I would like to offer a playful but not entirely unserious challenge to the people who organize the big classical education conferences every summer: let a K-12 teacher from some small school give a plenary talk. Perhaps an eighth grade Latin teacher from Kentucky. Or a senior rhetoric teacher from Wyoming. I know you’ve got to put published authors on the big stage, and college presidents, college profs, consultants, and pastors with fifty-thousand Twitter followers, but why not put just one really great average Joe up there, too? Just one.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting anyone is morally obligated to do this, or that the legitimacy of a conference depends on it. But imagine what it would do for the thousands of K-12 teachers who come to these conferences to see one of their own on the big stage—to see a humble Latin teacher regarded as worthy of addressing not only the other Latin teachers, but also the headmasters, college types, board members, and published authors in the crowd. Imagine how good it would be for everyone to sit in a lecture delivered by some venerable old Kindergarten teacher about how to get the most out of a parent-teacher conference.
I know conference organizers have to keep the lights on, big names draw big numbers, and that Nobody Special from Nowhere, Arkansas isn’t going to do much in the way of filling seats. But let us reason together: nobody is flying a thousand miles because they’re dying to hear a college president give an encouraging speech about culture.
At conferences, K-12 teachers normally do breakout sessions that are attended by fewer people, but a few of the best lectures I’ve ever heard at summer conferences have come from average Joes.
Why? Well, average Joes are often able to cut through the overly cautious language and big-picture-that’s-so-big-it-doesn’t-do-anything lectures that are more likely to come from national figures. Sure, I’ve heard great plenary lectures, but there are an awful lot of plenary lectures with titles like “Renewing Our Culture Biblically,” “A Vision for Flourishing,” “A Flourishing Heritage,” and “Biblically Renewing a Flourishing Heritage for Our Cultural Vision,” that would get murdered by a halfway decent senior thesis panel for not offering any action item, not offering any real advice, or for not making a claim anyone in the room could possibly disagree with. There’s a sense in which a lecture called “How to Teach Latin to Fourth Graders” actually has much wider application than “A Vision for Flourishing” for the simple reason it has some application as opposed to none at all.
I’ve heard pointless lectures from average Joes, as well, and I’m not arguing that any average Joe will do. If you’re going to make a room of five hundred or a thousand people listen to someone for an hour, it ought to be pretty good. But come on, though. Isn’t there something a little exhilarating about the thought of putting someone who works in the K-12 trenches on the big stage? Someone who might just up and tell a few dangerous truths? Someone who isn’t carefully articulating the presentation of their content to maximize their social media following?
I’ll lay my cards on the table, though. There’s a bigger gap now between “thought leaders” in the movement and K-12 teachers with their boots on the ground than ever before. This gap could be closed up a bit by putting a few K-12 teachers with their boots on the ground into positions otherwise held exclusively by thought leaders.