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Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Tinker's Rule

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Tinker's Rule

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What we have is a structural problem inherent in the way we traditionally think about teaching.

When I applied for my first teaching job, the interviewer--a Mr. Tinker by name--told me that it took five years to make an English teacher. At the time, I thought this extravagant, ostensibly the boast of an elder anxious to magnify his labors. For my part, with a master's degree in hand, the arrogance of youth at heart, and a whole semester of student teaching under my belt, surely I could be exempted from Mr. Tinker's rule. After all, one need only codify one's accumulated notes, peruse the assigned texts, and get a decent night's sleep to ensure the obedience, awe, and devotion of one's prospective students. The rest would come to me as the need arose.

But nearly 40 years of teaching have convinced me that Mr. Tinker was right, indeed, profoundly optimistic in his assessment. I have been reminded of his rule in reading about the current controversy over teacher preparation and testing. I have no quarrel with tightening the standards maintained by our higher institutions of learning, to say nothing of our lower institutions of learning where I continue to labor, "doomed," as Dr. Samuel Johnson once characterized himself, "only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress."

Be they ever so humble, is it too much to ask that our teachers become literate and more than modestly informed, not only about their chosen fields of study, but also about the world at large? Clearly not. But let us not dismiss the problem as one of standards alone, no matter how much such standards may be in need of repairs, whether in schools, colleges, or graduate schools of education. No, the difficulty runs deeper than this. What we have here is a structural problem inherent in the way we traditionally think about teaching.

Take the controversy about testing teachers. Of course we want all our teachers to be able to pass the test, leaving aside the issues of exactly what and how such tests may be testing. But supposing every teacher passed--what then? Would our problems thereby be solved? Probably not, for to understand the implications of "Tinker's rule" is to accede to the realization that knowledge alone is not enough. Teachers can be told all manner of things about teaching and their subject matter, touching upon curriculum, clever strategies, aims and objectives, modes of assessment, cooperative learning, what have you. In any day's worth of junk mail delivered to our schools, we find all the putative guarantees and solutions we could want for ensuring success in education. But in the real world--and contrary to popular opinion, schools constitute a world as real as any other--to learn how to teach one has to teach. There is no substitute for it, no certification of it officially or otherwise, for teaching is itself a form of learning that cannot be taught, an art that must be exhaustively practiced before it can be mastered. And even then its success is by no means assured.

That is the thrust of Tinker's rule, though not the full length and breadth of its implications. As every parent knows, a school is only as good as its teachers. And as every teacher knows, a class can only be as good as its students. It is this interaction between teacher and student that is the crux of education--what each brings to the table, then takes away from that table.

In his famous essay "What Is a University?," Cardinal Newman maintained that "the general principles of any study you may learn by books at home, but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already." Knowledge lives in teachers who are kept alive with the prospect of advancing their own expertise as well as that of their students. To expect that some battery of tests, whether imposed upon teachers, students, or both, will significantly alter that critical interaction in the classroom is simply to rehearse an ancient mistake in the annals of education.

What kind of profession is this where the best practitioners are rewarded for ceasing to practice?

Just as parents cannot expect schools to overcome years of neglect in their children, neither should legislators expect teachers to learn the art of teaching merely from tests or texts, nor from schools of education. And those who prate about holding teachers suddenly "accountable" have either never known or too soon forgotten the accountability that lives in the eyes of every student who sits and watches teachers hour after hour all the livelong day. We can no longer afford to throw teachers at students and expect either to flourish. It is high time we held schools and the communities that support them accountable for educating and training their teachers, not for five years or 10, but for as long as they continue to teach children.

Why is it that institutions devoted to learning are so recalcitrant in educating themselves? In public schools, after teachers receive favorable assessments from an administrator for the initial three years of employment, they are often granted tenure for the rest of their careers, irrespective of what else they may learn or do by way of instruction. They are paid according to the number of degrees they garner from outside and the number of years they survive. Short of molesting a child or succumbing to drug abuse, their jobs are secure. They are represented by strong unions that negotiate their wages and working conditions. Meanwhile, they earn "PDPs" (professional-development points) for attending occasional workshops on a variety of topics that may or may not impinge on their subject areas. Other than advanced degrees obtained on their own time and at their own expense, the only promotion available to them besides longevity is administration. The best that teachers can hope for is to be removed from the classroom.

What kind of profession is this where the best practitioners are rewarded for ceasing to practice? And why do we believe that testing new teachers and getting rid of bad teachers will significantly improve education? The fallacy is precisely that of the excluded middle, of overlooking what teachers might conceivably learn between initiation and termination, even when their careers may stretch over half a century. Surely there is more to say about teaching than its hiring and firing. The question is what they need to know, what they need to learn, what they need to do, and what prevents them from knowing, learning, and doing whatever they should. To expect teachers to excel is to grant them the luxury of having a career, to give them the benefit of earning the status of a true profession.

What does it mean to treat teaching as a career? We can begin by asking what might constitute an ideal career in teaching, what changes it incurs, what goals it should pursue, what experiences it can include, what milestones it must negotiate, and in general how its culmination may differ from its commencement. So viewed, we can begin to envision a great deal that one must learn about schooling in general and about teaching in particular over the course of a single career.

In the first five years of teaching, for example, teaching assignments need to be carefully orchestrated to ensure that individuals are not inundated with too many students and too many "preparations." They need to be linked closely with a mentor who can offer constructive criticism and modeling, who can teach beside them. They need to observe others teach. They should be trained in the use of all the technology available to the school. They need to explore the full range of offerings and be exposed to all levels of student achievement and abilities.

We can no longer afford to throw teachers at students and expect either to flourish.

With increasing experience, teachers need to branch out, supervising an extracurricular activity, coaching a sport, so as to ensure alternative venues in which to interact with students. Every teacher should be presumed to possess certain talents and strengths that need to be augmented and used. They should be encouraged to develop a specialty in addition to contributing to the established curriculum. At some point they should be encouraged and financially supported to undertake graduate studies. It should be assumed that, like everyone else, teachers need special considerations at different times in their lives: for families, for injuries, illnesses, financial obligations. Ultimately, they need to take part in every aspect of schooling, be it coaching, extracurricular activities, administration, curriculum, publishing, professional involvement, supervision, research, finance, special needs, teacher training.

Albeit unique, teaching is not unlike most other vocations in certain respects. If you work in a bank, you have to learn banking. If you want to start a restaurant, you have to know more than cooking. If you join the military, you have to learn how to conduct a war. Why is it not obvious that teachers' careers need to be planned from start to finish, not by administrators, consultants, school boards, or legislators, nor yet by specially appointed blue-ribbon panels, but by teachers themselves, who need to define and stipulate the ground rules and milestones of their profession and in so doing make it truly their own? Every teacher should be following a career path especially designed with and for them. They should be paid in accordance with their progress in completing each step along that path, however long it lasts.

At one of the retirement parties occurring at the end of every school year, I remember in particular a teacher who had managed to teach and to retain her dignity over nearly half a century. She was one who would have had no difficulty passing a teachers' test. And in the little speech she gave at the end of her career, she talked about the number of times she had mounted the steps to her classroom on the fourth floor.

It was considered her classroom because it was the very same one she occupied in her first year at the school and in every year thereafter for almost half a century. She ended up doing exactly what she had started doing in that first year: She had a homeroom, classes of English, lunch duty, study halls, supervision of assigned extracurricular activities. The number of cumulative steps she had assiduously counted going up and down those stairs was truly staggering, positively Sisyphean. Everyone was very impressed, we toasted her, and she left.

I am saddened to think that so fine and upstanding a teacher as this should have had no more to say or to show about her career than the number of steps she ascended on her way to class. However much she may have contributed to children, and I have no cause to doubt that she did, she left without telling us anything about what happened once she got to class. One can only imagine what such a devoted servant might have achieved had she been encouraged to convey her triumphs as well as her tribulations, her tests and techniques, her revelations and insights, the breadth and depth of her learning, her ambitions and accomplishments. She was allowed not to have any of these, at least none that others could discern and apply to their own endeavors. Perhaps for the administration she was an ideal teacher, always tidy and on time, keeping things calm, reliable at lunch duty, a stickler for attendance. But for the rest of us she might just as well have been a ghost.

Our schools are filled with ghosts who labor quietly behind closed doors, humble drudges from whom we have neither the wit nor the wherewithal to demand a full and enterprising career, whether it comprises five years or 50.


Donald W. Thomas is a citizen scholar at City on a Hill Charter School in Boston.

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Pages 34,36

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