On how challenging and important teaching is

I think that on some level, most people understand the importance of having good teachers. In the last 20 years, researchers have found time and again that of all the school-level factors (including local policies, school leadership, funding, curriculum, etc.), the individual teacher in a child’s class makes more of an impact on his/her achievement than anything else. Basically, individual teachers are the most important piece of our nation’s school system. But teaching is really hard work – mentally, emotionally, and even physically. You can’t just throw someone into a classroom and expect them to adequately serve the students before them; and yet, that’s exactly what we often do.

“Those who can’t teach, do.” (You see what I did there? I corrected the offensive and inaccurate adage about teaching being easier than pursuing other professions). I majored in English Literature in college and upon graduating, I felt fairly equipped to tackle debates about Shakespeare, read analyze complex texts on my own, and write a variety of essays and reports; but I had no idea how to teach other people to do this. And even though I could have stepped right into the classroom through TFA or another alternative route without having to go through teacher training, I knew better than to subject a whole group of students to my unskilled and unprepared ways. What I didn’t realize was how much I would have to learn before I could teach effectively.

Here are just some of the forms of knowledge & skills required of good teachers:

  1. Content Knowledge: This is a fairly obvious one. If you don’t know much about a subject, you can’t teach it effectively. And I mean, REALLY know the subject. Despite having majored in English, for example, I had to learn a great deal more about particular authors, literary criticism, poetic devices, and more in order to passably teach AP Literature and my other English classes. But across the country, and especially in urban schools and in areas where there are teacher shortages like Math and Science, teachers who do not have an adequate grasp of their subject matter are thrown into the classroom, and without much support. How can we possibly expect this work out well?
  2. Pedagogical Knowledge: This basically means knowledge about how to teach. This includes having a tool box of instructional routines and strategies that can be planned in advance or pulled out at the drop of a hat if the situation calls for it; the ability to assess students in ways that produce useful information for future lessons; the ability to design meaningful curriculum that builds upon what students already know in order to help advance them toward particular goals; the ability to facilitate whole group and small group discussions; the ability to manage a classroom of children or teenagers for an hour or more at a time; and the list could go on. While some might be more inclined toward teaching than others – possessing what Howard Gardner calls “pedagogical intelligence” – the knowledge about how exactly one should approach teaching is not something that people possess innately; it must be learned intentionally.
  3. Pedagogical Content Knowledge: This is different from just knowing how to teach, because it means knowing how to teach your content in particular, with attention to the common challenges of learning this content. The teaching of math varies widely from the teaching of English and benefits from distinctly different instructional strategies. Similarly, teaching Elementary students a range of subject matters, including teaching them to read, requires a different skill set than teaching high school students.
  4. Knowledge of Child and/or Adolescent Development: In order to understand the students before you, and design effective lessons to meet their needs, teachers need to have a strong understanding of the stages of cognitive, social, and emotional development through which their students are progressing. As most parents know, understanding what to expect from children at different ages is incredibly helpful when interacting with them.
  5. Ability to Differentiate Instruction: This often refers to learning how to teach English Language Learners and students with special educational needs, but could also refer to the ability to provide instruction that meets students at a number of different levels and lifts them all up. For example, in a single class, I had students labeled “Gifted and Talented,” others classified as “Limited English Proficient,” others with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for particular learning disabilities, and a variety of additional students with their own particular needs; I’m not sure I ever quite met everyone’s needs. Teachers need a great deal of knowledge and skill to differentiate effectively.
  6. Relational Knowledge: This is the focus of my dissertation and I will go into depth about this in future posts; but briefly, this refers to the ability to connect with students, learn about them, understand them as individuals with a unique collection of experiences and knowledge, design lessons around their interests that also support their individual needs, demonstrate care and advocate for them. This also means knowing how to effectively interact with parents/guardians, as well as colleagues and administrators.
  7. Cultural and Social Knowledge: In my dissertation, I include this within my framework for relational competencies, but it is worth separating here. You can’t teach students effectively unless you have some understanding of the cultural context of their home, as well as the social and cultural context surrounding the particular school and education in this country more generally. What outside forces are having influence over your students’ experiences within the classroom? Over 80% of the teaching force in the U.S. is white, while just over half of the student population is made up of people of color. So it’s especially important for teachers to acquire knowledge that better enables them to serve students who come from different backgrounds than they do.
  8. Ability to Teach to Standards: Teachers need to really understand the particular set of standards they are expected to teach. Whatever you think of standards (and I personally prefer the Common Core to the fragmented and nit-picky state standards that preceded it, but abhor the standardized testing associated with standards), they are a reality in schools today. And teaching to these standards takes a lot of preparation and “backwards planning” in order to design lessons that intentionally respond to such goals.
  9. Ability to Use Technology: Teachers need to understand how to use anything that their lessons call for or that their students will use in class – this includes PowerPoint, Excel, Word, iPads, document projectors, Smart Boards, etc. This seems trivial, but I can’t tell you how much class time I wasted fumbling around with stupid technology failures (that were probably my own failures to fully understand how to use these things).

So consider this list for a moment. Then multiply the difficulty level by 25. Or even 40 (yes, I had 40 students in a class one year). To cite David Cohen again, teaching is an especially challenging profession because unlike psychology or counseling where the professional in the room serves one person at a time, teachers must deal with many students all at once! The mind space that it takes to monitor, consider, and respond to everyone’s needs simultaneously is baffling.

But at least teachers only work 7 hours a day, right? No. Teachers often get to school an hour or more before the first bell rings, and stay and hour or more after school ends. Then, when they go home, they have to grade papers and plan for the next day. And sometimes respond to student emails/phone calls. When I was a teacher, I would say that I worked at least 60 hours a week. I barely had time to eat or sleep (which is probably why I weighed less than 95 pounds throughout my entire teaching career – bad, I know, but my sedentary graduate school lifestyle has fixed that!).

But teachers get summers off, right? Wrong. First of all, most of the teachers I know spend a good amount of their summer working, either by teaching summer school (because they need to supplement their inadequate pay) or planning for their upcoming school year. When I taught, I spent my “summers off” planning entirely new units for my classes the following year, reading books I planned to teach, learning new approaches to instruction, buying supplies for my classroom (with my own money) and writing grants to help fund the projects that I wanted to do. And in the few quiet summer moments when I wasn’t working, I really needed to rest in preparation for the following year. Teaching is truly hard work and it doesn’t end when the bell rings or the summer comes.

Honestly, I don’t think just anyone is cut out for teaching. Despite common opinion, not everyone can teach. I do, however, think that a lot more people could be adequately trained to teach effectively than are actually doing it. Because just like people can learn to become successful doctors or lawyers, they can learn to become effective teachers.

The next President of the United States should quit wasting time and money on “reforms” aimed at changing school policies, trumpeting school choice, or pushing new curriculum and standardized tests. While it might be easier, more popular, and possibly cheaper to try tinker at the margins of the system, we need to tackle the most fundamental component of the whole educational endeavor in order to make real change. We need better ways to recruit, train, and support teachers, because more and better teachers will uplift our whole society.


Some of the experiences/resources that have helped inform these ideas:

  • My experiences learning how to teach at UCLA’s Teacher Education Program and teaching in LAUSD
  • Much of Linda Darling-Hammond’s work, including Powerful Teacher Education and Preparing Teachers for a Changing World
  • Course and conversations with, as well as articles by, David Cohen
  • The book How People Learn (edited by Bransford, Brown & Cocking)
  • Sharon Feiman-Nemser’s Teachers as Learners
  • Geneva Gay’s Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • My advisor Jal Mehta and the project I worked on with him: http://www.totransformteaching.org/
  • A talk Howard Garner gave at HGSE on revisiting his Multiple Intelligence theory.