‘most teachers are never actually taught how to teach’

by Grace

NYU professor Jonathan Zimmerman’s essay in the New York Review of Books asks “Why Is American Teaching So Bad?”

Going back to the early 1800s when most teachers were trained in ‘specialized “normal schools”’ that were considered academically inferior to liberal arts colleges, there have been many critics of what Zimmerman describes as the “tedious, anti-intellectual practices of American teaching”.  Changes over the years have failed to produce appreciable improvements.

Who becomes a teacher in America? The answer keeps changing, and not in ways that should make any of us proud. In the first half of the twentieth century, as Goldstein notes, bookish urban immigrants used the profession to catapult themselves into the middle class. During the Great Depression, especially, teaching attracted people of outstanding academic achievement—including some with Ph.D.s—who couldn’t get work elsewhere. Since the 1960s, however, the proportion of top college students who have entered the field has steadily declined. Part of the reason lay in the feminist movement, which created new occupational opportunities for women outside of teaching. Rather than enhancing the profession’s status, as Susan B. Anthony had predicted a century earlier, this harmed it considerably, as many high-achieving women went into other professions.

Recent attempts to create stronger academic goals have seemingly backfired.

… When teachers were hired for their inborn ability to “nurture” schoolchildren, many derided or disregarded their intellectual capacities. Now we’ve created a system that is so firmly tied to scholastic achievement—as narrowly defined by standardized tests—that no serious scholar would want to teach in it.

Teach for America exposes the profound lack of professional standards in teaching.

… Imagine if an Ivy League student started Nurses for America, giving highly qualified recruits a quick five-to-seven-week training (which is all that TFAers receive) and then sending them into hospitals to draw blood, administer vaccinations, and monitor life-support machines. Newspapers and patients’ rights groups would immediately mount a strong political protest, and personal injury lawyers would see fertile new ground for lawsuits. Everyone understands that you can’t be a nurse without attending a nursing school with carefully developed standards that must be met if candidates are to be systematically inducted into the profession. Most of our schools of education lack such high standards. If they did, TFA and other “alternative routes” into teaching wouldn’t exist.

Education journalist Elizabeth Green believes schools of education fail in their mission of preparing teachers for the classroom.

… Green’s thesis is simple: most teachers are never actually taught how to teach. After encountering a very thin introduction to the theory and practice of teaching at education schools, they’re sent into classrooms to learn on the job.

What is the solution to bad teaching?  It is not found in ‘the much-heard platitude that teachers need to “love” their students’?  Rather, the U.S. needs “to design and develop an entirely different system of teacher education”. 

… Do lawyers have to love their clients? Must doctors adore their patients? What American teachers need now is not love, but a capacity for deep and disciplined thinking that will reflect—and respect—the intellectual complexities of their job. It won’t do to simply strip away our insipid accountability systems and leave everything in the hands of present-day teachers, who are mostly unprepared for the tasks we have set before them. The US badly needs to design and develop an entirely different system of teacher education, stressing cognitive skills above all else. Anything less will leave our teachers languishing in “intellectual stagnation,” as Elizabeth Cady Stanton told Susan B. Anthony, and our schools mired in mediocrity.

Okay, but how do make such a huge change?  The Obama administration just proposed regulations that will try to grade teacher prep programs, but like many of these top-down attempts to reform education its chances of success are uncertain at best.

Related:  ‘teaching is not yet a profession’


Jonathan Zimmerman, “Why Is American Teaching So Bad?”, The New York Review of Books, December 4, 2014.

4 Comments to “‘most teachers are never actually taught how to teach’”

  1. I agree with much of this, sadly. Teaching has never been seen as a profession in this country. The one thing I would add is that our acceptance of Teach for America isn’t so much because it exposes the lack of standards in education schools. No, it exposes the fact that NO ONE CARES. Most people really do not expect teachers to be professionals, or to have high standards. Most people, including school administrators, government officials, and taxpayers, simply want lots of warm bodies covering classrooms as cheaply as possible.


  2. In terms of teacher pay, it seems to be a chicken and egg dilemma. I don’t want to pay all teachers more, just the most competent ones.


  3. Pay is one issue, but it isn’t the only issue. College professors are not well paid, but still think of themselves as professionals (though university administrators are trying very hard to make things more like K12). The difference is that professors are expected to be experts in their content area, and have a lot of freedom to control the curriculum. Professors are valued as much for their work outside of the classroom as in the classroom – developing courses and degree programs, interacting with industry, and keeping up with their fields. K12 teachers, on the other hand, are only perceived as “working” when they are serving as a warm body in a classroom. They have little time to keep up with their fields, to discuss teaching strategies with one another, or to develop courses. Even when they do “professional development” (even that term is awful), they are not in control. Usually they end up in some professional development seminar imposed from above.

    I have a friend who went from a deadend office manager job to being a “highly qualified high school math teacher” in the space of 9 months of online classes. This was in Texas. She had never taught before and had only taken business math in college. I was flabbergasted. But the reality is, Texas needs warm bodies that they can slap the “math teacher” label on without paying too much. Clearly Texas does not view math teachers as professionals.


  4. It does seem that expectations are low.


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