After posting What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?, I received comments and responses that are fairly represented in the comments at the original post from Peter Smyth and psmagorinsky (Peter Smagorinsky). For full disclosure, these two Peters are acquaintances that I respect a great deal, and thus, take their comments quite seriously.
To Peter Smyth’s concern (voiced by a few others offering feedback), I can clarify that my original post is a rejection of certification and a call for the need for rich and deep education degrees; thus, my argument in no way endorses Teach for America or other alternative certification programs that inherently avoid and marginalize education degrees (which are in fact the antithesis of my argument).
Peter Smagorinsky’s comment—notably “At the same time, I think that if we are constructed as being against being accountable for our teaching, we not only lose the PR battle, we are dodging responsibility for the end result of our teacher education”—requires a bit more explanation so I ask that you allow me to offer a series of personal anecdotes to make my case.
The summer of 1975 was traumatic for me and my family since I was diagnosed with scoliosis, requiring my parents to pay for and me to wear an elaborate and expensive back brace. This ordeal lasted from my 9th through my 12th grades.
Setting aside the personal angst from wearing a large back brace during my gangly and painfully self-conscious teen years, I have detailed that this experience with scoliosis became the breeding ground for my extensive comic book collection as well as many hours and years spent teaching myself to draw.
Since the brace made sitting nearly impossible, I began to stand at the end of the long bar that separated my family’s kitchen and living room. There I at first traced my favorite comic book superheroes from my collection; soon I began drawing freehand. Eventually, I was drawing large portraits of entire comic book panels and dramatic scenes—first carefully creating the artwork in pencil and then inking the works reflecting the comic book process (I even did some coloring over the years, again mimicking the comic book industry).
Over about 5 or 6 years, I became a fairly accomplished artist, branching our beyond comic book artwork to realistic pencil drawings (often from photography). For the purposes of this blog post, I want to emphasize that at no point did I ever have any formal courses, no teacher of any kind related to being a visual artist.
I read and studied comic books, I researched how comic book art was created, and I bought a few art books, mostly large books of sketches to use as practice.
Overlapping my teenage years spent collecting comic books, teaching myself to draw, and contemplating a career as a comic book artist, I grew up on a golf course, where I worked (both in the club house as an assistant and at the pool as a lifeguard). I also spent many hours of my life hitting range balls (often 300 at a time) and playing 18-27 holes of golf many days each week.
Yes, I also contemplated the life of the professional golfer.
While in college, I secured an assistant pro job at a different golf course, where I spent a good deal of time talking with two professional golf instructors. These men gave golf lessons on the course driving range and sometimes on the course itself.
One golf pro had never had a career as a touring pro, and I was able to shoot scores similar to his. The other had briefly played on the tour in the Ben Hogan era, but his promise of a tour career was cut short by a car accident.
From talking with these two golf instructors and watching their work and their students, I recognized something incredibly important: Most of the people taking the lessons essentially stayed about the same in their ability to score on the golf course. The older golf instructor often said directly to me that he could teach anyone the proper grip and motions in a golf swing, but that beyond that, the outcomes of how any person played golf was really not something he could teach or control.
With learning to play golf, technique, physical aptitude, practice, and such were all intricately intertwined. Few people practiced or played as much golf as I did in those years, and I was never going to be a touring professional. Never. (Likely too, I was never going to be a professional comic book artist.)
About twenty years after those teen and early 20s years, I had become a public school English teacher; my life was steeped in reading and writing (now traceable to those comic books I was also reading voraciously along with science fiction).
A few years after receiving my EdD, I was fortunate to be the lead instructor for the Spartanburg Writing Project in their summer institutes for teachers. In that first summer, a beginning teacher, Dawn Mitchell (who would go on to teach and work for SWP as well as adjunct where I now work in teacher education), and I began working on her efforts to write poetry. Dawn was a wonderful teacher, a gifted writer of prose, and an eager as well as frequent reader.
When I read her poem drafts, however, I felt she had not attained the same genre/form awareness about poetry that she displayed about prose.
I had been writing poetry since my freshman year of college, had published a fair number of poems (see “horea,” “Mary (sea of bitterness),” and “quilting”), and had been teaching high school students to write poetry for almost twenty years. Four of my high school students’ poems were included in one of my earliest articles in English Journal, in fact (see Ashley Mason and Leigh Hix here; Lauren Caldwell and Kris Harrill here).
The summer institute workshop format allowed Dawn and me an ideal opportunity for examining how to develop poetic sensibilities. And Dawn’s work as a poet soon rose to the fine level of her prose.
While Dawn was growing as a writer and poet, I too was learning to hone my craft not as a poet, but as a teacher of writing poetry—developing the ability to mine craft from reading poetry and helping writers transfer those craft lessons into their original work.
Of the many things I teach, I remain convinced teaching someone to write poetry is possibly my most refined skill.
That said, I cannot claim ever that I can produce a poet from that teaching as acts themselves that must be viewed as their own evidence of quality.
What does all this have to do with what’s wrong with teacher education, broadly, and Smagorinsky’s concern, narrowly?
First, teachers and formal teaching are important, but not necessary or easily defined, aspects of learning, especially as that learning manifests itself in some observable outcomes—as my learning to draw is but one example.
Thus, seeking to identify direct, isolated, and causational relationships among teachers, teaching, learning, and observable learning outcomes is simplistic and a fundamental misrepresentation of each of these.
No teacher can be involved when a learner produces outstanding outcomes. A poor teacher can be involved when a learner produces outstanding outcomes. And a brilliant teacher can be involved when a learner produces weak outcomes.
Because a teacher of anything has control only over the conditions of the learning experience—as my second and third example are offered as evidence.
Golf instructors and teachers of writing poetry can never promise skilled golfers or brilliant poets. Many other elements besides the teachers or the teaching are involved—and such is the case with all teaching and learning.
And therein lies my essential disagreement with continuing to focus on learner outcomes when seeking accountability for teachers and teaching.
How did I teach myself to draw? All of the conditions necessary were provided or occurred—incredibly supportive parents who bought the comic books and art supplies, my own unfortunate situation with scoliosis, my fortuitous discovery of a proclivity for visual art, and my own intrinsic motivation that fueled my hours and hours of practice. (By the way, I think I would have benefited greatly from a professional teacher, but the conditions in which I taught myself are evidence of how important conditions are in contrast to a teacher.)
In the larger picture, however, elite golfers, visual artists, and poets cannot be taught to be elite. A substantial number of unpredictable elements are involved, and direct teaching and teachers are important but not even necessary.
Learner outcomes are simply not credible artifacts for teacher or teaching quality.
Teacher education (and teaching accountability) must set aside that paradigm of accountability, and begin to focus on the conditions of teaching instead.
Admitting that teacher education cannot guarantee teacher quality from their programs is not a cop-out. It is the same as the golf instructor who despite his best efforts cannot guarantee golfer quality, the teacher of poetry who cannot guarantee a poet.
By continuing to pretend that teacher quality is the most important element in student learning, we are in fact devaluing and misrepresenting the importance of teachers and teaching.