How Specialized Is Teaching?

I got a comment on my previous post about IMPACT evaluations that I was going to respond to in the comments section but realized my response would probably be too long and decided to turn it into a post.  In response to 'Attorney DC,' an anonymous commenter wrote the following:

"@Attorney DC -- w all due respect, you have a truly naive and inexperienced view of the working world in general. The principal-teacher relationship is part and parcel of managers-subordinates in just about any field. For example, anagers, very frequently, do not have visual contact with subordinates in many (the majority?) or organizations, pub and priv, today. (Secretaries are a weird example, btw, because that is one job that is definitely disappearing.)

The more you, and today's teachers, talk about the uniqueness of the teaching job, the more it sounds defensive and evasive. Again, I'd love to, and do, to a great extent, and indeed did as a student and active parent, try my darndest to put teachers on a pedestal. That refers to their importance. But teaching is one of the most common jobs there is, we all know something about teachers and teaching, and tho we can appreciate the challenge, it is just not all that unique if you analyze its skills and activities. It deserves respect, by all means, but not "protection" from mgt feedback, evaluation, getting fired, etc., because of its unique processes and skills, etc., because they are not unique."

Is the commenter right?  Is teaching really something that we all know about?  Does it only deserve respect because it's important?

I really don't know.  There's a big part of me that wants to say it's highly specialized.  This part of me thinks that because everything I thought excellent teaching was changed drastically after a few years doing it.  I realized that many people made judgements about teachers and what they do without fully appreciating the complexities and subtleties of the job, as I suspect is true with just about an profession.  I also think this, in part, because I've learned that teaching a classroom of students who all differ wildly in their exposure to the material and reading comprehension is a task that requires significant skill.  I also tend to think that if this is not the case, then Wendy Kopp is more right than I admit: TFA really can do all the things they say they can.
But then I have experiences like the one I've had this week.  I was awarded a grant to do a field study in China for the coming month with the Institute for East Asian Studies at Yale, which is devoted to increasing awareness of China's reality amongst seconday educators.  So, for this week, I've been sitting in seminar after seminar in New Haven about China's ethnic minorities and the Silk Road.  At the end of these seminars (the last one was today - I'm leaving for China in an hour), some of these teachers got up to present on effective pedagogical strategies for getting the content across to students.  These teachers were all from suburban environments, and I was one of only there who'd taught in a public school.  So the teachers got up and told us about books they'd assigned, presentations they made their students do, and simulations they had their students run.  This all sounds great, but I noticed that their instructions on how to engage students went something like this:

"Here's a great book.  Have your students read it.  When they're done, they could make a poster showing what they learned."


"Here's a simulation I ran.  The kids learned a lot.  You should try it."

When questions were asked about standards or assessments the presenters seemed not to have a clue.  I noticed nobody talked about building background knowledge or engaging learners who were behind the rest of the class.  Nobody mentioned effecitve ways to group students for their particular activities or how to scaffold the book they wanted their kids to read. When one presenter was asked how they dealt with students with special needs, he replied, "That's not an issue."  The same guy got a group of 30 parents to spend over $1000 to help him carry out his schoolwide simulation.

When I think of these teachers, I think maybe the anonymous commenter is right.  Just about anyone could do what they do.  It's not hard to tell your kids to read a book and make a poster.  (I don't mean to downplay those teachers' accomplishments.  They're committed educators who all have great reputations, otherwise Yale would not have given them money to go on a month-long trip of China.  And their kids learn a ton, but I suspect it's largely because they know how to learn and are committed).

So I guess it might depend on the environment you teach in?  Or maybe how seriously you take yourself?  I guess I would agree with the commenter that lots of people can be teachers, and a lot do a mediocre job with it.  But I think that if you asked a random professional (say a fireman or a lawyer or a doctor) to do what I do effectively with minimal training time, I really don't think they'd help the students learn much at all.  I really do believe excellent teaching (especially in our most challenging environments) is a highly specialized skill that requires significant expertise in a number of areas (content, classroom management, personal skills, vast knowledge of effective learning strategies for a wide variety of learning styles).  And I certainly don't mean to suggest I'm an expert at it.

Anyway, I'd like this conversation to continue.  I appreciate those that comment on the issues rather than petty things (I'm starting to see why many bloggers use comment moderation).  I think this conversation has very real implications for where this country goes with ed reform.

And on that note, I'll be out for a little while.  As I mentioned above, I'll be leaving for China pretty soon, and if you know anything about the People's Republic, you know they're not the most friendly to bloggers (especially where we're going - in the region of the former state of Tibet).  So please forgive me for my absense and have a great July.


  1. A teacher I worked with had an excellent comment about the views that quite a few people have of the teaching profession. He said that most people haven't experienced medical school, or law school, or engineering school so while they may criticize these professions they don't feel that they could simply step into the shoes of a lawyer, doctor or engineer. However everyone has gone through school and feels they "know" education from that experience. They think they understand what a "good" teacher or a "bad" teacher looks like.

    I think this view is understandable but clouded in ignorance. Teachers need to have so many different skill sets in order to effectively teach children. Do all teachers have these skills sets and the ability to use them? No. We all know this to be true. While many teachers are constantly working on their skills, adding to their education and knowledge of best practices on a yearly basis, many also simply languish, doing the bare minimum of what they need to do to renew their license, working out of their "playbook" that they have been using (effectively, I might add)for the last 15 or 20 years, and feeling that they know their job as good as anyone.

    Teaching, however, is like medicine and we need to approach our work in the same, proactive, way that doctors approach their profession. Our unions still work on a blue collar model and really we need to see our profession as more of an advanced profession as medicine or law. Many of us have spent as many years studying education, with the degrees to show it, as lawyers or doctors. We "practice" our profession every day. We assess the mental, spiritual, and academic well being of our students daily. We deal with sociological issues, psychology, hygiene, familial and community issues. We are social workers, psychologists, lawyers, and managers all rolled into one. We have to be and we have to have knowledge of all these fields in order to perform our job effectively.

    While we cannot diagnose we have to recognize the symptoms that present themselves to us every day and we know how to respond. Give me any lawyer or doctor who has never been in a classroom and let them come into my room for one month and teach and let us see how well they manage.

    Do we deserve more protections than other professions? No, but we do deserve basic rights in terms of our positions. How are doctors evaluated? Lawyers? Other high level professions? We deserve and should be evaluated on that level - not just for ourselves but for our parents and students as well. The evaluation process as it stands right now in DC has some good aspects to it - the best practices aspect of IMPACT is hard to argue with - but to tie our evaluation to test scores is idiotic. Especially a standardized test that merely assesses the ability to take a multiple choice test. These tests do not reflect the intangibles that are so important to our students. Critical thinking is hardly a real part of these tests. But that is another discussion.

    Teaching is rocket science. Anyone who has worked hard at this job and done it effectively will tell you that this is so. Anyone who thinks it is a common job on the same level as secretary or babysitter simply has no idea what teachers deal with every day.

  2. From commenter replying to @Attorney DC -- have a great trip. I have spent a lot of time in China. It can swamp the senses and swallow you up intellectually, which is mainly good.

    Last I knew, Blogger could be accessed through, which as of yesterday is usable again on the mainland. Or, you could use Baidu, but ya gotta find the toggle to English.

    Your first commenter seemed to feel my comment conveyed some disrespect cum misunderstanding of teaching. The disrespect vibe is bogus. Her (gender probabilities) defensiveness is highly thoughtful and confidently articualte, and I am impressed, but my surmise is she's not had appreciable work experience in another field.

    And let's not lose track of the fact that my original comment was about the principal-teacher relationship, not the teacher-student relationship. Very different, as well all know.

    If she wants to make teaching a complex undertaking, I will agree, but there are a zillion other complex undertakings--infantry platoon leader, policeman, frontline public health specialist, salespeople of many types, politician, journalist, and many, many others.

    I don't expect most to appreciate or agree with my take on principal-teacher relationships unless they have been a manager in multiple public and private settings and have studied management constantly.

    There's a lot of good in viewing one's own occupation as really tough, and then overcoming the challenge. But, I fear, too many are overwhelmed, and it shows.

  3. Have a safe, enjoyable and educational trip.

  4. California TeacherJuly 11, 2010 at 1:46 AM

    A small anecdote:
    I teach first grade. My oldest, dearest friend is an MD. Not only does she practice medicine, she has 2 kids in public school and is an active school supporter. She also has 2 older sisters who are educators. One of her sisters went on to become an associate superintendent, and the other left the classroom within a few years to become a full-time homemaker. Whenever my dear friend and I talk about work, she frequently refers to my job with an audible sigh, a shake of her head and the exclamation "I just don't know how you do it...!"
    Of course, I say the same thing to her!

  5. Anon 2:24
    I have had quite appreciable and satisfying work experience in other fields. I was an administrator at a major university for many years before I decided to go into education as a teacher. I am not saying that teaching trumps all other professions for complexity, I am saying that teachers are not given, in this society, the recognition that our field is as complex as it is and that until such a time we will be treated as we are treated now - despite the rhetoric from reformers.

    Having worked as both a manager and subordinate I think I have a pretty good sense of what that relationship can be like and the nuances it entails. But your response to my comment is filled with the same condescension I feel is often directed towards the teaching profession. I have seen this condescension as a parent at my own children's school before I was ever in teaching, usually coming from well educated people who should know better.

  6. You're absolutely right that telling kids to read a book and draw a poster is not very artful. I'm thankful I can't think of a colleague who takes that particular approach.

    I have a lot of students from China. If you get to observe how they teach there, particularly how they teach English there, I'd love to hear about it. I sometimes get Chinese kids who are angry when I demand they speak and participate, or that they use only English in my classes. Many of them are shocked and unaccustomed to such demands, as English to them entails filling out exercises in grammar books and anything beyond that can be interpreted as unacceptable and a poor use of time.

    I believe that's the way I was taught Spanish in high school, which is why I didn't learn Spanish until many years later.

  7. lodesterre - you seem "spring loaded" to pounce on anyone not satisfying your demands (yes, demands) for respect.

    Many of us respect teachers a lot for their importance in our society, and you have that from me and gazillion others. Thanks for what you do.

    As for complexity, the list is very, very long. You have good company, who also deserve respect for important jobs they do.

    Ya want even more respect for "complexity"??? -- you may have to, forever.

    To move things along, as Refl. Educ. would probably like, it would be interesting to get your expert thoughts on the principal-teacher relationship, which is what I was trying to comment on, anyway. What makes that different, if it is, than other manager-employee relationships?

  8. Speaking about China, I'm sure teachers there don't use techniques in fashion in the United States such as cooperative learning and working in group. And higher order thinking skills? Something tells me that in China, India and Japan there is still a lot of memorization going on. Which I never considered a bad thing. I still remember a list of prepositions I had to memorize, as well as state capitals and dates.

  9. I've got nothing against memorization. It's good for learning some things. However, it doesn't work by itself for language learning. Of course there is memorization, but language is an activity. If you don't engage in it, you really are not fluent or capable. We engage people all the time with language. How often do we take tests? Even writing is an activity that takes up relatively little time for most people.

    Being able to converse, to me at least, is indispensable.

  10. How Specialized is Teaching, try this on for size. So says the New York times, "Getting into the nation’s top law schools and grad programs could be easier than being accepted for a starting teaching job with Teach for America." Next teaching year is going to be so much fun.....

  11. So specialized that you get fired today cos of low IMPACT scores, but replaced tomorrow by an unqualified teacher from TFA/Teaching Fellows who had 5 weeks of summer school training (if you're lucky). See Bill Turque re. firings, doesn't mention replacements but as this is TFA's biggest year, where else do you think they are coming from.

  12. Hey, RE - I know you expressed some interest in reading the TfSA that Fellows of the New Teacher Project get. I have an extra copy, would you like it?

    FF :)

  13. On Jose Vilson's blog, I read a reference to a study that said teachers make about 1,300 decisions a day. Think about it: you just introduced a lesson or activity, and you scan your class visually, taking in about 10-15 pieces of information, and adding another few pieces based on what you hear. In a matter of seconds, you need to decide which information is most relevant right now, which information will be relevant in a few minutes, and which information is irrelevant. Then, based on the most immediately relevant information, you have to decide what the priority is at this moment, and which of your multiple options to take in addressing that priority. You cannot follow any instructions on how to do this, because it is almost entirely a matter of applying principles to an ever-changing context.

  14. One thing that was mentioned in the introduction but not discussed here in the context of class is the status of teachers. Teachers are the most numerous professionals numbering about 6.2 million according to the census. They are also generally underpaid compared to their fellow professionals. Many things point to teachers being working class rather than professional class in terms of their employment status and this does make a big difference in how they are treated in the work place and by the public. I think it makes them more vulnerable to political machinations and to propaganda. As a teacher I do agree that the job it self is definitely complex and challenging requiring on the spot decisions many times a day that often have far reaching effects on learning. And although there are many other jobs that require this kind of skill none of them are as underpaid and politicized as teaching. It makes for an interesting combination of challenges that effectively filters out many personality types. The teachers I work with are very much dedicated to the children and see community, team work, and relationships as top priorities in their work place. "Reform" has almost completely ignored these requirements for educating children (along with content and creativity and thinking skills) and so there is a huge disconnect between the reform movement and the priorities of learning communities where children can get a real education that goes beyond test taking.

  15. Are you looking for an artist by reading book? Will art be yhe outcome?


    When clearly defined objectives are lacking, there is no sound basis for the selection or designing of instructional materials, content, or methods. If you don't know where you are going, it is difficult to select a suitable means for getting there.
    A second important reason for stating objectives sharply has to do with finding out whether the objective has, in fact, been accomplished. Test or examination s are the mileposts along the road of learning and are supposed to tell instructors AND students whether they have been successful in achieving the course objectives. But unless objectives are stated clearly and are fixed in the minds of both parties, tests are at best misleading; at worst, they are irrelevant, unfair, or uninformative. Test items designed to measure whether important instructional outcomes have been accomplished can be selected or created intelligently only when those instructional outcomes have been made explicit.
    A third advantage of clearly defined objectives is that they provide students with a means to organize their own efforts toward accomplishment of those objectives. Experience has shown that with clear objectives in view, students at all levels are better able to decide what activities on their part will help them get to where it is important for them to go.

  16. First, I wonder if you're not being unfair to your teacher-colleagues in that particular seminar. In an environment where people share a common profession but are learning new information, it's not surprising that they'd share materials (recommend a particular book or simulation you might not know about) without talking about how they use them (assuming that once the materials were in the hands of an experienced and motivated teacher that teacher would know what to do with them (something that would vary with context, style, students' backgrounds)). So they gave you the piece they thought you needed rather than a comprehensive account of their own practice.

    Secondly, I'm going to agree with your original perspective that teaching is a specialized skill. I've thought about this question a lot over the years and in a variety of different situations -- everything from reading over my mom's shoulder when she was taking ed courses in college and talking/listening to her about teaching, to seeing how little PhD students are taught about teaching before they're thrown into a classroom full of undergrads, to figuring out how I'd help my own grad students on that score, to a multi-year gig teaching secondary school teachers (public, private, suburban, urban) from every state and, ultimately, taking them up on their dare to try this stuff out in a classroom and report back. Oh yeah, and I almost left out being a parent of school-aged kids and listening to lots of parents assume that anyone with a BA from a good school could do a better job teaching than actual teachers.

    I guess what I've taken away is a series of impressions;

    1. Teaching is skill and probably best developed through thoughtful practice and from being given the space to experiment and evolve and, ideally, colleagues with whom you can debrief.

    2. It's a separate skill from content knowledge and you need both to be effective.

    3. There's not one right way to be a good teacher -- and being a good teacher in one context is no guarantee that you'll be a good teacher in another (particularly, if you aren't willing to be self-critical and rethink what you're doing in light of your experience).

    4. Lots of good teachers have well-developed instincts but may not be able to self-consciously explain what they're doing right and why. (And certainly not as well as an outside observer might be able to). That's probably because they don't always recognize that what's obvious or natural to them isn't to other people.

    5. Formulas may help you replace bad teaching with mediocre teaching, but they don't produce great teaching. And the same formulas imposed across the board will also replace great teaching with mediocre teaching.

  17. Eric Martel of Wilson High in DC complained to people outside the school district when he was transferred out of the school in probable retaliation for complaining about unethical and illegal practices at Wilson. Now he is mentioned on TV and in the Washington Post. In addition to that, he is meeting with the city's Office of the Inspector General.

    Teachers need to remember that they don't give up their civil rights and the schoolhouse door.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts