School’s Out: Who Takes Responsibility for the Education of Young People?

Voices from the Field   25 September 2018
By Tom Rooney, Lindsay Unified School District


This expansion of what it means to be an educator brings to bear an interesting question: What happens to the education profession as a necessary field of specialization?

Tom Rooney

On October 8th, five educators published School’s Out—an invitation for communities “to explore how profoundly we need to alter our perspective on the meaning, feel, and delivery of learning.” To amplify the voices of these learner-centered leaders, we have invited each to author articles that express the context from which they approached the question: What if school did not exist?

The second article in this series comes from Lindsay Unified School District’s Superintendent, Tom Rooney, who explores the future role of professional educators in a society where everyone owns the responsibility of educating our youth.

Imagine a society in which the culture is built on the foundation of helping all members reach their fullest human potential. A society in which every member of the community—from the youngest to the elderly—plays a critical role in the learning of their neighbors. And, a society in which life and learning are one in the same; one in which all people identify as lifelong learners and lifelong servants toward others in the community.

In this learning community—across all professions, ages, cultures, and socio-economic groups—everyone sees themselves as equal parts “learner” and “educator.” Everyone performs these roles in consideration of the expertise, interests, and experience they bring to each situation.

In this learning community, the role of the “professional educator” becomes somewhat blurred as the responsibility for learning becomes the collective responsibility of the larger community. In a very real sense, individuals from all professions and walks of life become “community educators.”

What Does a Community Educator Look Like?

Based on their professional experiences, community educators collectively create learning opportunities that are customized to the strengths and passions of the learners they serve. These community educators empower themselves, their learners, and their community to be comfortable working and learning in a variety of environments, with an ever-shifting set of community educators who come from many different cultures and backgrounds.

These community educators are the heartbeat of the community and ensure equitable access to learning opportunities, resources, and pathways. With everyone owning the educator identity, there are no barriers to access for any young learner. In this way, each member of the learning community is continuously becoming a more thoughtful member of society—we all survive and thrive because we are constantly learning and educating in a self-sustaining cycle.

What Skills and Dispositions Must a Community Educator Embrace?

Of critical importance in this community of learning are the relational skills and dispositions all community educators embrace. Relating to and connecting with their fellow community members in a spirit of service, understanding, and love is an essential component to this learning-centered community. Serving as both learner and community educator requires a significant shift in mindset from the traditional assumptions related to societal and personal responsibilities. Ultimately, these relational skills and dispositions serve to advance the collective learning and unity of the community.

These community educators are mission-driven and courageous. They are always on the lookout for valuable lessons, in the face of both failure and success. They strive to advance their own learning and the learning of their fellow community educators. These educators are fearlessly compassionate, understanding, and patient with their other community educators—bound by a code to not pass judgement or utter words of discouragement because all community educators and all learners, young and old, are simply embarking on unique learning journeys which sometimes lead to asynchronous failure and growth opportunities.


In this new society, community educators provide opportunities and experiences, rather than simply imparting knowledge.

Tom Rooney

In this community, the role each community educator plays is as unique as their individual self—dependent upon their skill set, interests, passions, culture, and life experiences. Each person in the learning community serves as a learning partner for anyone who may need support in advancing their own learning. The thread that weaves the profession together is the collective conviction that everybody has expertise and gifts that meld into the fabric of society.

Some community educators may serve as formal mentors along life’s learning journey. Others may play a role in helping someone chart their life learning path or evaluate needed changes in a learning path that has already been charted. Still others might focus on developing the specific skills or dispositions (academic, social-emotional, physical, technical, spiritual, etc.) that someone may be seeking. While, finally, other members of the learning community could provide essential real-life learning experiences that are needed to advance the learning of a particular community member. In this future of learning, everyone in the community would become a critical “educator” for anyone else who is seeking their expertise, support, or guidance.

Community educators build, live, and sustain a community of lifelong learning—a community in which everyone’s learning journey is fully supported by everyone else in society. We become a society of both learners and educators—embracing our dual identity to always seek new learnings from others, while also being of service to our fellow community members’ learning journeys.

With Community Educators, What Happens to the Traditional Education Profession?

This expansion of what it means to be an educator brings to bear an interesting question: What happens to the education profession as a necessary field of specialization? First and foremost, in this reimagined society, the common role of current educational professionals as the “imparter of knowledge” essentially does not exist. This view might come as a surprise from an education professional like myself, but it should not put us on the defensive.

All basic information and knowledge that is currently delivered through humans is available through electronic means. Anyone can Google anything and have the most comprehensive answer to any question in seconds. The technology that is responsive to learner competence and learner academic needs is available for everyone to access information from anywhere in the world at any time. In the reimagined society I described above, the “knowledge base” that is often the current focus of education will be replaced by experiential and relational learning.

The role of current educational leaders and traditional professional educators will be transformed into positions in which they coordinate learning opportunities and create networks of support for learning. The roles of others in formal educational positions are to serve as personal life coaches and “opportunity creators” for people throughout the community. The skill set all educational professionals have gained from their academic and professional experiences are remarkably transferrable to the roles above and more.

Current education professionals will seamlessly transition into their individual roles as community educators and take ownership, just like everyone else, in supporting the development and growth of every community member that requires their mentorship.

What’s the Incentive to Create This Future?

Community-wide, the learning will be focused on social emotional competence and providing relevant, hands-on learning experiences. Learners will be the creative designers of their own learning, leading to diverse and deep learning experiences beyond what we know today. This expansion of learning opportunities will require community educators who are masters of the arts and provide personalized coaching as people expand in their ability to be creative, pursue their passions, and expand their experiences. In this new society, community educators provide opportunities and experiences, rather than simply imparting knowledge.

As communities begin to function as described above, there are incentives for communities that build caring, compassionate, literate, and self-directed community members who are fully committed to the advancement of their neighbor. These learning communities eradicate poverty as the collective good of all is placed above the individual advancement of the few. These communities establish a workforce grounded in personal responsibility and focused on serving others.

Community members living with mental illness or emotional distress will have their needs met more fully by a community of caring, compassionate human beings who are committed to the wellbeing of the larger community. Allowing gifts and strengths to be realized and creating the space for struggles and challenges to be dealt with collectively builds a society in which all people are responsible for the learning of themselves and of everyone else around them.

As communities transform into centers of learning for all, and everyone assumes full responsibility for learning and community advancement, all community members will realize their full potential and positively impact society as a whole. This is the society we often claim to be striving for within the confines of the traditional education system. And yet, we find anomaly after anomaly that would claim otherwise.

If we truly want to build a future in which the we are no longer looking to fill the cracks of our education system and are instead focused on building an entirely new, impenetrable foundation, we must ask ourselves difficult questions and create from a mindset that pushes well beyond anything we’ve ever constructed up to this point and time. It’s hard, it’s scary, but most importantly, it’s the justice we’ve always been looking for. How would you reimagine education if you set aside what you know about the traditional system of today and created from a mindset that focused on everyone identifying themselves as both parts learner and educator?

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