Monday, August 17, 2009

There’s an interesting on-line debate in the NY Times today regarding higher degrees for teachers. In the back and forth discussion, the value of education degrees is debated, as the numbers of teachers seeking higher degrees has skyrocketed in the last eight years as a result of the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

As a general rule, I tend to come down on the side that great teachers aren’t necessarily made, but that the combination of crucial thinking skills, communicative ability, and desire for learning in oneself and in others (educational ambition/optimism) is often a part of an individual’s very core being. The ‘not made but born’ construction is one applied to every manner of profession (including historians) and is one with many problems. But, I think at the heart of this construction is a fundamental truth that some people make for better teachers than others simply because they have the aptitude and personality to make it in the classroom.

In my own experience, some of the best teachers I have had, by far, have been those who lacked formal educational training. Some of the worst teachers I have had were those who could only be described as educational methodology pedagogs. The best encouraged me to think critically, to read broadly, and to write sceptically. The worst had us doing group projects that often went nowhere.

My evidence, however, is purely anecdotal and I am by no means an educational expert. I will say that in higher education, the desire for specialist master’s degrees has led to these programs being seen as ‘cash cows’ for universities intent on making the master’s an occupational degree, rather than advanced training in a particular subject. New masters programs are popping up all the time leading one to wonder how many of those with these degrees have any sense of mastery of their subjects beyond a few extra credit hours or a few extra papers.

Surely, who would want a degree in education unless you simply had to get one? For secondary and high school teachers, wouldn’t a degree in your subject field have more educational (and personal) value? For elementary school teachers, wouldn’t you rather have a specialist’s degree in early childhood development or child psychology? Educational certification is one thing: two to four years of required graduate classes in what most good teachers already know is quite another.

Anyone who has spent any time in front of a classroom knows that the best training for a would-be educator is on the job. In time, they’ll either succeed or fail regardless of advanced training initiatives, study days, or continuing education in education.

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