When he was around your age, people would, by today’s standards, consider him a failure. He dropped out of college. His first business venture fell through. He was unemployed and had no idea what to do with his life. But when he changed his focus to caring for others, he found his true calling. … He not only founded a college, but he helped launch an educational revolution.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to tell more than 100 resident assistants a great story. It’s one we don’t tell nearly enough, about how Edward Austin Sheldon, the founder of what we today call SUNY Oswego, overcame early obstacles to create a college and the Oswego Method of teacher education, which subsequently impacted colleges across the state, around the budding United States and as far as Brazil, Japan and the Philippines. Traditional historiography requires our dead white male heroes to appear bound for greatness. Sheldon, if viewed at the age of many of our students, seemed anything but.
But his flaws and challenges make him not only more human, but much more accessible and a role model to those trying to find their own ways.
As a child, Sheldon hated school, but detesting the rote memorization method eventually influenced his educational philosophy. He begged his father to let him stay home on the farm. When finally inspired by an outstanding teacher at a new private school, Sheldon managed to make it into Hamilton College. Illness and an apparent panic attack during an oratory competition made him drop out of school. He met a man who was opening a nursery in Oswego. Borrowing money from his father, Sheldon entered the business venture and moved to the Port City only to learn the nursery was a sinking ship. He received property in exchange for his share, but otherwise found himself in a strange city with no job, no direction and no real prospects.
But then he turned his life to caring for others. And so began a remarkable transformation from lost young man to one of the world’s foremost educational minds. In a bustling port boomtown full of immigrants, he worried about the welfare of the youngest residents. A house-to-house survey discovered 1,500 children who couldn’t read or write. He worked to establish a ragged and orphan school, and one of the main donors made Sheldon being teacher (over his initial protests) a condition of her support. So began an unlikely educational journey that saw the farmboy, college dropout and former failure develop a fresh way of teaching — the Oswego Method using active object teaching (with objects, charts and maps engaging students) combined with in-school practice training — when he founded the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School, with nine pupils meeting in a cloakroom in 1861. From there, all he did was help revolutionize the way the world viewed education.
Now 150 years later, I’m doing everything I can to put that story back in play. We have so many first-generation students and young folks eager to make a difference, just like our founder. If any of them have any self-doubts during their college years, they have an outstanding role model on perseverance, adaptability and the benefits of caring for others. It’s a great story, but not our only one. If you have great stories wherever you work, you should find ways to tell them as often as possible.