be the first African American U.S. Cabinet member.
In the same way that his family members fought for equality, Hardin Coleman has spent his own career “getting these predominately white or European descended, dominated institutions prepared to be useful for kids of color.”
Known for his ten-year role as dean of Boston University’s School of Education, Hardin has spoken many times about the importance of equity and equality in education. Most recently, he has been appointed to the Boston School Committee, where he has continued to put his passion for helping children and expertise in how they learn to good use.
For our series, Making History, we interviewed Hardin Coleman about his experience and how he hopes to better education. Listen in to learn more about his life, work, and hopes for the future of education.
Kassandra Sundt: Welcome to the EdTech Times podcast. I’m your host, Kassandra Sundt. You’re listening to “Making History” — our series highlighting black leaders in education.
Next you’re going to hear a conversation between Hannah Nyren— general manager of Ed Tech Times— and Hardin Coleman.
Coleman has had a long career in education, starting as a teacher and coach at a Quaker School in Philadelphia — then, 17 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But most recently, Coleman served as Dean of Education at Boston University from 2008 to 2017.
In this interview, you’ll hear how Coleman got his start as an educator leading canoe trips, how he views the responsibility of educators, and some of his proudest moments as an educator.
Hannah Nyren: Hi. This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. And today I’m speaking with Hardin Coleman. Hi Hardin, how’s it going?
Hardin Coleman: I’m doing well today. And you?
Hannah Nyren: Great. So Hardin, in a couple of sentences, could you introduce yourself?
Hardin Coleman: Yeah, my name’s Hardin Coleman. I’m a professor of Counseling Psychology and Applied Human Development at the Boston University School of Education, where I had spent the previous ten years serving as the dean of the School of Education. And prior to that, I was a faculty member at Wisconsin, where I trained school counselors and did research with a focus on minority student achievement.
Hannah Nyren: So, you’ve been in education for a while…
Hardin Coleman: 40 years, yeah, four decades.
Hannah Nyren: And you’ve worked with a number of educators in your life.
Hardin Coleman: Yes, across a wide spectrum from private religious schools, to public schools, to alternate schools, and outdoor education.
Hannah Nyren: So where did it all begin? What got you interested in education in the first place?
Hardin Coleman: I always tell people that the reason I became a teacher was to keep my summer job, which was leading canoe trips to the Hudson’s Bay, and which were 6-8 week-long canoe trips that I loved. And I got into that as a camper. And really, it was there that I learned the discipline and the focus that supported both my academic and athletic career. And I’m a jocko and I like schools, so a great place for people like me is in the classroom with middle age adolescents and young adolescents, both doing the intellectual development and the social-emotional development and the physical development. So my first job was a P.E. teacher. My father then told me “Those who do, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach P.E.” But I have managed to turn that into a very useful career where I went from P.E., I went into teaching religion and also became a school counselor at…religious schools, before taking off to go to work in China for a year, where I taught English in the Shanghai teachers university for a year before I started my doctorate at Stanford.
Hardin Coleman: So, I am a third generation member of the Colemans and Hardins, my mother’s family, that had been struggling to create a just society — as measured by how well African-Americans have an equitable access to success in our society. My father’s job was to remove the barriers for their access to what had been segregated — primarily white institutions.
Hardin Coleman: And my job has been getting these predominately white or European descended, dominated institutions prepared to be useful for kids of color. And so that’s very critical to my way of thinking and my children are going to have another role. The sad part is over — we’re talking about over 100 years now of Coleman and Hardin men at this work — that some of the problems are still there. We’ve made progress, but not enough.
Hannah Nyren: And how do you think your own education influences the way you look at education, and these issues in particular?
Hardin Coleman: I was brought up in an environment where I was often the only person of color. And I was truly cared for, loved by white women and white men who really wanted my success. And came from a community of color who really wanted my success.
Hardin Coleman: So I know that that shared care for historically disenfranchised people there, and I’ve seen it work. And I believe it can work universally. And that it takes a lot of effort to make that happen. Because so often those who— for whom it’s not working don’t have the time and the resources to advocate for themselves. So those of us of privilege need to take that responsibility and advocate for, and change the system for those who don’t have the wherewithal to change it themselves so that their children can take our place with authority.
Hannah Nyren: So what is your proudest accomplishment over those years?
Hardin Coleman: I guess my proudest accomplishment is the number of deep and high quality relationships I have with people who are my students, or graduate students, and colleagues, where we were able to create these learning environments where we really engage deeply. And that’s true for people I went canoeing with, as it was for the students in my classroom.
Hardin Coleman: So through Facebook and other places, you get feedback about what the classes meant to people. So I guess my favorite accomplishment is I think people, my students, truly felt that with me they were learning more about the subject and themselves in a safe environment. It’s too early to tell how well my term as a dean has turned out for BU. But the initial, right now, it has improved its national reputation, its sense of self, and its focus on integrating research and practice. And I’m very proud of the way I was able to do that, in a way that built the community into a stronger, more caring community of adult learners.
Hannah Nyren: So what do you think is the biggest issue in education right now?
Hardin Coleman: Finding a way to get adults, in the adult community, in their silos: housing, law enforcement, medical fields, education, political, commerce, to work collectively to improve the quality of educational outcomes for all children. We have to find a way to create an educational system that really leads to mastery of both content, discipline, and a sense of self for all children.
Hardin Coleman: If we’re going to have an educational system produce students, graduates, who are going to be the type of engaged citizens we’re going to need in an increasingly complex and tightly connected world. And as much as we may be in a period of what some could call a retreat to ethnonationalism that’s happening here, happening in Hungary, happening maybe in China, as much as we see those evidence. The big question is, “Is that the next phase of our future, or is that the dying gasp of a previous perspective in the world?”
Hardin Coleman: What we see in our economies, and we see in the hearts of people — and this is what’s great about watching the Olympics, you know — where you have people coming together from very different backgrounds, trained very different ways, struggling to compete for the same outcomes with each other in a way that doesn’t necessarily lead to fighting and conflict, but how we have to learn to work together. That demands a tremendous amount of discipline. And we have to make sure, particularly one could argue and I’m gonna argue, that we have that the issues of population.
Hardin Coleman: I think as we educate more women around the world and provide them access to economic well-being around the world, the birth rates are going to go down. That’s a natural consequence. We’re relying on all our children to be able to engage in their economies in a very effective way, particularly if you accept the arguments about climate change, and technological advances, and social advances. We’re going to need to manage change in our environments. It’s a very exciting time. And if I have grandchildren, they’re going to be in the middle of it. And we, as adults, now have to work together to create systems, so that all of the next generation of children come through a system that prepares them to take their spot within a very complex global economy.
Hannah Nyren: So what advice do you have for educators to start tackling these issues?
Hardin Coleman: It’s a broad industry and so I think within education, different people have different responsibilities.
Hardin Coleman: So your classroom teacher has a deep responsibility to master their content, understand how to transfer that knowledge to the children in their classroom, and most importantly, how to create a safe learning environment for the children in those classrooms, so that more kids are engaged. That’s their primary responsibility, followed by being willing to recognize when they’re not being successful. And when they’re failing and reaching out across their ecology to get them support. Particularly the classroom teacher, that’s their primary job.
Hardin Coleman: The principals in the buildings need to be able to understand what’s happening. And for those kids who are not getting what they need in the classroom, work with the system to provide them the support. Those who aren’t getting it in the classroom need to get it from elsewhere.
Hardin Coleman: And then the district has a responsibility to make sure that’s all happening.
Hardin Coleman: People have the responsibility to make sure the resources are there to meet the needs of the kids who aren’t getting their needs met within their classroom. And that’s not just the family’s part of that responsibility, but not all families have the wherewithal and resources to accomplish that well, and we have, as a culture, need to think that through. And that’s why, I mean, the adults working across the silos is the primary. So educators who learn their stuff and reach out to other adults for help. And adults being willing to help and not pathologize a teacher who may be struggling with a particular kid.
Hardin Coleman: I think the role of education is to produce highly functioning citizens. And that’s a whole person, it’s not just an intellectual person. It’s not just an academic, accomplished person. It’s a person who really knows how to be a good friend, knows how to work in groups, knows how to reach out. And even if they’re an introvert — knows how to manage themselves within a social context. You don’t have to be buddy-buddy with everyone to be very effectively socially. And so I think schools is where we can learn that, learn and practice that. Certainly families have a huge role. And I never want to think that we’re going to take away the importance of parents sharing their values, their cultural beliefs, their cultural understandings of the world with their children. And schools should be accepting of that. We don’t want to assimilate everyone into a single model.
Hannah Nyren: Families simply don’t have time to do it all.
Hardin Coleman: Families shouldn’t. And that’s why we have schools.
Hardin Coleman: We’re not part of a different culture, we’re a part of the family culture, we’re part of the community. And we have to think that way. We’re all one. I believe that we are one community. And at different levels, the community gets bigger and bigger, but still we have to think about “How are we taking? How are we supporting our most able and caring for our least able?” And that’s a community effort.
Hannah Nyren: Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Hardin Coleman: Yeah. My pleasure.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.