Rebel with a cause


A little rebellion does a lot to improve education. James Burns learned this simple truth 22 years ago.

It was the first day of this first teaching job. He was a paraprofessional working with special needs children from kindergarten through fourth grade. A young boy was about to give Burns a crash course in rebellion.

Assistant Professor James Burns

Assistant Professor James Burns

The boy was growing frustrated with his math assignment. He told Burns “I can’t do this. I don’t want to be here.” Burns, a former U.S. Marine, pulled him aside. Instead of giving him the drill sergeant treatment or worse – adhering to a zero-tolerance disciplinary policy on disruptive behavior – Burns talked to the boy.

“To meet behavior or a situation with immediate push back, causes more push back,” Burns said. “When you can tell a kid is getting spun up, you have to back away from it.”

Today, Burns is a world away from the small elementary school at Joint Base Pearl Harbor. He is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. He teaches those who want to teach how to teach. He also teaches them to rebel.

Burns thinks there’s no way for schools to achieve the impossible mission imposed on them by politicians who wonder why they fail. After all, Burns said, it’s unrealistic to expect schools to educate a workforce, end racism and educate people out of every life situation. He explored the subject in Rethinking Curriculum as Counter-Conduct and Counter Politics, winner of the American Educational Research Association’s 2018 Outstanding Book Award.

Still, Burns wants his students to be properly prepared to enter a classroom like he was prepared before starting his career in Hawaii. He wants his students to know what they’re in for and how to manage a classroom. He also wants them to be nimble and revel in the unexpected moments that make teaching exciting.

For instance, when Burns was teaching high school in Virginia, a student questioned why she needed to learn trivial details about U.S. government. Realizing she had the potential to do more than memorize facts, Burns did something he wasn’t supposed to. He offered her an independent study and had her present alternative models for local government at the end of the year.

“The way we teach teaches things,” he said. “I don’t want to go along and perpetuate things. I want to cultivate people who are thinking, truly thinking outside the box.”

As for taking his own advice, Burns continues to rebel. When starting a new course recently, Burns was given a ready-made syllabus detailing the assignments his students were to complete. He threw it out.

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