Professor discusses Assumption's Education department
Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Updated: Thursday, March 15, 2012 17:03
My own path to teaching was circuitous and fortuitous. Having grown up with a mom who was a teacher and principal, I was convinced that education was not for me. In college, I majored in English, and after graduation did not become a famous writer or editor (as I’d hoped) but continued, unglamorously, to work as a waitress. Only a few months after my college graduation, I was promoted from waitress to manager of the restaurant (the only criteria being, apparently, a college degree, no matter the field. My carefully written discussions of 19th-century Russian author Dostoevsky would prove to be of little help when ordering fish or hiring dishwashers).
After a few years, I decided that I’d better move on, and I took a year-long position working with juveniles on parole. I found I had a good rapport with the kids; their stories were both heartbreaking and fascinating. I loved working with them, and when my year was up, I took a job as a counselor at a juvenile residential detention center (euphemism for “jail”) where many of my parolees had spent a good part of their teenage years.
During my third year as a counselor, one of the teachers at the detention center had what was furtively referred to as a “nervous breakdown” and she left suddenly. The education director said, “Myers, you have a degree in English. Do you want to teach?” and I said, “Sure.” Again, I had somehow been promoted to a position just by virtue of having a degree. I began teaching, and struggled mightily at first. I’d never taken an education course, and teaching wasn’t easy; growing up with a teacher did not somehow, magically, make me into a good one. I worked hard and learned as much as I could.
I went back to school to get my master’s degree and special education certification. After a few years at the jail (during which my teaching proficiency increased, thankfully) I went to teach in an urban public school. While there, it seemed that the blame for the low test scores and student apathy was largely placed on the students themselves, but I thought perhaps that some of the teachers could be doing a little more, too, given the right training. Were teachers differentiating instruction for a diverse group of learners? Were lessons engaging and interactive? Were they excited and happy to see their students every day and expecting each student to achieve great things?
I left my own classroom to pursue my doctorate in special education, knowing that I wanted to work with future teachers and provide them with the skills to be effective no matter the age, demographics or ability level of their students. I want teachers to be excited to go to work every day, fluent with a repertoire of best practices proven to maximize students’ academic and social achievement.
I have nothing against George Bernard Shaw, per se. I love Pygmalion. However, I take issue with the oft-repeated maxim (from Man and Superman), “He who can does; he who cannot, teaches.” As someone who has thought about and experienced education from several different perspectives (i.e., daughter of a teacher, student, classroom teacher, educational researcher and teacher of teachers), I find laughable the notion that what leads some to teaching is a lack of skills.
Mr. Shaw isn’t the only one with pithy quotes that marginalize the field of education. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “Teaching is an art, not a science.” If that were true, why do my education colleagues and I spend so much time doing research? Why are there Ph.D. programs in education? Why does my office contain so many journals filled with statistics and graphs and tiny-font journals which I am always delighted to see when they arrive in my mailbox, gift-like, in their cellophane wraps? Were teaching not a science, there would be no methods courses, because we would not know which instructional practices work best. In fact, there is evidence—lots of it—supporting best practices in education, whether you are teaching early literacy, high school math or simply trying to get your students to pay attention.
Great teachers are not born, but made; they can be taught skill sets that have proven effective at improving students’ academic and social outcomes. Think about the best teacher you’ve had. What was it that caused you to categorize him or her as “best?” Ability to inspire interest in the subject matter? Sense of humor? Approachability? Willingness to help? A penchant for bringing snacks to class? It is likely a combination of many characteristics; it may not even be something you can describe in observable, measurable terms. Whatever the reason, something about that teacher’s fluency with content, capacity for building relationships or talent for making you care about what was happening in the classroom made for a memorable experience. That teacher had a set of skills that enabled him or her to be able to be that “best” teacher you remember; it was not luck, nor a certain je ne sais quoi. Certainly, there are personality characteristics that can predispose a person to being a good teacher, but the most talented and successful teachers have studied their craft carefully, evaluated their practices and continue to be scholars themselves, taking advantage of professional development opportunities that can increase their aptitude and confidence in the classroom. I reiterate: good teachers are made.