A saying made popular by a best-selling book from the 1980s holds that “everything we really need to know, we learned in kindergarten.” Following that logic, I can say that everything I need to know as an educator, I learned in a classroom, not by sitting in a lecture hall.
Teaching is subjected to a fierce degree of scrutiny and criticism—not only in the media, but also around dining room tables in hundreds of thousands of homes. Some of this is understandable. All too often, we hear about teachers like Debra Lafave, who slept with an underage student, and Jay Bennish, who was recorded telling his class that George W. Bush could legitimately be compared to Adolf Hitler. We also hear about teachers blurring the line between professional and private by insisting that their students call them by their first names, and, worse still, those who allow their students to add them to Facebook, MySpace, and other social-networking portals. (I must admit to having fallen into this trap for a short time, but I quickly smartened up.)
Yet with so many important lessons to be learned, and so many significant issues to be discussed, teacher training remains a seemingly endless journey through the abstract and the ridiculous. Critical class time is spent focusing on elementary explanations of social and cultural inequalities, and fairy-tale scenarios in which real-life stressors and other realities are almost never considered.
There needs to be more balance in teacher training between theoretical utopia and practical realism.
Teacher training has become Introduction to Busywork 101. We’re taught how to work within curricular guidelines, not how to meet them. We’re taught ad nauseam about how to integrate the arts into our classes, but never about how to actually teach a stimulating and logical lesson. We are taught how to avoid making judgments and to understand why tolerance is so important; yet we are provided with no practical skills on how to effectively manage a classroom. We are taught how to reflect, but not how to adapt. We are instructed to use marking rubrics to avoid the perception of subjectivity in evaluations; yet we remain vastly unable to justify the difference between a level 2 (some knowledge) and a level 3 (considerable knowledge). Most ironic of all, we are hammered with the notion that experiential learning is the quintessential form of education, yet are given very little opportunity to experience it ourselves.
As a recent graduate of a postsecondary teacher-training program, I can assure skeptics that there is no sinister master plan to perpetrate a fraud on the public by graduating teachers who are inept and unprepared to teach important course material and essential life lessons. Nor is there a clandestine project to erase reading, writing, and arithmetic from teacher-candidates’ curriculum. And yet, this is precisely what is happening. Teachers today are increasingly unprepared for the 21st-century classroom, and thus are inadequately preparing their students for life after school.
For faculties of education to remain relevant, something has to give. But while it’s no secret that teacher-training programs are broken, there’s no clear consensus on how to make them better. What is clear is that there needs to be more balance between what teacher-candidates are taught, and what they quickly discover on their own; more balance between focusing on creativity, understanding, and nurturing, and preparing students for the cruel realities that await them once they leave school. In short, there needs to be more balance in teacher training between theoretical utopia and practical realism.
B.F. Skinner once said, “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” In general, students retain the information necessary to pass the test, or complete the essay; once done, that knowledge is gone. The same can be said for teacher education programs: Successful students are those who can retain the knowledge long enough to pass the test or write the essay—not the ones who can teach the best classes, or relate most effectively with their students.
If education truly is about “what survives”—after the tests, after the essays—then it’s no wonder that teacher education programs are failing. When all that’s there in the first place is talking, preaching, and theorizing, what can survive when the words have been forgotten?
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Busywork 101