Teaching, Redefined

I’ve encountered, many times, references to teaching as an “art” in the courses that are part of CSU’s Online Teaching and Learning Masters program. Most often, these references occur in the discussion forums. This isn’t a particularly useful or accurate way to think about the profession. Its self-limiting and implies the profession can only be improved upon by inspiration, divine intervention, or some other source that is “out there” and cannot be easily influenced, controlled, or harnessed.

This “artful” thinking is counter productive. It excuses all manner of sloppy and low-skilled behavior while obviating accountability.

A principle disconnect appears to be that many credentialed teachers viewed their graduation as a completion of the requisite knowledge base needed to teach, CEU’s to maintain certification or advanced degrees chased for no other reason than an increase in pay grade notwithstanding. It is a small percentage of self-identified public education teachers in my Masters program who have participated at a level which demonstrated a genuine interest in advancing their capabilities. The rest skim along at the bare minimum of participation, adding nothing to forum discussions beyond replies consisting of “I, like, totally agree with what you said.” and poorly reasoned arguments with embarrassing grammar.

This is, unfortunately, inline with the increasingly pretentious self-perception the field has developed over the past 50 years. Along with practicing an “art,” many educators deeply believe they are exclusive members of The Most Important Profession. It is an important profession, but not the most important. If every K-12 educator and university professor stopped work for six months, the effects are likely to be negligible in both the short and long term. If every garbage collector stopped work for six months, we would likely have a public health crisis to which modern medicine would be incapable of responding.

The microcosm that is the OccupyWhatever movement gives a preview of what could happen in short order when sanitation and similar basic services fail. In Santa Cruz:

Police said there have been reports of ringworm and scabies at the camp in recent days.

And in Atlanta:

The home base for Occupy Atlanta has tested positive for tuberculosis.

And finally, from New York after Zuccotti Park was cleared out:

City sanitation workers yesterday were forced to pick through a filthy pile of property seized from Zuccotti Park including dirty hypodermic needles, moldy food and glass-littered, broken gadgets.

“I pick up garbage [for a living], and these were some of the worst smells I’ve ever experienced,’’ one worker grumbled to The Post.

Teaching is also subject to the indifferent leveling effects of a market economy. (Or should be. That this isn’t entirely true is a subject for another post.) It’s a lot easier to acquire the credentials to be a teachers than it is to be a surgeon. Consequently, there are more teachers available to fill open teaching positions than there are qualified surgeons to meet surgical demands. Similarly, it’s easier to satisfy the requirements to become a sanitation worker than it is to satisfy the requirements to be a certified teacher. The result, all things considered, is that teacher compensation is better than that of the average sanitation worker. (There are many other compensatory issues that could be considered, such as working conditions, job/career longevity, etc.)

In virtually all the conversations I’ve participated in where the assertion is made that teaching is the most important profession, there is a follow-on and faulty presupposition that by simply making this assertion the field is cleared for unlimited pay for teachers and absolution from performance accountability.

Referring to the profession of education as an “art” also isolates it from the benefits and structure of formal scientific inquiry (There is a freedom from accountability in this that is probably appealing to many teachers.) This is also reflected in the interactions I’ve had with credentialed public educators. Discussion forum conversations and peer review of course research papers reveal a depressing lack of depth or development of ideas. And pushing back, for the sake of exploring an idea, either kills the discussion thread or results in an emotional outburst.

Of far greater value would be to think of the profession in much the same way we think of other highly skilled professions, such as medicine, law, or accounting: as a practice. Once an educator acknowledges how much they don’t known and therefore that the continual improvement of their teaching skills is a never ending process, plying their trade becomes an ongoing process of discovery, experimentation, and improvement. This frame of reference carries with it a much more useful set of presuppositions, such as mistakes will be made and the professional is expected to learn from those mistakes.