Teaching Teachers How to Teach

I remember the first time a teacher was wrong. I was in third grade and attending Sunday school classes at a local church. I was the only student in the class with a non-Catholic parent. (What what, Jewish dad!) This particular Sunday, our teacher was out sick and was replaced by the kindly older gentleman who ran the program. In discussing Jesus and how the cool thing about going to confession is that if you get hit by a bus right afterward (and haven’t masturbated yet), you go straight to heaven, this nice old man said that “the rabbis killed Jesus because they were jealous.” Now, I was only ten at this point and did not know how deeply wrong and offensive this claim was. So, after Papa Yagoda picked me up from class, I shared this interesting bit of history about our people. Cue shrieking brakes and double takes and my mother making calls to the church. The next week, the man made a very specific “apology” to the class, while staring directly at me.

The next time a teacher was wrong, I fought back. I was in seventh grade in 2000-2001 and was deeply interested in politics (I even wrote some really horrible political poetry about how brave Al Gore was). Being the daughter of a stridently partisan Democrat, I was well versed in the “vast right wing conspiracy” against the Clintons. So, you could bet that I knew my stuff about what impeachment meant. Hell, my family and I taped the damn vote and I still come across that old VHS when I go home for a visit. So, when Mr. T (no relation), my social studies teacher, said that impeachment meant to be removed from office, my hand shot into the air. I tried to correct him and used the definition from our textbook to prove my point. I also pointed out that two presidents– Clinton and Andrew Johnson– have been impeached, but that neither were ousted. Mr. T denied that Clinton was impeached (“because if he were, he wouldn’t have stayed president”) and said, in regards to Johnson, that it was too long ago to really say what had happened. After about 20 minutes of this back and forth, peer pressure got the best of me and class continued on.

Throughout my years as a student, I have encountered many teachers who have made incorrect statements. To occasionally be wrong is no great failing. It would likely be impossible for a teacher to remember every single date, name, battle, and place included in a history curriculum without confusing Presidents Madison and Monroe once (which one was the short one?!). But the mark of an excellent educator is a willingness to acknowledge and correct their own mistakes.

Since starting grad school only six weeks ago, I have noticed that a substantial amount of false or misleading information has been represented as fact by my professors. Some of it has been easily correctable (Uganda and Kenya were not at one point part of the same country) and graciously acknowledged, but some of it has been deeply troubling. I’ve already written about my Intro to Special Ed professor’s comments on race and the achievement gap. Recently, he made a claim that talk therapy is a waste of money and that it only works for people who are insecure/have low self-esteem. Now, I’ve benefited from talk therapy but I also sometimes think I’m the hottest thing since sliced bread, so where does that leave me? To put it bluntly, I’ve basically hit a wall with being able to deal with a teacher who refuses to listen to student reactions to and disagreements with what he says, which is almost never substantiated with any sort of evidence. Earlier in the term, I had the emotional energy to engage with him on things he said, like that the only stimulating outlet for students with ADHD before the invention of video games was masturbation. Now, I just let him ramble on as I imagine the biting things I will say on my course evaluation. Is this a repeat of my seventh grade interactions with Mr. T? Should I fight this professor tooth and nail, even if it means that the majority of class time is filled by us yelling at each other? Presumably, this would be an even bigger waste of time than learning, for the third time, how a token economy system works. Should I listen to my mother and sit quietly, take notes, allow this professor to spread his uninformed opinions, and hope to get an A?

In a year, if everything goes to plan, I will be on the verge of facing my first class as a licensed teacher. How will I deal with students who disagree with me? Or with those who correct me? I hope that I will be able to acknowledge my mistakes, which are certain to be many. I imagine that if I don’t, my students will quickly take the same tack that I have, bemused ignorance. If I say that the state motto of New Hampshire is “Live Free or Die Hard,” will my students even care enough to correct me?

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Lizy Yagoda

A young writer living in Brooklyn, she likes to make food, eat food, and think about food. Follow @ElizabethYagoda

15 thoughts on “Teaching Teachers How to Teach”

  1. I had a calculus prof who encouraged us to find his mistakes and point them out by making it a game. If the class could find a mistake before he did we would get a point and if he found the mistake he would get the point. Within a few weeks the “running totals” were just random numbers and the class would haggle over points. It set everyone at ease. Another math prof had a lot of frustrating mistakes in his prepared notes and the class was too nervous to nitpick until almost halfway through the course.

    Arguing with a prof during class time to change his or her mind isn’t usually worth it. Having a PhD doesn’t mean you have any sense! If the prof is creating an environment that will make it difficult for certain groups of people to learn then maybe there is an official avenue for a complaint or some organization on campus that would take it up as a cause. I would ask myself whether this particular argument on this particular day is about MEMEME being right or about being an ally to the people who may be personally hurt by the prof’s statements and who don’t feel empowered to speak up. If it’s about me being right I’d save it for outside of class time. Are there opportunities to challenge the prof’s assertions amongst your peers outside of class?

    Tangentially, re: talk therapy, while it does sound like this particular prof is just making unsupported assertions about anything that catches his fancy, there is evidence that psychodynamic talk therapy (as opposed to having a knowledgeable outsider offer counseling or advice for a specific issue) doesn’t deliver on its promises. If you have time I recommend Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe’s Therapy’s Delusions.

  2. I’ve never really had this problem because I’ve never presented myself to my students as this infallible disperser of knowledge. It helps that my ego isn’t wrapped up in control and being right.

    I really believe that learning is a journey and, while I may be further ahead in that journey than my students just because I’m older, I’m still on it. I make sure I communicate that to kids. Also, I’ve made a policy of giving students extra credit points if they catch me in a mistake and provide proof. One of my professors suggested that 12 years ago and it’s always been very successful for me.

    1. One of my Ed professors suggested this, and said he would make a couple spelling mistakes on the chalk board in the first few weeks just to introduce the idea, but he was always humbled the first time he made a silly mistake that wasn’t intentional.

  3. I don’t like how people can just decide to major in education. I think there should be some sort of qualification exam or something of the like. Too often you have former B students teaching current A students and the teachers just don’t understand what the kids are trying to articulate. We have honors classes being taught by teachers who were never in honors themselves and who don’t really understand the demands they’re placing on their students. This is why debates about teacher tenure and layoffs strike a really nasty chord with me: there truly are way too many bad teachers for me to think of it as people’s pure right to choose the career they want.

    1. You really need to substantiate those statements with facts. Like actual facts that come from some place other than your head or right wing think tanks.

      I have been a teacher for 11 years. I have known many other teachers in that time and I seriously don’t know a single one who wasn’t an honor student his or herself. I was an honor student. Every teacher I know was an honor student. And I know a lot of teachers. We know exactly the demands that we’re placing on students. We’ve been through it ourselves.

      And really, there are a lot of barriers between potential educators and the classroom. I’m certified to teach in three states and getting each cert was a certifiable nightmare. So, it’s not like D students just decide to major in education and get into the classroom. It’s not easy. There’s a whole series of applications and evaluations and assessments that happens just to get the cert, then there’s a whole other process to get hired, which usually involves submitting college transcripts and test scores.

      So, your entire postulation is bullshit. Sorry to be so crass, but it is. I do wonder, though. What sort of qualifications do you think potential teachers should meet before being allowed to choose their career?

      1. What facts do any of us have to offer besides our own experiences? Maybe you should take your prior comment to heart and accept that you’re wrong about what my educational experiences were like? I know lots of teachers who weren’t honors students. They got into teaching because they liked their high school social experiences, not because they’re in love with learning. I don’t know what else you want me to say. Your “proof” (“I know lots of teachers who were in honors!”) isn’t better than mine.

    2. And one other thing before I let you go for the night.

      The teachers I know don’t see teaching as a career. They see it as service. National service. Making this world a better place.

      I feel like Captain America every damn day, even the frustrating ones. And that’s awesome.

    3. Before I get into the meat of this, I just made a rule that all board disagreements will be ultimately resolved with dance offs. And I respect your opinion a great deal.

      Whoo, boy, we disagree about this. First, some disclaimers.
      1. I taught primarily k-8 students, but I was licensed to teach K-12 in both intensive and mild interventions, as an elementary generalist and a reading specialist. Less fancy: I was a special education teacher on top of being licensed as an el. ed teacher.
      2. I don’t have any experience with high school or teaching at the college level, which is what I assume you’re talking about here.
      3. I did not major in education in undergrad, I participated in an accelerated masters program to become licensed, I taught on an emergency license while I got that degree (I had extensive experience working with people with autism.)

      Why I think you’re wrong.
      1. There are several qualification exams to become a licensed teacher. It varies by state, but in Indiana, aspiring teachers have to take a pre-test, usually before being accepted to a teacher ed program, then there are general and specialization tests to be licensed. To get into my graduate program, I had to take the GRE and a devil test of analogies, as well as articulate my philosophy of education. Teachers are usually hired with a probationary period of 2-5 years, during which time they can be fired for almost any reason, are extensively evaluated and are required to participate in extensive professional development. Five years is plenty of time for an administrator or school board to determine a teacher’s quality.
      2. I was an honors student. I chose to go into education from another field because I’m smart, I have good problem solving, organizational and critical thinking skills. Getting a large group of young people to pay attention to you at the same time takes all of those skills, getting them on board with what you’re trying to teach them takes a LOT of those skills. My data here is anecdotal, but I suspect yours is too.
      3. Who do you think should pick the careers and on what basis? I have to be honest, I don’t see any way that can end well.
      4. Tenure is often the perk that can attract the best and brightest to the field of education. It’s a relatively low-paying job for the education required to do it, it’s a difficult job and it’s a job that most teachers want to do because they want kids to learn and succeed. Job security is a nice perk, and any CEO will tell you attracting the best talent takes a few perks. Teachers need to eat and pay the bills just like everyone else. It takes a pretty unselfish person to take on the task of becoming a teacher, but we can’t expect them to be saints and martyrs.
      5. I may not teach anymore, but the men and women I worked with are Big Damn Heroes. I’ve never known a kinder, craftier, smarter group of people than the public school teachers I worked with. It’s shocking to me that so many people are turning their backs on our teachers, instead of listening to them about what our kids need, how they learn and how we can find the best, most effective way to get them ready for the world. Blaming teachers (or parents, for that matter) for the problems in public education is like blaming soldiers for war.

    4. Just for curiosity’s sake, and to avoid being anecdotal, I looked up my state’s requirements for teaching secondary ed. I have a coworker who’s going through the grad program, and it seems like she has a different certification/internship/student teaching placement every week.

      The Secondary Teaching Certificate is valid for teaching a special content area in grades seven through twelve in a junior/senior high school in the public schools of [state].
      I. Certificate of Eligibility for Employment (CEE) – valid for three (3) years.
      The initial certificate in [state] for all areas of certification is a CEE. The CEE is used to seek regular employment in the public schools of [state] for the field identified on the CEE. The CEE is also valid for service as a substitute teacher. If regular employment is not secured in the three (3) year period, the CEE can be renewed every three (3) years until regular employment is secured. To be issued a CEE in secondary
      education an individual needs to satisfy all of the following:
      A. Bachelor’s Degree from an accredited or an approved institution of higher education as defined in these regulations.
      B. Graduate of an approved program for the preparation of secondary education school teachers within the previous five (5) years from the date of application. Applicants who have not completed an approved program can be certified by transcript analysis by presenting evidence of six (6) semester hours of student teaching in the secondary grades and not less than eighteen (18) semester hours of course work to include work in each of the following areas: Adolescent Psychology, Secondary Methods, Measurements and Evaluation, Identification of and Service to Special Needs Students, Teaching of Reading in the Content Area, and Foundations of Education. The student teaching requirement may be waived for an applicant who has had two or more documented years of successful teaching experience in an approved secondary setting. Certified teachers who have had two or more years of teaching experience and who seek Secondary certification may fulfill the student teaching requirement by completing a one-year supervised internship at the secondary level.
      After completing the necessary course work for the secondary certificate, and arranging through the local community for a one-year internship, the Superintendent of Schools may request the issuance of a one-year professional certificate. The Department of Education must approve the internship in advance and the supervisor must have at least 3 years of teaching experience. Upon successful completion of the internship, the individual will be issued a one year professional transitional certificate.
      C. Applicants who have not previously been certified in the State must achieve a score of at least 167 on the Principles of Learning and Teaching Test, 7-12 prior to being certified.
      D. ACADEMIC REQUIREMENTS:1 SEMESTER HOURS
      1. Agriculture……………………………………………………..….36
      2. Business Education
      Secretarial Business……………………………………………..36
      Social Business………………………………………….………36
      3. English……………………………………………………………….30
      4. History……………………………………………………………….30*
      *May include up to six (6) semester hours of coursework in the academic areas to include anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology.
      SECONDARY TEACHING CERTIFICATE
      5. Language
      A classical language…………………………………………….30*
      A foreign language………………………………………………30*
      *Certified classical or foreign language teachers, having earned initial certification with 30 credits, are entitled to additional language certification with 24 semester hours of language credit.
      *A statement showing competency in the classical or foreign language in which an applicant wishes to be certified may be presented to waive certain portions of the academic requirements for provisional certification in the classical or foreign language. This statement, attesting to proficiency in the areas of listening comprehension, speaking, reading, writing and a knowledge of the civilization and culture, must be submitted by a qualified official at the preparing institution or an authorized agent of the Board of Regents for Education. The decision to waive a portion of the academic requirements in the classical or foreign language will be made by the Department of Education.
      6. Mathematics…………………………………………….30
      7. Science……………………………………………………30*
      a. General Science……………………………30
      (Must include at least six (6) semester hours each in Biology, Physics, and Chemistry or as otherwise prescribed by law).
      b. Biology……………………………………….30
      c. Chemistry……………………………………30
      d. Physics………………………………………..30
      *Certified science teachers, having earned initial certification with 30 credits, are entitled to additional science certification with 24 semester hours in an area of science.
      8. Social Studies………………………………..36*
      * The issuance of a social studies certificate requires 24 semester hours in history as required for a history certificate. The social studies certificate is valid for the teaching of history and will be endorsed to teach any academic area in which an individual has completed six (6) semester hours. Academic areas include anthropology, economics, geography, political science, and sociology.
      9. Academic Areas not listed above……………….18*
      *A teaching certificate will be issued in any academic area not listed above provided the candidate has met all requirements listed under parts A and C of Section I and has 18 semester hours of credit in the academic area for which certification is sought.
      II. PROFESSIONAL TRANSITIONAL CERTIFICATE – valid for one (1) year.
      A. The professional transitional certificate is issued to individuals who secure regular employment in the public schools of [state]. Upon securing regular employment in [state], the CEE is used to request a one (1) year professional transitional certificate. When applying for a one (1) year professional transitional certificate the applicant must submit the CEE along with documentation from the employing authority that regular employment has been secured in the certification area of the CEE.
      B. The one year professional transitional certificate may be renewed with the submission of a completed application and payment of the renewal fee.
      Applicable to certificates expiring after August 31, 2010.
      1Individuals who desire to secure certification in secondary education by means of transcript evaluation will be required to submit evidence that they have completed appropriate academic course work (see Preamble for required course work in each academic area). The Certification Office will publish an updated list annually of academic content areas required for each secondary area of certification. This list of courses will take into consideration the desired distribution and appropriate level of academic course work which must be completed by individuals desiring to teach in the secondary grades.

      Looks super easy. I’d say that should suffice for a “qualification exam.” I know about two dozen teachers personally (including my parents), and every one of them does it in spite of bureaucratic nonsense, uninvested parents, unruly students, low pay, union BS, budget cuts, having to provide their own classroom supplies, hostility from non-teachers, insane curriculum requirements, and giving up their own lives. You have to be really sure that’s what you want to do before you invest your time and education. There are bad teachers, sure, but there are people who are bad at every job. That doesn’t make the job worthless.

  4. I’ve taught middle and high school math, and being able to say “I don’t know. Let’s look it up/figure it out.” is one of the greatest teaching tools I have found. It not only gives you credibility in the eyes of the jaded students, but it lets you demonstrate the processes of learning.

  5. When I teach I try to acknowledge when I don’t know things or when I only MIGHT know something, and I TRY to remember to look up the things I couldn’t answer so I can get back to my students later. That shows that I’m not infallible and also that I’m willing to continue to learn and help and I think it’s the most honest and helpful reaction. Luckily I teach a curriculum that’s not too rigid–I’m not going to mess up a year or battle name. I think making students lead more of their stuff–lecturing less–is a good way to A. make them do stuff and 2. avoid making big sweeping statements that might be wrong. Haha.

  6. Nice article. I’m about to start grad school, too, so I wonder if I will encounter any professors like this. A few thoughts:

    1. I seldom have had professors make such monumental mistakes (thankfully). But when it happens…argh. Both of my biology teachers in high school were majorly anti-evolution, so yeah…

    2. I’m going to grad school for English, though, and I can’t remember a single instance of an English professor saying something so inaccurate or offensive when I was in college. This is probably due to some combination of my having super progressive professors who know much more about their field than I do and English being a more subjective field in general.

    3. I am definitely different from you in that when I DO notice a professor doing/saying something that I disagree with, I almost never say anything because I’m not interested in confrontation, and I usually assume (probably sometimes inaccurately) that the professor/person in authority probably knows better than I do. So, I admire your more assertive approach!

    1. I just finished up my English grad program, and the “progressive” attitudes tended to get annoying in ways I couldn’t have predicted. There’s this idea that no opinions are ever wrong and that everything is equally valid (which is true in a reader response sort of way, but it means that profs never take the reigns when a fellow student is monopolizing 20 minutes of YOUR time with a long monologue that contains factual errors).

      1. Oooo your comment really rings true. While I haven’t had too many ridiculous professors, it seems like in every class there is THAT PERSON who talks way more than any other student, yet rarely has anything actually insightful to offer. It is unfortunate when professors allow THAT PERSON to monopolize discussions.

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