Teachers Can't Teach Because 'Methods' Courses Are Content-Free

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I have railed against the inane qualities and expectations of public education since graduating from college and beginning my teaching career. Or, at least I thought that was the timeframe. But an article in Education Week, “Education Courses Faulted as Intellectually Thin,” (11-12-2003) dredged up memories and nightmares from the ‘teacher education’ coursework I was forced to endure; bringing about a sleepless night, as I relived the anger and frustration of those years in “teacher training” — a misnomer, if ever there was one.

I gained almost no knowledge during most of those worthless courses. When I did learn something, it was generally from a counterproductive angle — I saw or heard suggestions that I filed away as ones that I would never use anywhere near children. No course taught me how to teach reading. No course taught me how to teach content subjects. No course taught me how to manage a classroom and teach a wide variety of children with a broad range of needs. No course taught me how to do skillful, diagnostic teach-test-teach instruction.

During my student teaching experience I was used as a teacher-aide, and never given full control of the class…until all but one of the certified staff left for a trip to Washington D.C., taking the best-behaved students with them; leaving the school and the remainder of the children in the care of student teachers.

I spent my ‘teacher training’ years merely sitting in a seat — when I was able to contain my anger and stay in my seat — putting in my time to clock up enough hours for that teaching certificate. Often I would lose control over my negative reactions to the intellectual deprivation; the stupidity of the professors; the foolishness and the worthlessness of their offerings; the pettiness of many students. I would either challenge the professional charlatans by posing logical questions to which they had no answers; or I would walk out of especially loathsome, and academically vacuous, classes.

The Education Week study looked at sixteen major teacher training programs, and the first one listed — Eastern Michigan University — was, unsurprisingly, the university where so many of my negative memories developed and deeply felt hurts were received.

I need only close my eyes to recall the worst professor I ever had. He would arrive carrying a hugely thick notebook; place it on the lectern; open it and then leaf, riffle, flip, search — acting as though the book were a collection of educational pearls of wisdom; that he had only to find precisely the right one for that particular lecture. Finally he would find his place, look up with a serious face, and…ask, “Does anyone have anything they would like to share?” The first time this occurred, my mouth fell open in shock. I soon learned that always some goody-two-shoes would speak up with, “I visited a school and the teacher had a cute bulletin board about autumn and leaves.” Professor Garble would react as though worthy wisdom had fallen from a savant’s mouth; would spend many minutes discussing the importance of room decorations; then he would move on…to ask if anyone else had anything to share. Day-after-day; week-after-week.

As the semester crawled by, I became ever more frustrated. I finally made an appointment to meet with him to explain that I did not believe that I was learning anything of value; anything that would help me in becoming an effective teacher. Instead of supporting his choice of methods and content; instead of discussing the point at which the error in my thinking (if there really were an error in my thinking) had developed; instead of attempting to justify his actions and instructional decisions — he nervously called in one of the professors I did hold in high esteem, and he begged her to “Calm Linda down! She is getting all upset!”

I had been calm until he said that. My anger then flared, and I bluntly reminded him that I was already married; that since I was not at college to collect an ‘M.r.s. License’, I would appreciate receiving instruction and information that would truly prepare me for a Teaching Certificate. His intelligent response? “Linda…we never had problems like this with your mother!” I left the office and changed my major. A few months later I left Eastern Michigan University and moved to Colorado, never to return to Ypsilanti.

The move accomplished little, as far as academic value. In Colorado, the professor for the “Auditory Training and Hearing Aid” methods class skipped sessions so often that we students kept attendance on him and turned it into the dean. The instructor of “Teaching Speech to Deaf Children” showed up each day to plop herself into a chair, not even remove her coat, and ask, “What can someone tell me about /g/?” I soon led the parade as every day more and more of us would just stand up and walk out of class. We reported her, as well. We probably accomplished nothing.

I did, finally, stay seated for the required number of hours, thereby ‘earning’ my teaching certificate and my entry into the world of public school instruction — an outcome which has provided me with a career that can only be described with the masterly words of Dickens’ from A Tale of Two Cities,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

The greatest disappointment of my career was when, while studying in a master’s program at Manchester University, England, a group of us traveled to the wonderful school for the deaf in The Netherlands, directed then by Father Van Uden. We spent a week of wonder, observing the most marvelous classes taught by true experts, supported by masterful leaders. Near the end of our week, I had the opportunity to speak with Father Van Uden, and I expressed my wish to teach at his school; that I would be willing to learn Dutch and German in order to do so. It nearly broke my heart when he explained that they never hire any teachers from teacher education programs; that they only hire master scholars in specific subject areas, and then teach those scholars how to be teachers. He explained that his experience had been that individuals coming out of teacher training programs were weak in subject content, and lacked pedagogical skills and knowledge. How could I argue or beg when faced with the same accurate observations and verifiable truths that I, myself, had too often observed?

The decades have passed and although I have had the best of times with the children, I have had the worst of times with administrators and legislative mandates. Never had I pictured that I, the energetic achiever and dedicated scholar; the lover of theater and travel; the loved and successful teacher; would wish to quickly age. I never expected that, so soon in my career in public miseducation, I would find myself counting and noting that I have exactly four years until I can retire — November 17, 2007.

A student interviewer once asked me what I would have become if I hadn’t become a teacher. I answered aloud, “An astrophysicist.” Silently, I justified that choice — for I longed for a milieu in which I — could have reached for the stars without retaliation; allowed my mind to develop unfettered within and around the infinite expanses of the Universe (so unlike the limits placed around talented individuals in universities and schools); spent my time breathlessly near my Creator (so illegal in the public schools); and lived without fear that my vision would be forcibly redefined, narrowed, or ended…for eons yet to come.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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