Saturday, October 13, 2012

Knowledable and Inspired Teachers

There is a commercial getting a lot of airtime in the last month, and no it’s not about one of the Presidential candidates; it’s about teachers. The commercial, sponsored I believe by a Mobil foundation, implores our nation to do more to improve the performance of our teachers. But unlike those expounding performance pay or competition in education as the impetus to better work, the commercial makes two crucial points: first, that teachers’ with a deeper knowledge of their subject matter translates into students learning on a higher level, and second, that inspired teachers will necessarily produce more exemplary work. I could not agree more, the question is how to reach that noble and worthwhile goal.

As readers of this blog may be aware, I entered teaching through New Jersey’s “alternate route;” I was in fact a member of the first “class,” starting my career in 1987. I was fortunate enough to begin my work at Cherry Hill West, where a wonderful supervisor named Walt Belfield, along with excellent and supporting social studies staff, ably mentored through what was for me a rigorous process of directed supervision. Mr. Belfield, employing the teachings of Madeline Hunter, provided intense and helpful oversight. I learned from early on that teaching was one profession where “trial by error” and “learning what works” on the job were truisms once I understood the rudiments of effective planning, activity design, student psychology, and management.

But even though I was a novice teacher, I believe the students benefitted greatly from my instruction, as they would for the next 21 years, because of the expertise I brought to the subject matter due to my undergraduate and graduate coursework. I had never taken a course in education, but I had degrees in International Relations and Political Science, along with minors in Government, Philosophy, and Economics. I was, and continue to this day, to have the heart of a student, always perspicacious, always striving to learn and share that knowledge with my students. I stayed current reading the Economist, Christian Science Monitor, Atlantic, Harpers, and other occasional periodicals. The point is that, like the commercial said, “teachers with deeper knowledge” of the subject matter are able to raise the intellectual level of the coursework and consistently challenge the students to question, explore, and investigate.

Quite frankly, I almost never saw that same level of personal striving for knowledge on the part of teachers that entered the profession in the traditional manner, with a degree in education, sometimes combined with specialization in “social studies,” history, or some similar subject. These were for the most part very able teachers well versed in classroom management, curriculum planning, and other areas covered by their degree, but there were clear limits to their knowledge base. This is one reason why I firmly believe that, particularly at the high school level, every teacher MUST have their primary degree in an area of specialization other than education. If I were responsible for assembling a faculty, I would only hire such “alternate route” teachers. Properly mentored, primarily through intense clinical supervision and effective collaboration with colleagues, such “subject matter experts” can be highly successful teachers and a clear benefit to the student body.

What is needed, in addition to a faculty of teachers with specialized degrees in a range of subject areas spanning anything from engineering to accounting to astronomy to economics, is a state or federal level program to attract college graduates into teaching rather than into those aforementioned careers. I’ve suggested such a policy in previous postings, but having a performance pay or performance tier plan in place, along with possible loan forbearance, should certainly be considerations.

The commercial also talks about “inspiring our teachers,” and though I’ve somewhat alluded to that subject already in this posting, the subject deserves great attention. Inspired teachers are passionate teachers, and there can be no more important goal than to have a teacher passionate about their subject matter in each and every classroom. Teachers with specialized degrees are by their nature passionate about their subject, but I believe we can do so much more in this area. Unfortunately, current trends in education, with their focus on standardization, data driven metrics, and, in the area of urban education, greater political/government oversight, are precisely the wrong way to go. I would actually argue that in the inner cities, where reform is most needed and where our limited resources should be most directed, what we need is the exact opposite: liberated teachers with the freedom to design their own courses, done in conjunction with whole school reform that is localized, driven by the specific needs of the school and its community. I believe that while a core curriculum would be useful in the area of skill development, we should greatly reduce and rethink what we believe high school students MUST know as a prerequisite for graduation. Our emphasis should instead be placed on freeing up our teaching professionals to design courses that are infused with their personal knowledge and passions.

Improved teacher performance is an absolute prerequisite for improved student outcomes. If we want exemplary students we need exemplary teachers, and the first step is rethinking where we get our teachers from, and what we have them teach. Right now we are doing far to little, and I’m afraid that much of what is being done is steering education in the wrong direction, especially in the inner city where the need is greatest.

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