Today, P. Rudy Mattai, professor of educational foundations, is in demand around the world as a speaker because of his expertise in teacher education. “Teaching is at the center of every community,” he said. “After the family, teaching is the most important agent for the continuity of culture.”
Mattai’s passion for teachers and education grew from his own experience. “My love for education grew out of my background as a boy growing up poor in a small country,” said Mattai. “I saw a very close correlation between education and upward social mobility. I still believe that education is the best opportunity to level the playing field for kids from any marginalized group.”
Mattai, a native of Guyana, came to Buffalo State in 1990. His teaching and research interests include many aspects of education: urban education, multicultural education, and international education as well as the sociology of education and issues of race, class, and gender in education. His work has taken him all over the world. Currently, he serves as president of the Global Federation of Associations of Teacher Education. He is past president of the Association for Teacher Educators and recently helped to establish associations for teacher educators in Africa and the Caribbean. He plans to establish another such association in South America.
“As those who educate tomorrow’s teachers,” said Mattai, “we are starting to have a global perspective.” Part of that perspective, according to Mattai, is the idea of influencing teachers to think about democratic processes and social justice. Mattai believes that education can be a force that enables everyone to have a voice in his or her society—and ultimately to be able to access equal rights.
Attaining such equality depends on more than the academic aspect of education. Again, Mattai draws on his own background as a child, when he studied under a streetlight because his tenement had neither running water nor electricity. When he received a scholarship to a prestigious high school, he was “like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “They had a library.”
They also taught students the basic behavior expected by the culture at large, what Mattai calls “valued cultural capital”—knowing how to behave in the corridors of power: what silverware to use, what clothes to wear, what language to use, what kind of behavior to present.
Passing on such knowledge is part of Mattai’s own teaching at Buffalo State. He also believes it is part of every teacher’s job. “A classroom is not just about academics,” he said. “In a classroom, teachers must also teach students how to negotiate a complex cultural environment. Academics are just one part of it.”
However, do not make the mistake of thinking that academics are a small part. “I require excellence from my students,” he said. He works with them to achieve excellence. “I have what I call a ‘not-yet A’ grade,” he explained. “I know that students learn at different rates, so I help them revise their work until it is an A-level paper.”
Mattai is devoted to Buffalo State because of the opportunities it gives him to pass on his knowledge, and to pay a debt he feels he owes for his own good fortune in obtaining an education. Here he participates in the preparation of tomorrow’s teachers; he works with students to share both the concept of valued cultural capital and his own hard-earned knowledge of what it takes to succeed; and he demonstrates that a person does not have to work in an Ivy League institution to have a global influence.
“Here at Buffalo State we have a wonderful opportunity to be a model institution that prepares teachers who can teach any child,” he said. Mattai believes that, although teachers bring their own social background to the classroom, it is possible for a well-trained teacher to be successful in any classroom. “Teachers have to understand the community their students come from and be able to negotiate its implications for the classroom,” he said. He requires his students to participate in two cultural experiences that are different from their own, not just to acquire knowledge but to reflect on how being part of an unfamiliar environment affected them—and how it affects their students.
“What brought me to education keeps me in education,” he said. “Schooling provides the best opportunity to level the playing field.”