Teacher quality: It’s what makes the difference in student performance. In order for K-12 students to meet new, higher expectations, teachers will need more extensive clinical education oriented to real-world practice. What’s needed is a better system to ensure that teachers are ready for the challenges that await them.
However, the history of teaching in the United States requires that we address the question, “What do teachers need to know and be able to do?’' by first answering a prior question: Is there anything teachers need to know or be able to do? The view of teaching as semiskilled work requiring little more than basic literacy skills and the ability to follow guidelines encapsulated in texts and curriculum materials is a time-honored one. From popular cartoons illustrating teaching as a simplistic and mind-numbing activity to teacher-proof materials that assume teachers’ activities can be easily programmed by directives about what to do when, the image of teaching as requiring little knowledge or skill is widespread.
Policymakers exhibit their ambivalence about a knowledge base for teaching by regularly enacting loopholes to licensing that require no teacher education. This ambivalence is the most obvious in the long-standing practice of emergency licensure in nearly all states and the recent enactment of alternative routes to teacher certification in a majority of states. Some of these alternative certification programs require little more than a few weeks of preparation before entry into the classroom, where close on-the-job supervision is supposed to occur but rarely does.
As a consequence of the historical regulation of teaching and of the perception of it as semiskilled work, the process of codifying knowledge and establishing standards is just beginning. Of course, there is a chicken-and-egg problem that makes this enterprise problematic. Because low standards for entry into teaching have been commonplace, the resulting unevenness in the capacities of teachers has led many to perceive--accurately--that a substantial number of teachers seem unable to make sound judgments about curriculum and teaching methods on their own. As a consequence, prescribed teaching behaviors appear to some to be necessary and warranted. And if the prescribed structures for teaching make it appear mechanical and thoughtless, then any need for greater knowledge and skill may seem to have been obviated. In addition, prospective entrants looking for more intellectually challenging work will be turned off by the teaching profession. Unless these conditions are changed, raising standards and maintaining a large pool of talented recruits will be difficult.
Reformers have emphasized the need for teachers who can do more than march students through textbooks, who can educate students for inquiry and invention, and who can reach students traditionally left behind. At the same time, the complexity of teaching and learning has been illuminated by educational research over the past two decades. We know for certain that there is no set of easily prescribed teaching behaviors that add up to effective practice.
Teaching is an intense activity. Teachers must simultaneously juggle subject matter; the lesson’s underlying cognitive, social, and affective goals; the management of time, materials, and equipment; and the needs and responses of individual students. They must be aware of how students are working and be alert to signs of misunderstanding or confusion while seizing the “teachable moment’’ for pursuing a key point when students are ready to grasp it. They must skillfully manage transitions among activities so as not to lose students’ attention and momentum. They must attend to health and safety concerns as well as cognitive ones, understanding home and family circumstances to create appropriate classroom conditions for learning.
In addition to structuring encounters with important ideas and useful tasks, good teachers cheer up children who are discouraged, rechannel the energies of those who are aimless or nonproductive, and challenge those who are bored. They listen to students to understand what the students know and think, evaluate papers and performances, give assignments that move students forward, and provide feedback that offers constructive information and direction. They must be well-organized and able to concentrate to keep all of these balls in the air at once, yet their structures must be permeable, allowing them to maintain an openness to unexpected events, problems, and opportunities.
Teachers make at least 10 nontrivial decisions an hour: Is this an appropriate question to ask Carlos? Is Susan ready to learn about paragraphing? How can I find yet another way to convey the concept of photosynthesis in a way that breaks through the students’ misconceptions? Will correcting Lin’s spelling at this point discourage her from writing? How can I find out why Joe has been so withdrawn and disconnected lately? These decisions are made in the course of at least 1,500 interactions each day with groups of 25 to 35 students in a class.
Beyond all of these describable complexities of teaching is the artistry that resists codification. As educator Max van Manen noted, “Teacher competence does not consist of some systematic set of teaching skills and classroom management techniques which, once mastered, take the mystery out of teaching children. Teacher competence is that which a teacher resorts to when he or she tactfully converts just any kind of experience into a true learning experience, and in so ‘doing,’ he or she restores the mystery of ‘being’ a teacher.’' It is no wonder that teachers have some difficulty articulating what it is they do in a way that can be easily communicated to a lay public.
Nonetheless, answers to the question of what teachers should know and be able to do in order to create these kinds of experiences and make sound teaching decisions are closer now than they have been in the past, partly because of a growth of knowledge derived from research on teaching and learning and partly because of changes in the governance of the teaching profession. These latter changes have enabled a consensus about teaching knowledge to be crafted by newly formed and recently strengthened professional bodies charged with defining and transmitting standards.
Although the interaction of low standards with a deskilled role for teachers has slowed progress toward standard-setting, the heightened demands of schooling as we enter a new social era are clearly changing both the expectations for teachers and the requirements for teacher preparation. As the goals of education change from the acquisition of basic skills and facts to the development of higher-order thinking and performance skills, society’s conceptions of what teachers need to know and be able to do must change, as well.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as What Is Good Teaching?