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Why educating the educators is complex

Mike RoseMike Rose is a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.” This piece was the first of three on teacher education published in the Washington Post on Dec. 5. To read the entire series, go here.
Smack in the middle of the fiery debates about teacher education is the troublesome fact that we lack a fitting and consensual definition of teaching itself. In his blistering 2005 report on teacher education programs, former president of Teachers College, Arthur Levine, noted the “schism [in] teacher education between those who believe teaching is a profession like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before an individual can become a practitioner, and those who think teaching is a craft like journalism, which is learned principally on the job.” Levine may well be capturing a significant ideological or rhetorical distinction in the current debates about how to educate teachers, but the distinction illustrates our problem, for teaching has elements of both profession and craft, as Levine defines them — and even that fusion of the two terms doesn’t fully capture a teacher’s work.
Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others. This takes us to the heart of what teaching is, and why defining it primarily as a craft, or a knowledge profession, or any other stock category is inadequate. I’m not sure there is any other work quite like it.
The teacher sets out to explain what a protein or metaphor is, or how to balance the terms in an algebraic equation, or the sociological dynamics of prejudice, but to do so needs to be thinking about how to explain these things: what illustrations, what analogies, what alternative explanations when the first one fails? This instruction is done not only to convey particular knowledge about metaphors or algebraic equations, but also to get students to understand and think about these topics. This involves hefty cognitive activity, as any parent knows from his or her experiences of explaining things to kids, but the teacher is doing it with a room full of young people — which brings a significant performative dimension to the task.
Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity. You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s. Simultaneously, you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers. How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on — but it is an ever-present part of the work they do.
As is the case with any of the helping professions, teaching is value-laden work. Society has a host of expectations about what education should be. And, though prospective teachers may be attracted to the work for lifestyle reasons (schedule, benefits), many want to teach because they are drawn to helping young people grow, or are passionate about a subject, or want to contribute to the creation of a just world. They commit to do this work in institutions, so they have to figure out how to navigate the institution’s demands, balancing their beliefs with institutional strictures. And either in their day-to-day-encounters with students or in their role as institutional beings they will face difficult decisions, ethical conundra, be, at times, pushed to the limit of their psychological and spiritual resources.
So teaching "Hamlet" or "The Bluest Eye," the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces in our culture. I don’t see this representation of teaching in any of the major reports or national debates on teacher education. That is one big reason, I think, why our discussions of teacher quality and teacher evaluation tend to be reductive, and why the assault on teacher education programs — even for those of us who desire big improvements — feels rigid and one-dimensional.
There are a number of ideas in the air about teacher education: what’s wrong with college and university programs, what alternative programs should do, and the qualifications of those entering the teaching force. These ideas come from federal and local governments, from reports and advocacy groups, and from the opinion pages of our major newspapers. Some of these ideas, though they may be well-intentioned, run the risk of reducing teaching to knowledge delivery or technical craft.
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