Saturday, May 30, 2015

On Teaching These Days

It’s hard to be a teacher these days.

I cannot tell you how many exasperating conversations I have had recently with fools who insist that teaching is something anyone can walk in off the street and do with no training or background necessary.  Indeed, the State of Wisconsin is, as I write, about to pass a law allowing exactly that to happen.  Any drooling idiot capable of donating to the presidential campaign fund of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) will soon be allowed to teach subjects they have never studied to students at grade levels they may or may not have actually completed themselves.  No college degree required.  No high school diploma either, from what I hear, because FREEDOM!

This of course means that for the first time in his life Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) would legally be allowed to instruct children.  Maybe it’s his retirement plan for when the whole “gut the state and feast off the carcasses of previous generations” thing finally plays out and he has to get a real job and work for a living.

Honestly, sometimes you can’t tell if they’re evil or just stupid, or whether that distinction is meaningful at all anymore.

The problem is that people don’t really get what teaching is.  They think it’s a part time job, one that requires no training or expertise, something you can do as a hobby or save for after retirement.

No, not really.  It's a skilled trade, one that requires both training and expertise.

It isn’t enough just to know your subject matter, in other words.

Yes, you have to know your subject matter.  That’s a given, at least among people who aren’t members of the Wisconsin Republican Party.  But this is the baseline.  This is the minimum entry requirement, the thing that gets you in the door but doesn’t actually qualify you to be a teacher.  It provides you with some of the tools of the trade, and no more.  Owning a pipe wrench is a necessary step toward becoming a plumber but doesn’t actually qualify you to do the job.  Knowing your subject matter works the same way.

This is because there is a world of difference between knowing a subject and knowing how to teach a subject.  Some of the absolute worst supposedly educational experiences of my life were spent listening to people who knew their subject matter backward and forward but had no idea how to explain that material to anyone who wasn’t living in their own head.  It’s not enough to know a subject.  You have to know how to communicate that knowledge.  You have to know how to build on that communication to achieve a desired end.

You have to know how to teach.

What do you want your students to walk away thinking?  How are you going to get them there?  What are you going to tell them on Day 1 that you can refer back to on Day 75 and have them understand the connection?  How are you going to make that connection?  What work are you going to have them do on their own?  How does that work contribute to the goals you’ve set? (You have set goals, right?  You’re not just yammering about stuff, right?)  How does that work fit with the lesson you’ve planned that day?  How does it build to the next lesson? 

And how are you going to get all this across to a group of students who aren’t being paid to be there?  Whose jobs don’t require their presence?  This is the big difference between teaching students and leading on-the-job training – you can’t fire your students.  In college, they’re paying to be there.  And in K-12, they’re legally required to be there.  How are you going to motivate a group like that to pay attention to anything you’re going to do?  Will that work on Day 75 as well as it worked on Day 1?  Will it work in Minute 75 as well as it worked in Minute 1?

What about students who have outside issues that they bring to class?  Students who are hungry – and not “feeling like a snack” but “haven’t eaten in days” hungry?  Students who are on multiple meds?  Students who should be on multiple meds but aren’t?  Students who are eager, healthy, focused, and sitting right next to the other students I’ve already described?  How are you going to handle a room full of this?

Teaching is a skill, not a native talent.  It’s something you have to work on.  It’s something you have to learn how to do.  Unfortunately it is a skill that has been systematically devalued in modern America by thoughtless and catastrophically short-sighted political hacks and their supporters who insist that it’s all just standing there and yammering to unsuspecting kids, because if they can get you to believe that then they can get rid of trained teachers entirely and just indoctrinate children to their liking.  It's no accident that most of this assault on teachers is coming from right wing extremists, after all - there is a fairly robust correlation between rising education levels and falling support for right-wing policies among the electorate.  Get rid of the educated - get rid of those capable of educating - and they don't have to worry about that anymore.

So they tell you teaching is something anyone can do right off the street.  No training necessary.  No special knowledge required.  Because FREEDOM! (vide supra)

There's just one thing.  Why is it that these morons can look you in the eye and insist that every skill in the world requires training and expertise except teaching?

There are people out there who would make excellent doctors, lawyers, engineers, or accountants, but unless they're certified they're not allowed to practice. Why? Because natural aptitude is no substitute for knowledge and expertise.  I realize you’re not allowed to say “expertise” these days because the rabble get offended by the notion that their natural stupidity is not just as valid as trained intellect and skills, but there you have it.

There was a time in this country when we valued education - when we understood that it was a guarantor of future entrepreneurship and prosperity, when we understood that an educated and informed citizen was the foundation of the American republic, when we understood that teaching was not simply expressing knowledge - that it was a skill like any other, one that required training and expertise and which was valued for that, and that if we wanted entrepreneurship, prosperity, and a solid republic, we had to respect those who were there working to make it happen.

That time is not now.

We can coast on the achievements of the previous generations who understood those lessons, but we cannot coast on them for long.  That is what the extremists undermining education in this country don’t understand.  Eventually everyone just gets more stupid.   Eventually people just push the stupid around until it covers the nation to a uniform depth capable of drowning both progress and prosperity.

Remember, folks.  Those who can, teach.  Those who cannot, pass laws about teaching.

It’s the state of the nation today.


LucyInDisguise said...

What's that old saying? "I feel your pain" or some such silly platitude(ish-ism)? I absolutely understand the difference between education, experience and innate talent.

In your world, the fate of our future society is at risk. To many amateurs have been at the helm of the education system in this country for far too long. It's not the whole "those that can't do, teach" thingy that I find so irritating. What it is, is that those who can teach and deserve proper compensation for their professional talents get pushed out of the profession in favor of those who will, out of desperation, accept less for their lack of talent in order to feed their family.

In my world, the fact that anybody with a heartbeat and a CDL (Commercial Driver License) can roam about freely on the highways, byways, and interstates with an 80,000 pound truck under their butt and almost no skill or experience to safely handle that rig places every living soul on those roads in palpable peril every moment of every day.

Used to be a good idea to give our trucks a lot of room to maneuver. 'Cause they're big and heavy and, you know, might actually need the room.

Now it's just a good idea to stay the hell away from those trucks because the person behind the wheel got their CDL three weeks ago and have absolutely no idea what they're doing.

I went through a 3 month college level training course, 3 months on the job training, and still vividly remember how much I didn't know for the next year before I started to get it down. Some companies out there are hiring drivers with no training, and no experience, and putting them out alone on the highway after showing them how to do the paper work. (What the hell, it's just a little bit bigger than a pickup, right?)

What really sucks, though, is that you (and all those other innocent unsuspecting motorists) have no way of knowing who's in control of that 80,000 pound rig coming up behind you.

Yes, I do actually feel your pain.

Professional Driver
Over 1.5 Million Incident Free Miles
(But my knowing that the next one might not be, my willingness and ability to admit that, is what helps keep us both just a wee bit safer ... )

Random Michelle K said...


I come from a family of teachers (both sides of the family) and there is a very good reason I didn't become a public school teacher, despite the fact that I am a very good teacher (that's not my puffed up opinion, that's from the many people who I've trained and helped).


Teaching is a skill, not a native talent. It’s something you have to work on.

Yes and no. I believe there is a degree of native talent that is needed, and if you don't have that, you're never going to become a good teacher. It's a set of social skills and empathy and awareness that a lot of people don't have, and that many people can't develop.

That's not to say that if you have that social skill set you can go into a classroom and start teaching. You can't, because as you said it IS something you have to work at. But there are parts of it I believe that cannot be taught.

Any fool can stand and lecture, but that is not teaching. Teaching requires an awareness of your students and a desire for them to understand. Without those two things, I firmly believe that all other skills are useless.

LucyInDisguise said...

And what She said, too.


David said...

Lucy - absolutely. I'm not sure why we're moving toward a "let the idiots have at it and let the chips fall where they may" model of everything these days - perhaps it ties in with the resurgence of Social Darwinism on the far right, an ideology that thinking human beings abandoned after the Gilded Age - but there it is. When the chips are actual people, that model is both immoral and unsustainable. Watch your back.

Michelle - Native talent is no substitute for training and expertise. There are a lot of talented people out there, but a) until they've learned how to use that talent they are useless, and b) they are by definition uncommon and unless there is some system in place to identify them (such as, say, certification) the odds are that hiring random people off the street will not find them. I think native talent is a necessary but not sufficient qualification for teaching - it isn't teaching, not by a long shot, but you need some of it at least if you want to learn how to teach.

Random Michelle K said...


Yeah, that's much of what I was trying to say. :)

What always astounds me is that universities don't train professors or require an education degree in addition to their base degree. I had some not very good teachers when I was in the public school system, some worse at private school, but I most of the worst of the lot were teachers at the university level (the worst was actually for a masters level program).

Mind you, I also had some amazing teachers at the uni level, but they were far rarer than the bad teachers.

But back to me ;) I love to teach, but am utterly unwilling to deal with the BS in the school system, as well as the disrespect accorded teachers by society.

So it's a small wonder we're struggling to find teachers and fill positions, because you have to be a bit of a masochist to actually pay money for a degree to take that kind of abuse.

David said...

Universities still work on the medieval model of training scholars into the disciplinary guild, which means that actual teaching of nonspecialists is something of an add-on. Unless you go to a school that specifically emphasizes teaching, the professors there are being judged on their scholarship and ability to advance the field (as measured in awards, publications, and/or grant money). It's kind of anachronistic that way. But hey - free market! If the rewards and incentives are all stacked in a single direction, then nobody should be surprised if that's the way people head.

It's amazing to me how much teachers have become the focus of so much abuse these days. But then anyone who tries to introduce reality into modern American culture is generally a target of vitriol. Why not us?

Beatrice Desper said...

Lucy and Michelle said it well. All I can add is my dismay at my TEFL classmate who didn't bother to buy his textbooks, bullshitted his way through discussions, and led poorly organized classes. I hope he was never hired.