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Published in Print: September 8, 2004, as ‘Teachers of Ambition’

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‘Teachers of Ambition’

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Does anyone worry these days about teachers’ aspirations— their professional dreams and expectations for themselves?

Does anyone worry these days about teachers’ aspirations—their professional dreams and expectations for themselves? I’ve come to do so because I’ve recently read applications in the competition for Teaching American History grants, the federal program to improve teachers’ and students’ knowledge of the nation’s past. Because of a confidentiality pledge, I can’t disclose anything specific about those proposals or the nature of discussions among my fellow panelists. I can say that the proposals I read were solid, intelligent, and earnest; some were exciting; many, if funded, would significantly help fortify the knowledge of some teachers and their students.

But what troubles me is that inherent in them all were two assumptions now integral to the way outsiders view teachers and the way teachers view themselves. The first is the assumption of passivity—the premise that others, not teachers themselves, must provide teachers with the spur to learning. The applications contained no indication that the teachers who would benefit by funded projects were those who had already shown proven initiative to gain knowledge on their own or clear frustration with the existing limitations on their knowledge. No evidence was provided that the teachers were desirous of becoming better historians as well as better teachers. If the proposals were funded, participating teachers would be given many opportunities to learn. The trouble is, as far as I could tell, they weren’t actively seeking them.

The second assumption, which confuses knowledge with assumed responsibility, is the belief that by becoming better teachers through knowing more of their subjects, teachers become closer to being full members of their disciplines, able to assume positions as independent thinkers with their colleagues. This assumption comports with the widely held view that teachers teach students, not subjects, and that because of this they don’t have to be thinkers in their subjects, but simply conveyers of knowledge about it.

Neither assumption is valid. Both serve to cut teachers off from the intellectual worlds of their subjects. Both keep teachers deficient in the knowledge and self-assurance they need to become the intellectual equals of those with whom they ought confidently to compare themselves and join in intellectual endeavor: college and university faculty members.

As so often is the case, these assumptions originate with teachers’ preparation. In both their undergraduate and graduate training, little is done to make aspiring teachers understand that they are not learning a fixed body of knowledge—say, history— but instead that they’re being invited to join a discipline that puts a premium on the addition and re-evaluation of historical knowledge.

Broadening the instructor's own intellectual horizons could do much to improve schooling.

Little is done to help them see themselves, not just as teachers, but as thinkers—in this case historians—who happen to be teachers. The invidious notion that teachers in schools can’t compare as thinkers with teachers in institutions of "higher" education thus early takes root in teachers’ professional self-image. And it’s a notion that quickly becomes self-fulfilling, especially because nothing is done to counteract it. As a result, aspiring teachers rarely think of themselves as potential participants in their disciplines, and, partly because of that, the outside world comes to think of them as of lesser professional status and intellectual competence than college and university faculty members.

To make matters worse, once teachers embark on their teaching careers, they enter a school culture that does little to help them think of themselves as people with independent, strong minds who can join other intellectuals in the adventure of ideas. How often does one hear a superintendent or principal try to raise the vision of teachers and encourage them to join in the intellectual give-and-take of their fields? How often do teachers themselves, instead of "picking up" more knowledge of, say, the Civil War or the French Revolution, strive to read widely in the historical literature, attend meetings of the American Historical Association, and try to join as participants in debates and the search for knowledge in subjects of their choice? Alas, not often.


The very best teachers—those whom all of us at one time have known and been taught by—are those who have capacious self-images and aspirations. They think of themselves as members of a larger world of learning—one beyond the walls of their schools. They fight against the crippling idea that learning is superfluous to life. They embody in their bearing and actions the reality that knowledge is hard won.

What they transmit to their students is a sense of the centrality of knowledge and understanding to a life richly experienced. They read widely; they attend the meetings of their disciplines’ organizations; some of them write and carry on research in their fields. What makes them members of their disciplines is that they think of themselves as biologists, historians, and Latinists who happen to teach their beloved subjects for a living. They’re confident in their ability to enter into the free-for-all intellectual work of their disciplines, to play with its ideas, to have their own views of new scholarship, to claim teachers in colleges and universities as their colleagues—in short, to be thinkers as well as teachers.

Some teachers, the lucky ones, have these qualities by native disposition; others, but never enough of them, develop them in college or during their graduate training. Yet, developing them is left to chance and is rarely if ever the subject of instruction or of conversation and hope in the faculty lounge. One crippling result is that teachers of ambition are often put off by the absence of intellectual ambition among their colleagues and turn their professional hopes either to collegiate teaching or to some other occupation.


What also results from such inattention are the narrow aspirations that characterize so many aspects of American schooling, a narrowness exemplified in the applications of the schools and school systems applying for Teaching American History grants that I read.

What did recent applicants propose? Some weeks of travel to historical sites; a week or two of study of a particular subject; stipends to teachers to attend meetings of professional organizations to familiarize themselves with materials to use in their classrooms (not to hear papers, debate ideas, and meet colleagues); a graduate course at a nearby university—all entirely creditable purposes, the achievement of none of which would do any harm to their beneficiaries and all of which would probably do much good.

But what are the larger hopes expressed for the teachers affected by such prospective federal aid? Are we to believe, as such applications imply, that we create historians out of teachers simply by supplying them with more knowledge? Don’t we instead have to alter their views of themselves? Don’t we wish to see them become, before anything else, historians who happen to teach in the schools? Don’t we want them to create within themselves the desire and ability to be historians on their own, even without the spur of grants and special programs?

Learning and teaching deal in possibilities—for those who teach and those who learn. But if teachers can’t imagine those possibilities, neither will their students. We want teachers to be bold in their aspirations for themselves in order to instill in their own students the desire to surpass themselves through hope and endeavor.

Learning and teaching deal in possibilities—for those who teach and those who learn. But if teachers can't imagine those possibilities, neither will their students.

Amid the exacting work of teaching, it may seem unfair to want teachers to try their hands at writing something in their fields, attending more professional meetings, trying during the summer to read through a body of literature in their subjects on their own. Yet that’s what’s wanted and what teachers can achieve if only they had the vision to try to achieve it. They’re unlikely to gain that vision, however, when so few people—not teachers themselves, not principals, not faculty members in schools of education—dream of what might be or how to seek to achieve it.

To say that the entire culture of American schooling must be transformed before those dreams become frequent and natural would be to avoid the issue and to wait forever. Mere admonitions to teachers to stretch their aspirations won’t solve the problem either (although admonitions would represent a gain over the puzzlement that greets mention of the matter now). But it’s also clear that teachers’ aspirations and achievements will remain too meager until everyone involved in American schooling, and above all teachers themselves, bring the question of what their professional aspirations ought to be and how to achieve them above the threshold of silence.

Everyone who cares about the nation’s schools can do no less than to encourage, welcome, and satisfy the aspirations of those teachers who have large intellectual horizons. If nothing else, doing so will help recruit to teaching more intellectually curious, venturesome, and ambitious people. That in itself will help begin to create what does not now exist: a culture of intellectual aspiration in the schools.

Vol. 24, Issue 02, Pages 45,52

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