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Hedging Our Bets? Now, More Than Ever, is the Time to be Vigilant About Improving Teaching Preparation

by Dave Powell - November 04, 2008

A recent article in USA Today suggests that there may be a “silver lining” associated with the financial turmoil gripping the country: as Wall Street downsizes, teaching ranks are expected to swell. The assumption underlying many alternative preparation programs is that holding a Bachelor’s degree and pairing it with “real world experience” is preparation enough for the rigors of teaching. But this assumption trivializes the complex nature of teaching and the equally complicated work of teacher preparation. If teaching is to ever be taken seriously as a profession, we have to begin by strengthening teacher education programs and discouraging fast-track alternative programs that may suit market philosophies but may also undermine teacher preparation by suggesting that anyone with an undergraduate degree can make the transition into classroom teaching with fairly minimal additional preparation. Moreover, we should be careful to present teaching as a legitimate career choice in and of itself, not a secondary alternative to some other professional option.

In the world of economics, finance is the branch of the field concerned with examining how people make decisions with regard to allocation of resources over time and how they think about management of the risks involved. In financial terms, a “hedge” is essentially a bet made to minimize risk taken on elsewhere. If there is anything to be learned from recent events in the financial sector, it is that risk allocation and risk management should be taken very seriously indeed.

How ironic, then, that some of the managers of failed hedge funds on Wall Street and elsewhere may soon find themselves managing something of a very different variety: your son’s or daughter’s classroom. Or, as USA Today puts it, “Your child’s next math teacher could be an absolute whiz.”

I’m not one to discourage anyone from entering the teaching profession under the right conditions, but the notion that the collateral human resource damage on Wall Street might be a good thing for the nation’s schoolchildren (“Financial Sector’s Loss Could Spell Gain for Teaching,” USA Today, Oct. 16, 2008) gave me pause. As a teacher educator, I believe very strongly that anyone with the right dispositions, drive, and broad base of knowledge is capable of being an outstanding teacher, especially with effective training. To that end, I have encouraged students throughout my career as a high school and college instructor to pursue careers in education if I thought the profession might be right for them. But I have not encouraged everyone. Some have had sterling academic resumes that carried them to or through the most elite universities in the country, but were ill-prepared for the daily challenges of teaching. Others lacked the sensitivity needed to help struggling students or motivate others who were simply not being challenged by school. Still others—many, many others—told me that they wanted to teach simply because they “loved kids,” and some have even followed such declarations with a revealing statement: “How hard can it be?”

The notion that teaching cannot possibly be that hard, and that the most difficult obstacle to overcome in learning how to be an effective teacher is to “know” subject matter content inside out, is troubling to say the least. More than that it is potentially damaging to the cause of teacher education and, as such, should be taken very seriously by anyone with an interest in school reform.

For one thing, many attempts to add “qualified” teachers to classrooms while circumventing traditional teacher preparation programs (some of which are suggested in the USA Today article) are driven by a presumption that somehow “content knowledge,” coupled with a desire to help others or find personal fulfillment, is at least the foundation of what makes someone a good teacher. If teachers know anything it better be content, so the feeling goes. Maybe these are the foundations of effective practice but such a foundation would be incomplete by itself and, furthermore, the supposition has its flaws. How do we know, for instance, that everyone who leaves college with a history degree “knows” history well enough to teach it to others? If it were really true that a disciplinary major prepared one well for teaching it stands to reason that all the teaching that occurs in the nation’s colleges and universities would be exemplary. Most undergraduates will tell you it’s not.

The assumption that teaching knowledge comes as an added bonus with every Bachelor’s degree trivializes the extraordinarily complicated work of making content knowledge “learnable” for students (not to mention that it summarily disregards a growing body of extant literature produced by scholars working to improve public education in systematic ways). At the same time, this assumption suggests that students know everything they need to know about becoming teachers as soon as they leave one of America’s top colleges with a degree in hand—or, at least, that they can learn the rest on the job or after a five-week summer institute. So a hedge fund manager from Greenwich, Connecticut, already vetted by virtue of having majored in economics and worked in the “real world,” must be ready for the big time. Can you imagine the real world experience he would bring to the classroom?

Problem is, the things our hedge fund manager “knows” about economics may or may not be what students need (or want) to learn. This is, by no means, an indictment of “real world knowledge”; instead, it is a statement of the fact that knowing something and knowing how to teach it are different things, and it is furthermore a reflection of the reality that what we teach in schools is not often clearly correlated to what people need to know in order to lead more fulfilling lives. Teacher candidates need time to explore the complexity of the teaching and learning process in a changing world, and such discussions inevitably take time in order to flourish.

We need to prepare teachers to interpret curricula and adapt their existing stores of knowledge to it so students can learn something that is actually valuable to them that might actually make a difference in their lives in a way that goes beyond getting them into the “right” college or fitting them to the “right” role in a specialized economy. To do that, prospective teachers need to spend a good bit of time understanding curriculum in the subjects they want to teach and need time to consider how curricula align (and do not align) with their own goals as teachers. With all due respect to math whizzes, a math whiz is just a math whiz. A math teacher is something else entirely.

Experience has told me that preparing undergraduate and graduate students to become effective social studies teachers requires much more than a crash course in classroom management or a few weeks of quality time spent learning how to write lesson plans. It also requires more than getting connected to a mentor and being involved in a field-based student teaching experience. To some degree, it requires all of these things—and more. And these things take time. In social studies, in particular—and, realistically, hedge fund managers are as likely to become social studies teachers as math teachers, probably—the problem is especially acute. Economics majors are no more ready to become social studies teachers immediately after they earn their degrees than English majors are. But a person taught to contextualize the problems and possibilities associated with schooling and to see the critical importance of converting knowledge into something students can understand themselves—that person is better prepared to be a teacher.

So I say bring on the hedge fund managers and other casualties of the disarray on Wall Street. And let’s not stop there; others will inexorably be hurt by the turn of events in our nation’s economy, and some people may take this opportunity to realize a more fulfilling career in a local classroom. But instead of using the coming changes in our economy to rationalize quick-fix transitions from other careers into teaching, let’s be careful about how we manage the risks associated with inviting career-switchers into classrooms. When teaching is presented as an alternative career choice—another way to put your degree to work when the economy goes sour—everybody loses. Said career switchers are left with the impression that teaching is easier than it actually is and fast-track programs to get them into the classroom do little to disabuse them of that notion. Likewise, proposals to require brief commitments to teaching in exchange for other perks like loan forgiveness actually undermine the profession by encouraging it only as a short-term route to “giving something back.”

Now is the time for all of us to work together—as teachers, teacher educators, parents, students, and community members—to make this a golden age for teacher education. What we need is not a two- or four-year commitment to teaching along the lines of a military tour of duty, something taken on to ease the existential pain of having made money on Wall Street or as a stopgap measure in between “real” jobs. We need professional commitments. When doctors and lawyers start entering their professions after five-week internships or only because of turmoil in their original chosen fields I’ll be happy to talk about alternative teacher preparation. In the meantime, let’s get serious about teacher preparation that matters—and let’s get serious about doing it right. Instead of betting on a risky proposition, let’s make a long-term investment in something we can all be proud of.


Toppo, G. (2008, October 16). Financial sector’s loss could spell gain for teaching. USA Today. Retrieved October 27, 2008, from http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-10-15-meltdown-teachers_N.htm.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 04, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15430, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:24:28 PM

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