Education Opinion

Learning Curve

By Donald W. Thomas — April 01, 1999 7 min read
Advocates of testing teachers should remember that teaching is an art that must be practiced before it can be mastered.

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, the boast of an elder anxious to magnify his labors. With a master’s degree in hand, the arrogance of youth at heart, and a semester of student teaching under my belt, surely I could be exempted from Mr. Tinker’s rule. After all, one need only take stock of one’s notes, peruse the assigned texts, and get a decent night’s sleep to ensure the obedience, awe, and devotion of one’s students.

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 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.”

Is it too much to ask that our teachers become literate and more than modestly informed? 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 repair. No, the difficulty runs deeper than this. What we have here is a structural flaw inherent in the way we traditionally think about teaching.

Take the controversy about competency tests for teachers. Of course we want all teachers to be able to pass the test. But suppose every teacher passed—what then? Would our problems be solved? Probably not. As “Tinker’s Rule” implies, knowledge alone is not enough. Teachers can be told all manner of things about curriculum, clever strategies, aims and objectives, modes of assessment, cooperative learning, and the like, but in the real world—and contrary to popular opinion, schools constitute a world as real as any other—one must teach in order to learn how to teach. There is no substitute for it, 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.

In his famous essay “What Is a University?” Cardinal John Henry 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 filled with life at the prospect of learning and helping their students to learn. To expect that some battery of tests will significantly alter that critical interaction in the classroom is simply to rehearse an ancient mistake in the annals of education.

Those who prate about holding teachers “accountable” have either never known or too soon forgotten the accountability that lives in the eyes of every student who sits before teachers hour after hour all the livelong day. We can no longer afford to simply 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.

What kind of profession rewards its best practitioners by taking them away from their practice?

Why is it that institutions devoted to learning are so recalcitrant in educating their workers? In most public schools, after teachers receive favorable assessments in their first three years, they are granted tenure for the rest of their careers, irrespective of what else they may learn or do by way of instruction. Short of molesting a child or developing a drug habit, their jobs are secure. Over the years, teachers will earn PDPs, or professional-development points, for attending occasional workshops on topics that may—or may not—touch on the subject they teach. But the only available promotion track leads to the administrative ranks, so that the best that teachers can hope for is to be removed from the classroom.

What kind of profession rewards its best practitioners by taking them away from their practice? And why do we believe that testing new teachers and getting rid of bad teachers will significantly improve education? Such thinking ignores the span between initiation into the profession and termination. Surely we could focus on more than the beginning and ending points of someone’s career. As Tinker’s rule suggests, it’s the intervening years that count. The question is what teachers need to know and what they need to learn and do to become better. For 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 professional.

What does it mean to treat teaching as a career? First, it requires us to ask what might constitute an ideal career in teaching and then to consider what changes teachers will face, what goals they should pursue, and what milestones they will negotiate. 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 in the classroom, for example, teachers should not be inundated with too many students and too many “preparations.” They need to work closely with a mentor who can offer constructive criticism and modeling, who can teach beside them. They need to watch others teach. And they need to work with students of all abilities.

As they gain experience, teachers need to branch out, supervising an extracurricular activity or coaching a sport, so they can interact with students outside the classroom. Because every teacher possesses unique talents and strengths, they should develop a specialty outside the established curriculum. At some point, they should also be encouraged-and financially supported-to undertake graduate studies. Ultimately, they need to take part in every aspect of schooling, be it coaching, extracurricular activities, administration, curriculum, publishing, supervision, research, finance, special needs, or teacher training.

Teaching is not unlike most other vocations in certain respects. 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, legislators, or even specially appointed blue-ribbon panels, but by teachers themselves? It is teachers who need to define 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 designed with and for them. And they should be paid in accordance with their progress in completing each step along that path, however long it is.

As I think about the ideal career, I remember a retirement party for a teacher who had managed to teach and retain her dignity over nearly half a century. She was someone who would have passed a teachers’ test with ease. Yet in a little speech that she gave at her party, she talked about the number of times she had mounted the steps to her classroom on the fourth floor. She had taught in that classroom her first year at the school and in every year thereafter.

And year after year, she had done exactly what she had done that first year: She had homeroom, English classes, lunch duty, study halls, and 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 a teacher as this should have so little to say about her career. However much she may have contributed to children, 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, her ambitions and accomplishments. 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.

Sadly, 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.