I don’t think I could have handled being an education major. If I’m being honest with myself, I probably would have quit.
This may seem a like a weird statement if you consider that I love learning and I self-identify as a nerd. I like it when learning something is difficult; and when I see a puzzle I feel compelled to try to solve it. I’m very literal, and I’m only satisfied with an abstract conversation when it’s anchored in observable phenomena. I crave specifics, and as both a learner and as a teacher I sometimes don’t see the forest because I’m busy inspecting the trees.
All of these characteristics make me think that being an education major probably wouldn’t have worked out for me. I love rigor and I love problemsolving, and those two characteristics have been largely absent from the education coursework that I’ve taken since entering the classroom.
Thankfully, I eventually made it to teaching by way of an alternative certification route, and since then I’ve earned a master’s degree in teaching and have taken education courses regularly to maintain my certification. I love teaching and I’m thankful every day that I’ve found a profession that I find so meaningful and engaging. But if I had gone to education school in undergrad? I probably wouldn’t have lasted.
In education courses, instead of inquiry, I’ve found way too many exercises that treat me as if I were a child. I don’t need to act like a child in order to understand the learning process. There’s a time and a place for role-playing in educational theory, but more often than not, my education instructors don’t do an analytical debrief after a role-play to help teachers understand what worked, and why. Too frequently instructors simply show teachers an instructional practice, have them play the roles of students, then move on to the next portion of the session.
The really practical aspects of instruction, the specifics of what works (and how, and why it does), is underplayed in pedagogy classrooms, as is classroom management. Too often I’ve come to the end of an education class and had practical questions about how the theory I learned was supposed to guide day-to-day interactions with my students. I took the state’s required literacy courses, but I didn’t know how to assign texts in a way that built both literacy skills and content knowledge until I began reading professional texts independently.
Even the more authentic parts of my training fell short. As part of my Master’s coursework, I was observed by a university supervisor. This is the graduate credit equivalent of student teaching, although I was technically already teaching full-time. The opportunity to practice, reflect, and analyze my practice didn’t go far enough because it depended on the quality of the supervisory teachers and the demands of their schedule. My supervisor gave me very positive feedback, but we never fully explored or discussed my teaching because he was always off to the next teacher.
To be quite honest, another reason I probably would have failed as an education major has to do with educational status or educational privilege or whatever you want to call it. At the age of 20, I gave too much weight to the idea that the harder your education is, the better it is, and I’m not alone in this belief. My Ivy League college didn’t even have a full department of education, and students there still can’t major in education or earn a teaching certificate. With the exception of education policy courses, education coursework suffers from a reputation of being easy and fluffy. Colleges suffer from grade inflation in general, but in education departments the problem is particularly bad.
Maybe these problems were unique to my program. But they probably weren’t.
Education programs have lower entrance requirements than other professional programs, and assignments are often subjective and based on opinion or reflection. Our K-16 education system has a lot of built-in status and rewards for high-achieving students. Successful, competitive students who buy into the idea of an educational hierarchy are not drawn to education classes because those courses mean a loss of status and seem like a waste of time.
Finally, to those who say that making education schools more challenging would diminish the number of teachers of color entering the field, I want to point to the fact that Teach For America is able to maintain its selectivity and recruit an incoming cohort that is over 50 percent nonwhite.
It’s time for university departments of education to practice what they preach, and consider whether their programs meet the needs of different types of learners. Teachers deserve coursework that challenges and engages them, and the education system as a whole would benefit from higher standards for pedagogical instruction. Take it from a nerd: when people who love learning don’t find it remotely appealing to study education, something’s wrong.
The opinions expressed in Connecting the Dots: Ideas and Practice in Teaching are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.