Published Online: November 19, 2008

Lesson Learned on the Couch

I couldn’t sleep the other night. I don’t know why, but it was about 3:30 a.m. and my mind wouldn’t settle enough for me to fall into the bliss of another dream before the new day began.

So I grabbed a Coke, crawled to the couch, and snapped on the television. After flipping through a series of infomercials, I settled on an interview with an expert in DNA who was discussing the advances in technology that have changed crime scene investigations over the past 20 years.

And let me tell you, this guy was passionate about his field. He was animated and excited—his eyes were gleaming, his voice would rise as he made key points, he sat forward in his chair—and yet I was bored to tears! You see, he was so passionate that he forgot who his audience was and began talking at a level that was far beyond my ability to understand. I was lost in five minutes, and fast asleep in 10.

So what does this have to do with education?

One of the great debates in schooling today is what qualifications teachers should possess before being certified to teach. Many argue that teachers in our classrooms are woefully unprepared because they do not have four-year degrees in their subject areas. Often, professionals who transfer to education after their first career are seen as more "competent" than teachers who come to the classroom through traditional preparation programs simply because they are masters of their content areas.

I would argue (as would anyone who was watching the DNA guy) that knowledge of content isn’t enough to make someone a "highly qualified" teacher. To be successful, a teacher also needs:

1. Knowledge of content-specific instructional techniques: Our classrooms are incredibly diverse communities. Students demonstrate a wide-range of background experiences, interests, abilities, and learning styles. Meeting the needs of all of these children is quite possibly the single greatest challenge for teachers.

To overcome this challenge, teachers must have a strong understanding of how to make their content approachable for various groups of students. Instructional techniques must not only be age-appropriate, they must be ability-appropriate as well. Teachers must be able to refine instruction when their first attempts to reach students fail.

2. Knowledge of the children that they are teaching: Think about the teachers with whom you had the strongest connection as a child. What was it that made you admire and respect them? Listen closely to them? Learn from them? I’ll bet that it wasn’t their deep and passionate knowledge of content. It was more likely the rapport that they worked to develop with you and their ability to make you feel valued and respected.

Our best teachers understand that relationships matter in education. They work to know their students—not simply their content. They recognize that students learn best from the people they respect and admire (why do you think peer pressure is so powerful?), and they work to be one of those people. Passion about content must be combined with passion for people.

I’m about to say something that may surprise you: I don’t consider myself an expert in my content areas (Social Studies and Science). I mean, I understand the curriculum enough to present accurate information to my students, but I don’t have a degree in either subject and I’ll readily admit that I don’t have the complex understandings of content that experts from these fields possess.

I can almost hear the groans of the education community. "What is he doing?" they’ll wonder. "How can a one-time Teacher of the Year admit that he’s not an expert in his content area? He’ll only reinforce people’s negative impressions of what teachers know and can do!"

But I do have a deep understanding of my students. I recognize the importance of building a strong and trusting relationship with them. I realize that they have different strengths, weaknesses, and needs. I am skilled with a variety of instructional techniques and I am able to refine my lessons when my first attempts aren't successful. I know how to share my enthusiasm for my content in ways that are approachable and interesting for all of my students.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the importance of content knowledge in teacher training and certification. I believe that, especially for high school teachers, a firm grasp of (and passion for) content knowledge is essential.

But passion for content is not enough to keep our students motivated and learning. It may not even be enough to keep them awake. I learned that lesson just before dozing off on the couch the other night.

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