Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Are teachers trained or born?

In today’s Washington Post Answer Sheet, there is an article “Are teachers born (not made)?” which question the emphasis being placed on teacher education. The article suggests that there is something inherent in an individual, something that person possesses from a very young age that destines them to be a good teacher. I get that in a way. I think I was born to be a mathematician. I excelled in math throughout school, majored in math at Tulane University and won the Glendy Burke award for being the top math student in my college class. I went on to obtain admission to Columbia University as a National Science and Woodrow Wilson Fellow for graduate studies in mathematics. There is no doubt that much of what I understand and could do was a gift, not something I was taught in school. Of course, I could never have succeeded at Columbia without having had courses in mathematics, and the fact is, today, over thirty five years later, I don’t recall a lot of what I learned. I doubt that I could solve theorems like I did before. I chose to become a psychologist and it is clear to me that there is an underpinning of the natural mathematician in me in my work as a psychologist. I see things from a different angle than some of my colleagues and I can root that in my prior experience as a mathematician. That said, I could not function as a psychologist without the training I had in graduate school and I could not have functioned as a mathematician, if that is what I had chosen to do, without courses in mathematics. And the reality is, there are lots of people in math or math related fields who may not have been as natural at it as me, but still work in those fields and contribute with what they do. After all, we don’t just need great teachers, we need a lot of good teachers, too. We need trained teachers, and along the way, we’ll get a few great ones.

But let’s get back to teacher training and the specifics of what teachers do, and on that score, I am shocked and dismayed by the dearth of preparation teachers get in the theory, research, and practice of homework. Perhaps, your child’s great teacher was just born with a gift for relating to kids in a very special way. God knows it’s not me. I may be bright, but if I taught school, I think I would need to work at it hard. 20+ kids in a room every day, I’m booking the other way. That doesn’t mean I could not have learned and adapted to the setting with time. But it’s not what I chose nor what I think would have been natural for me.

But let’s take that “great” teacher, the natural-born one. How does that teacher know what to do about homework? I’m sure there are many excellent teachers who have learned over the years that homework has less value than it was touted to have and that it has some truly negative effects on children.  But what does that teacher do on the first day of class of the first year he or she is teaching? The fact that she may be destined for an excellent career which will evolve over time does not mean she is excellent that first day. She needs to know what to do and she needs to know what to do about our general societal expectation that she give out homework assignments. And as she proceeds down the path of a sterling career, she is vested with huge amounts of power to make decisions about what will go on in her students’ homes.

As those who follow my writing know, I’m a psychologist, not an educator, and I focus on homework since that is the primary issue related to school that comes to my attention. People don’t bring their children to me because they had trouble with a subject in school. People come to me when they are pulling out their hair, sandwiched between their child’s insurgency and unrelenting demands that are coming from the school. So there may be many issues that are critical for the budding, albeit natural-born teacher, to learn in school to get her up to speed. Please, let’s start adding homework to the curriculum and let’s wise up teachers to the fact that no matter how important you think tonight’s assignment may be, you are still operating on someone else’s turf.


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

 I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.

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