Self-Taught History Teacher Finds Affirmation in Ashbrook Masters Program
December 24, 2020
Greg Balan taught middle school social studies for a decade before getting an education in his subject area. He loved teaching and was seen as highly effective. In 2015, Balan won a district-level teaching award. “But I was free-wheeling it,” he said, uncertain whether his understanding of American history would pass muster with scholars in the field.
Then he discovered Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG). Through this program, “I actually learned history,” he said.
Balan had planned a degree in chemical engineering when he entered New York University, but found the subject unfulfilling. So he switched to psycholinguistics, studying “how the mind learns language.” He double majored in Japanese. After graduation, he worked in Japan as an English translator for the Japanese Board of Education.
Life overseas was exciting but “began to feel like an extended vacation.” Returning to the US, he visited his grandparents, Cuban exiles in Florida. In 2005, “the state was booming and teachers were needed.” Balan qualified to teach by passing three exams: on general knowledge, on pedagogy and on a subject area. Although he’d taken only a couple of history courses in college, he’d “always found it the most exciting thing to talk about.” So he took and passed the test for social studies.
Given a three-year provisional license, Balan began teaching at Varsity Lakes Middle School in Lehigh Acres. This temporary career solution became permanent when he met the woman he would marry—and realized he’d also fallen in love with teaching. To get a permanent license, he earned a Masters in Educational Leadership (normally a path to an administrative job), but opted to stay in the classroom.
He still needed more knowledge of history. He tried a local university program that catered to social studies teachers. “I knew something was terribly wrong when, after class one day, the professor said, ‘Look, Greg, don’t bring up stuff not in the day’s assignment. No one knows what you’re talking about.’” The reading Balan had done on his own, to teach himself history, had prompted questions that the local program would never answer.
He knew one thing: for self-government to endure, citizens must be educated. They should understand how their government works, but, more important, they must know how to think. At the 2015 Lee County Public Schools Golden Apple Award ceremony, Balan and five other honored teachers spoke about why they chose teaching careers. Balan quoted the Declaration of Independence. Governments instituted to secure the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” require “the consent of the governed.” Only thinking people know what they are consenting to. Each new generation must assess whether government still protects their liberties—and can do so only by questioning policy proposals and candidate’s promises. Hence, Balan explained, he teaches to help students learn “to think independently.”
Afterwards, Balan’s assistant principal suggested he apply for a Madison Fellowship—a prestigious grant given to one teacher per state per year, funding Masters work in a program emphasizing Constitutional studies. Balan applied, and won the grant for 2016. When researching where Madison Fellows pursued their degrees, Balan noticed that an overwhelming number chose Ashbrook’s Masters program. It offered the challenging, primary document-based program he was looking for.
Classes involved discussion, and Ashbrook professors welcomed Balan’s ideas. “I’ve been able to question people who know a whole lot more than I do: ‘Here’s how I’m reading this document; is that reasonable?’ They may agree, or they may challenge my view, pushing me to explain myself more clearly. That makes me a whole lot sharper and gives me ideas I can take into class.”
In 2016 Balan moved from the middle school to nearby Riverdale High School, where he teaches US history at the regular and Advanced Placement levels as well as an International Baccalaureate course covering topics in US history. He has never used a textbook, preferring to write his own historical overview as background to the primary texts he asks students to read. Before his studies in Ashbrook’s Masters program, he’d been selecting primary documents “haphazardly,” relying on intuition. “Now, after MAHG, I have a framework. I can pull from the documents my professors gave me.”
Balan teaches a highly diverse student population including recent immigrants, children of migrant workers, and children of the wealthy. “Some of my students are homeless, living out of cars; others drive their own F-150s. They all need to be educated.” For this to happen, they must “want to learn. How do I get them to want it? I tell stories,” Balan explains, adding that because of his Masters work he can now “construct a much more interesting narrative.”
He prefers “irreverent stories that humanize history.” For example, Balan describes Teddy Roosevelt as New York Police Commissioner, “thinking he’s Batman, swooping in personally to fight crime and corruption, with photo journalist Jacob Riis at his elbow, ready to record the moment.” Leaders are often driven as much by ambition as by principle. “You shouldn’t revere the person,” Balan says. “You should revere the principle.”
He pushes students to think about those principles. “Why would the revolutionary generation commit treason, risking their property, honor and lives? What principle did they fight for?” He notes, “Some of my students have never been asked to state an opinion.” But they need to be asked. This will force them “to reason through their fuzzy impressions, making them coherent.”
Ashbrook’s Masters program confirmed for Balan that “the teaching method I’d stumbled onto was the right one.” Students learn best through querying the explanations of those who lived in the past, conversing about their motives, successes and failures, and debating their ideas.
The MAHG program also helped Balan explore his own questions, especially as he wrote a thesis on James Madison’s understanding of federalism. His advisor was Professor Colleen Sheehan of Villanova University, a Madison specialist and visiting professor in Ashbrook’s MAHG program. She had never taught Balan in a course, yet “she gave me a tremendous amount of constructive criticism and valuable insight,” Balan said. Sheehan typifies the generosity of Ashbrook professors in helping social studies teachers.
Balan asked: Did Madison waffle in his commitment to federalism? He authored the famous argument in Federalist 10 explaining how self-government could work in an “extended republic”—a large nation uniting people of diverse regions and interests. Yet later, when Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison wrote the Virginia Resolutions, which seem to pit states’ rights against federal authority. Balan concluded Madison was consistent. He sought a mechanism to reconcile factions without threatening the rights of any group. “Madison thought the federal power could arbitrate between disparate groups, serve as a conduit for information dissemination, and gradually harmonize the citizenry’s opinions, while mitigating the tyrannical threats of faction,” Balan says. To Madison, the key strength of the “Virginia Plan” that he and his allies presented at the Constitutional Convention were provisions limiting the scope of Congressional authority while refining Congressional deliberations, so that the laws would be few but just. “He hoped to create a sanctuary for liberty within a power strong enough to defend that sanctuary,” Balan explained. “When some of his ideas did not prevail, Madison yielded to the judgment of fellow delegates, as sovereignty rested in the people, not in his own brilliant thoughts.” Nevertheless, Madison continued to think about the problem, challenging others in print and debate when he thought the people’s rights threatened.
Balan encourages students to debate their ideas courteously. “The Framers could be in disagreement with one another without being disagreeable,” he says. So can teachers conversing in Ashbrook Masters courses. “If we graft our MAHG experience onto the discussions we have in high school classrooms,” Balan says, “we can teach young citizens to have civil discourse about the things that matter most.”