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There are some major problems with teacher training. Here’s how we fix them.

What teachers need to know

My current job is as a full-time tutor for graduate exams. In this role, I teach between 10-15 students on any given week about some of the most difficult exams in America. In the past, I’ve taught classes in subjects ranging from math to philosophy, in small group sessions and in massive 3000 person online classes.

Suffice to say, I’ve done a lot of teaching in my time. And, if there’s one thing I know about teaching, it’s that it’s hard. In order to really effectively teach a subject, the teacher has to

  1.  Understand the subject
  2. Know how to teach the subject
  3. Actually perform the teaching of the subject.

These, in my experience, are 3 separate things. If you can’t understand a subject, then your teaching is at best rote repetition. If you don’t know how to teach the subject, then your students will be lost in the gaps, frustrated and feeling dumb for not understanding.

And the difference between knowing how to teach and actually teaching is, well, pretty straightforward. I know how to do a backflip, but I’ll be damned if I’ve ever landed one.

Pictured: not me. It looks so easy when that guy does it…

Teaching a subject is more complicated than it seems as well. There are some universal teaching methods: the Socratic method, partial guidance (which I discuss more in my post about How to Teach), metaphors. But there are also some specific teaching methods, like when and how to use experiments in the course of teaching biology.

Needless to say, how to use experiments is not something that comes up in English class, and it’s not even the same difficulties that come up in physics. In physics, you can use equations to predict the outcome of an experiment. In biology, you usually can’t. This is an important difference, and any science teacher should think hard about it before approaching teaching the two subjects the same way.

How we should train teachers

Given that teaching is hard, and that effective teaching has this complicated tripartite structure, I’d rationally expect our culture to go one of two ways on training teachers.

One would be to just let training be informal, a mixture of mentorship and trial and error on the part of teachers. This is how we approach training business leaders, for the most part.

Alternatively, we’d formalize each part of this, rigorously coming up with the best methods and forcing teachers to study them. This is how we train doctors before residency, for the most part.

Randomly chosen doctor photo, who is surely out there saving lives as I write.

Of course, I don’t actually have rational expectations of our culture. I know our culture is irrational, and that, although many professions are licensed, licensing usually has very rarely to do with making sure people are actually good at their jobs. It’s just a way to put up a barrier of entry into a profession, and make sure it’s not too crowded.

How we actually train teachers

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Massachusetts teacher licensing. In MA, there’s a number of requirements for a teacher. Probably the most onerous among them is that, not only do teachers need a Bachelor’s, they also need a special certification that can take a year to complete. I’m going to be taking a look at the Biology 8-12 teacher certification in MA, as taught through Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

I chose Harvard because it’s, first of all, MA’s foremost university in most things. Second of all, their syllabi and course descriptions are easy to find online. For other MA universities it’s much more difficult.

Hah-vahd

That being said, I don’t think I’ve chosen an easy target by picking on Harvard. I would bet that Harvard has put more thought, care, and money into their teacher certification program than pretty much any other university in MA. Anything that Harvard does poorly, 75% of other universities probably do twice as worse.

I’m judging the Harvard teacher certification based on the ideas from before. Namely, that being an excellent teacher requires knowing the subject, knowing how to teach the subject, and being actually able to teach.

First, I simply went to Harvard’s teacher certification website and found that these were the courses required: “Introduction to Teaching”, “Methods”, “Inquiries into Adolescence: Understanding and Supporting the Development of Urban Youth”, “Race and Power in Urban Classrooms”, “Elements of Diversity: Special Education”, and “Dimensions of Diversity: English Language Learners”. Prospective teachers wouldn’t have to take all of these because of a credit system, but instead have to take some mix.

There are also two “practicums”, which are basically teacher internships, as far as I can tell. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any more information available about these online.

Digging into the specifics of what we teach teachers

Of all of the actual courses, the only one that seems really ill-founded is “Race and Power in Urban Classrooms”. In the course description itself, it states “the course goal is to awaken and develop participants’ awareness of the important role they can play in furthering, interrupting, and/or resisting the political agendas of urban public schools”.

This seems…questionable to me. Is teacher training really the place to teach how to fight against the system? Can’t we save that for some licensing program that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars?

The rest are much better in concept. There are introductions to special education and to English language learning, as well as generally how to create a lesson plan. However, they have problems when it comes to the reality of what they teach. In short the real issue is that there’s no specific training for how to teach any subject, and there’s especially no making the teachers actually teach.

Instead, every course focuses on reading theory, then reflecting on it, and possibly creating something related to it. Writing a lesson plan is well and good, and so is writing a test.

But, by the time teachers get the chance to actually teach a specific subject in front of a classroom, their training is done and they have to rely on whatever informal instruction is imparted to them by their colleagues.

To use another analogy, that’d be like a basketball coach teaching his players everything from the playbook, then telling them, “Alright, your next game is in a week. I’m not going to prepare you for that team specifically though, and after you play them, I’m not going to be your coach anymore”. It’s a bit crazy.

Alternatively: “That’s it, kid. Duck the hook. Oh, by the way, our training ends here. I can only coach you through the drills, but not the fight.”

Fixing the problem

The emphasis should be reversed. If there’s any part of teacher training that can be sacrificed, it’s the academic knowledge of how to teach. Effectively teaching (and writing lesson plans, making tests, etc.) for a certain subject is the most important part of being a teacher. Licensing should make sure that teachers know that.

So, if I had my druthers, I’d set up teacher licensing a lot like a residency in a hospital. Depending on what your individual specialty is (e.g. K-5 History or 8-12 grade math), you’d be assigned a mentor in a teaching school. I know that sounds weird, but I’m trying to keep the parallel with teaching hospitals.

In this teaching school, your mentor would be knowledgeable and up-to-date on the best teaching practices generally and for their specific subject. Through a combination of hands-on learning, assignments, and watching, prospective teachers would learn the best way to teach their subject.

I think a lot of the reason we’re okay with the system as we have it now is that, to be honest, nobody is that concerned if we have the most effective teachers. At the very least, we’re a lot more okay with teachers making mistakes, even massive ones, over surgeons.

But that’s a pity. That means we’re going to keep being stuck with the haphazard licensing system we have, woefully incomplete even at our best universities. And the children of America will pay the price.