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What You Never Learn In Methods Courses

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As a new school year begins, 'old' teachers need to review the content of 'Other.'

Great teachers catalyze a burning desire to know. Under their influence, horizons spring wide and fear gives way and the unknown becomes knowable. But most important of all, truth, that dangerous stuff, becomes beautiful and precious.

John Steinbeck

It happens every year at this time, as high summer deepens toward fall. The mall displays and media ads proclaim it and so do the letters of announcement and welcome that arrive with class schedules, book lists, and sundry other information about buses, practice schedules, and extracurricular opportunities. The inevitable reality of autumn has arrived. School is about to begin.

With that realization comes a feeling of freshness in the anticipation of what is to come, but a bit of anxiety as well. As in all beginnings, promise and dread are the dichotomies that mark the opening of each new year--especially for students starting new schools and teachers embarking on their careers. Each will adjust and develop an accommodation to the routines and the rigors of the days and weeks that stretch ahead. And both students and teachers will be learners, but each in different ways.

Students will grapple with the content and skills, the activities and assessments that are a part of the full array of what happens in every classroom every day. But for teachers, it is a different story. They must learn what they were never taught in any of the schools they attended or any of the courses they took in their preparation programs.

Every teacher education program in every college and university should create a course called "Other," where the syllabus would examine the axioms of what all the present programs forget to tell candidates. These are what every new teacher learns in that first tedious and traumatic year where, in the best of circumstances, the excitement, engagement, passion, and challenge of learning the traditions of teaching unfold.

In the "Other" course, aspiring teachers would learn:

  • That a teacher cannot be all things to all people.
  • That they are not "bad people" if they are not always able to meet all the needs of all their students.
  • That they are powerful and compelling figures in the lives of their students.
  • That in recalling their school years, students mostly remember their teachers, not the courses they took.
  • That they need to find a "critical friend" whom they can trust to serve as their sounding board.
  • That at times students can be very cruel, difficult, and mean-spirited.
  • That it is a mistake to personalize a student's unacceptable behavior.
  • That teachers love their students as their parents love them--but in a different way and for a different reason.
  • That few people will ever appreciate the amount of time and effort teachers give to their teaching.
  • That by choosing to be teachers, they have entered an emotionally dangerous profession.
  • That they are both role models and change agents.
  • That they need to pay attention to both their physical and their emotional well-being.
  • That teaching is not like inducing a chemical reaction, but more like creating a painting, or planting a garden, or writing a friendly letter.
  • That teaching is a complicated business because students are such unexpected blends of character, personality, and background.
  • That many of the research projects in education go to great lengths to prove what most people with common sense already know.
  • That most of the significant advances in civilization have been the result of the work of teachers.
  • That teaching is an act of faith in the promise of the future.
  • That teaching is a way of life.

While these axioms of "Other" seemingly have little to do with geography, my subject area, they have everything to do with teaching it in the schools. If the discipline is to continue to thrive and prosper as a school subject, then it must be taught well by men and women who know the intricacies of pedagogy as much as they understand the content of geography. Teaching, like knowing a subject or a discipline, is a learned process. Instinct and intuition are helpful, but they are never substitutes for knowing the methodologies of teaching and applying them in the classroom.

And so as a new school year begins, "old" teachers need to review the content of "Other." It will renew them and keep them fresh. Rookies, on the other hand, must wrap themselves in courage and prepare to live on the balls of their feet. Together, the two cadres must join to continue the traditions of learning that are as ancient as Herodotus and Ptolemy and as cutting-edge as the most recently released CD-ROM.


James F. Marran is the emeritus chairman of the social studies department at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., and a member of the administrative committee of the National Council for Geographic Education. He also serves as a resource teacher and consultant in several school districts on curriculum development and school improvement issues.

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