Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Teaching. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Excellent post from proflikesubstance:
Like many in my position, I have about as much formal teaching training as I do formal gardening or cooking training. That's not to say that I can't cook a mean meal from stuff I've grown myself, but I've learned through seeing what works for others and trial and error. Teaching is no different, but I've been doing it formally (as in, full control over an entire course) for a shorter period of time. And whereas I see teaching as important, there also remains the fact that it can't be a priority for me at this stage of my career.

That said, for a variety of reasons (most notably, Broader Impacts, yo) I have gotten involved in a program aimed at producing teaching modules for grade 6-12 science classes. For each module there is a team of one person who teaches at a university and one person who teaches at either the middle or high school level. Nearly everyone involved has a formal background in education and is well-versed in the jargon that goes along with that training. In addition, the 6-12 teachers have an array of state requirements and testing that they have to conform with, creating a new layer of complexity.

The meetings we have as a group often make me feel a bit like I do when traveling in a country where I have a semi-decent grasp on the language - I know enough to follow the conversation and can clumsily contribute, but spend much of the time just trying to keep up. It's a fascinating experience for me seeing the approach to teaching that is taken at the 6-12 level and there's no shortage of elements that I could see employing in my own teaching. For that reason, I really think that I'm going to be taking as much or more out of this experience than I will be contributing, which is not necessarily what I thought when I agreed to join in.
I started out as a high school teacher, then went to grad school (in part to escape the worst principal I've ever run across), then did a four year stint as an instructor at a large university (making around 18K -- and yes, that's full time), then went back to high school teaching (and a 10K raise) then took advantage of the late Nineties economic boom and jumped to industry.

My experiences at the university (lecturing to 150 students at a time, covering more advanced material, helping to supervise TAs) definitely made me a better high school teacher but I'd still have to say that teaching high school is better preparation for teaching college than teaching college is for teaching high school. In high school, you have to deal with students of widely varying abilities, most of whom have short attention spans and many of whom don't want to be in school at all.

This experience would be valuable to any teacher (even on a graduate level), as would the teacher training classes I took. There was, of course, an element of bullshit to some of those courses (though apparently not that different from what you get in Teach for America and far less pungent than much of what you encounter in the corporate world), but there were also a number of useful ideas, techniques and resources.

As Andrew Gelman observed, most people who teach college courses have never been formally introduced to any of these concepts. With luck they pick them up from other teachers or figure it out on their own.

You could make a case requiring some kind of teacher training for professors and TAs. Instead many in the reform movement seem determined to move in the other direction, dismissing the value of professional training for teachers and instead promoting a model of mass firings and high turnover in the search of 'natural teachers.'

You can probably guess what side of that debate I'm on.

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