Teaching Teachers

blow your mind with some homework!

“Yo D-Mac, what’s goin’ on with education?”

Though those aren’t typically the words used to ask that question (unfortunately), it does echo a sentiment that I’m regularly asked. As a fairly new teacher – only 3 years experience in a formal classroom setting – I don’t know if people ask me simply to be polite or if they’re genuinely curious; I imagine there are more qualified people to diagnose the ailments of the education system than I. In any case, I’ve done some thinking and some digging, and I’ve arrived at some seldom-mentioned problems that our school systems face.

Of course, this all comes with a slanted perception and brushstroke of generality. I’m undoubtedly certain that there will be exceptions; I have personally experienced/witnessed some of those exceptions. And to reiterate, these are not what I believe to be the end-all talking points on this debate, but rather some components that I believe are undermentioned or overlooked. Education reform is a maze of gray, and it will take a comprehensive approach in order to address the multifaceted obstacles that lie ahead.

Part 1: Teacher Education Programs

the truth behind the meme (spelling error for extra fun!)

the truth behind the meme (spelling error for extra fun!)

It has been said (and hotly debated) that the quality of a teacher is the single greatest factor affecting student success. This has been asterisked as of late as the single greatest school-based factor, with family educational history and tax bracket trumping it in terms of sway on a student’s academic trajectory. As a wannabe economist, I can certainly understand that point of data, but as a teacher I can’t espouse it. The first reason is that there are plenty of teachers – some famous, some not – who have overcome tremendous cultural and socioeconomic obstacles simply through their own resolve and dynamic teaching ability. And while they are certainly the exception, there is no reason for me to believe that other teachers can’t achieve similar results.

The second reason, however, is a little less substantial, but I believe it to be much more important. That is, a teacher can not change a student’s home environment, or what street they live on, or how much money they make, etc. But they can change how they teach. Unfortunately, the standard response to those difficulties is “it’s not my fault, the kids are poor/the parents are immigrants/whatever else statistic there is to justify that I’m powerless to effect anything so I might as well clock in and clock out.” Of course, there are no hard facts to support this notion (how could there be?), but I can testify from personal experience having taught previously at multiple title 1 schools, where the student population largely fit those descriptions (low income, limited English proficiency, no familial background in education). Faculty meetings were fraught with teachers making excuses as to why the students were failing. The kids were too dumb, the parents didn’t care, the administration was too involved or too hands-off (coincidentally, these teachers were often the most involved with union rallies for higher pay, but I’ll save that pulpit for a later post). You get the picture.

I’m a highly-trained professional, but not THAT highly-trained or professional

So why the gap? How come some teachers can handle that adversity and others shield themselves with excuses? While there is no single discernible cause, I believe it stems from the popularity and ease (the existence, really) of the education major. Education degrees are among the most commonly pursued in the country, and statistically they draw students with some of the lowest incoming SAT scores. But perhaps more damning, education majors typically leave college with GPAs .5 – .8 grade points higher than their peers. Said bluntly, education attracts the low end of the barrel, and pumps them up with fluff classes. From the get-go, adversity isn’t exactly part of the curriculum, so it’s no surprise that these people unravel when things in the classroom don’t go according to plan.

don’t they know they’re supposed to quietly listen to instruction?!

However, my gripe with teacher programs isn’t even that they are too easy (which they are) or that they typically attract untalented candidates (which they do). My problem is that the majority of teachers nowadays never actually learn the content they teach directly. Instead, they go through general studies under the lens of “how to teach (insert subject matter here).” Why go through the rigors of learning chemistry when you can take the abbreviated version? I’ve worked with math teachers that “hate math.” And no, this isn’t a single teacher who said that, but has occurred at more than one school I’ve taught at. Beyond that, when the focus isn’t on content, teaching programs often emphasize management strategies, ways to motivate the students, and other similar classes, which are fine and all, but it establishes the notion that what you teach and how  you teach it are separate entities, when in reality the best teachers are able to manage their classes and motivate their students through their content. That’s what happened to me; I hated school until my 12th grade English classes.

The final flaw with teacher programs is that it leaves teachers defenseless when confronted by truly difficult children. There was a scene in the show Playmakers, where aging runningback Leon sees the newly drafted star runningback DH make a run in practice, and is taken aback. “It wasn’t a move,” Leon narrated, “but a way of moving” that made him realize DH was the real deal. That’s what teacher programs ignore; they equip teachers with a handful of strategies and interventions, but when those fail, these teachers have nothing to fall back on because they never personally experienced a dynamic way to deliver their content. I can’t tell you how many activities and lessons I’ve stolen from my former teachers and college professors that have successfully worked with my students (even though I was in AP English in high school and currently teach special ed English). Because I never studied “how to teach English” or “how to teach reading and writing” until grad school, I had four years of professors who taught me how to do those things without even knowing – they were just good teachers who were passionate and knowledgeable about what they taught. In grad school, I’ve had professors who are passionate about helping kids, but again, that’s a one-dimensional approach, whereas I believe the best way to help kids is to connect with them through your teaching.

Ultimately, true genius occurs at the crossroads of expertise. Take David Agus, engineer/oncologist who pioneered breakthroughs for how we treat cancer by altering bodily conditions, instead of simply removing the tumor. IE, he approached the problem like an engineer, not a doctor, and he was able to see it in a way that became solvable. Perhaps education needs to be looked at through the lens of someone with a different perspective, not the same perspective that is doled out in teacher programs across the country. There was a recent experiment that superimposed a picture of a gorilla onto an x-ray of a lung, which was then shown to radiologists to inspect. A whopping 83% of them did not notice it! To you and me, with no formal radiology training, the gorilla is painfully obvious, but to people who are trained to do something a certain way, they miss it. This is how I perceive a lot of teachers are; they are trained to teach a certain way, but often miss what should be obvious discrepancies. I’ll give you an example:

Part of being a special ed teacher is co-teaching classes that are general ed in curriculum, but have a handful of high-performing special ed students (who are generally anonymous) interspersed. I am considered the SPED teacher, with the other teacher the content teacher. Recently, my co-teacher (who has a BA and MA in education) and I gave out a summative exam on what a theme was, where they had to identify and compare/contrast themes from stories we’ve read and discussed as a class. Only the best students in the grade received “proficient” as their score, with not a single student exceeding that. The vast majority were either “approaching” the level they are expected to be at, or “well below” (this verbiage is how they are supposed to be graded). After that, we assigned a paper that we worked on together over the course of a couple weeks. Same results. Fed up, my co-teacher explained that it was because the kids were too dumb and don’t listen. After all, she had done all the lesson plans correctly according to the benchmarks, so it could not have been her fault. Right? (Wrong.) Because she is too concerned with following the standard procedures of how to teach what we’re teaching, she is unable to see why these kids are struggling and make an audible to postpone the next lesson in order for the students to adequately master the previous one. Sounds like an obvious solution, doesn’t it? That’s because it is, but that solution flies in the face of her teacher training (from one of the top 100 programs in the nation, no less).

can’t see the forrest through the trees

So here’s what I propose: do away with the education degree and require teacher candidates to study an area of content specifically. For each content area, have a caveat reserved for an education emphasis, where students will take education courses alongside the regular classes. After graduating, require an extra year of study minimum (if not two), which will focus on the finer points of teaching as a craft. This way, people learn what to teach first, then how to teach it. By also requiring more years of training (at least 5, in this model), the case can be more easily made that teaching is a professional career akin to the medical or legal fields, and a more reasonable demand for higher pay can be made. Teachers often make the analogy that teaching is just like being a doctor or a lawyer, and as such should be treated similarly in terms of respect and pay. However, it’s a flawed argument because lawyers and doctors require at least 7-8 years of school, whereas teaching only requires 4, making it much easier to do (not to mention the previous statistics that indicate how lackadaisically selective education programs are). If teachers want to be taken more seriously, time to make the process of becoming a teacher more rigorous. If you build it, they will come.

The axis of my argument is simple: if better teachers means better education, why not go back to the very beginning, where every teacher gets their start. I’ve talked to many colleagues about this, and have received mixed opinions. I’ve been called “anti-teacher” by a number of teachers, and have unintentionally offended them. So be it (I have my own theories about why they felt offended). People outside of the teaching arena have been pretty unanimous in their agreement with my prognosis. I’m not saying I have all the answers, or that these changes will turn the tide on education reform. But to me, through both personal experience and statistical analysis, the teacher education program is a monstrous elephant in the room of education reform, and it’s time to talk about it and, more importantly, make some changes.