Be it before you teach it…

I am sitting here researching and updating my presentation for the root cellar tours that I will be doing when I volunteer next week at Old Sturbridge Village.  That’s right, if you want to know anything about root cellars in early 19th Century New England, I’m the man.  As I was interpreting a diary I began to think…

If you attend the tech school in my district and want to be a plumber, you are taught by plumbers.  If you want to be a cook, you are taught by chefs.

If you go to the traditional high school in town and you want to be a writer, you are taught by someone who was taught how to teach writing.  If you want to be a historian you are taught by someone who was taught how to teach history.  You are usually not taught by a writer, a practicing historian, a scientist, or a mathematician.

Can teachers teach their “subject” without practicing it?

How can someone teach kids to write creatively if they never do any creative writing?  How can someone teach their kids to do critical research with primary sources if they never do it themselves?  I’m wondering if we could improve teaching not by hiring better “teachers,” but by hiring better mathamaticians, historians, scientists, and writers.

We could worry less about teaching, and more about showing.  Not only will the kids learn by example, but they will see real world applications of the skills and knowledge that we are telling them is important.  Is it easier to make a scientist a teacher, or a teacher a scientist?

I have been following a lot of debate on twitter this weekend on “changing schools.”  Staying out of it today I kind of aquired a new perspective.  In trying to make schools better are we like bakers trying to make a better apple pie.  The only problem is, all they have are blueberries.  Instead of working on the blueberries, maybe they should just go out and get appples.  Could changing schools be as simple as that?


  1. Paul, you ask “I’m wondering if we could improve teaching not by hiring better “teachers,” but by hiring better mathematicians, historians, scientists, and writers.” Well, not all mathematicians, historians, scientists and writers that I know would make good teachers. But I think you’re absolutely right about the need for teachers to practise what they teach. The first thing I reckon all teachers should do is be a reflective learner, as you so obviously are. I’ve loved reading your posts, and the way you keep linking your life experiences with your teaching. Teachers should be researchers (if they teach research), and writers (if they teach writing), and readers (it’s interesting how many aren’t readers), and so on.

    1. This Steve is right, it’s not as simple as just going out any picking any old apple for your pie, there are many varieties and not all are appropriate. I’ll stop the food analogy and just affirm that I agree 🙂 Practice what you teach and you won’t have to preach.

    2. I am a first grade teacher with my primary responsiblitiy being getting my students in one short year to be fluent readers & writers along with basic math skills, social & life skills. I am amazed at how many teachers in early childhood do not have any passion for reading themselves! But then we’ve all meet teachers who don’t enjoy children. So much of teaching is communicating effectively, motivating, and enticing a thirst for learning; not all people have those skills. I still hold that teaching, at it’s best, is an art. Investing in your craft is a continual process for comitted professionals.

  2. I’m not sure on this one. I had a high school teacher and quite a few professors who were experts in their field but I didn’t learn from them. They didn’t know how to explain or teach me how to do what they could do. They could show it to me in their sleep but that wasn’t at all helpful to me. I know what you are saying, but I’m not sure which side of the fence to lean on.

    1. Elissa, that’s why I think it’s good for teachers to take a class here and there about a subject they know nothing so they can feel like their students do.

      I also agree with Paul, though, that teachers should DO what they teach. I like to go out into the world and work some so I can bring those lessons back to class. Otherwise, I get too stale.

  3. This is exactly my argument on professionalism in public education. Teachers need to be active in some way in their profession. When I was interviewing for jobs, I highlighted the publications area of my resume and explained that I actively write as much as possible. They didn’t seem to care as much about that as they did about other things, which made me sad. Even if it’s just a blog or journal, I think writing (as someone who teaches writing) should be expected. If you have the experience of working professionally in at least some capacity, then the question of application (when am I gonna use this!?) goes away a lot easier.

  4. Would love make a comment on this post and how it relates to teaching my digital media students, but I’m too busy right now. Have to do some designs for my wife’s cake business and also finish editing some video that I shot this weekend.

  5. @ Paul
    Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. A teacher entering the field with a depth of human experience in their area of expertise obviously has more to offer. Transferring that knowledge and passion effectively takes some pedagogical training.

    Having worked my entire career in private schools – where certification requirements are certainly less stringent – I’ve seen it go both ways.

    I’d have to say in all honesty some of my best teachers came to the profession after careers in their discipline. Having a former lawyer teach a class on legal issues and the supreme court is of value.

    On the other side some of these non-teacher trained folks revert to their last individual formal educational setting which results in non-stop lecturing. The good ones learn quickly from their peers.

    1. I just had a conversation over at another blog about direct instruction versus project based learning. Too many people think direct instruction is standing up and lecturing and too many think PBL is turning a kid loose with no information or structure to go do something. Both viewpoints are wrong. A good teacher knows how to mix it up, and often that is a teacher who has been out doing something else besides teaching.

      1. This is true, too many times people only see the black and white of this issue. It’s always better to combine the two and tap into the bloom levels that each does well at reaching separately.

  6. Lots of good, thought-provoking comments here. I have to wonder how this works at the elementary level. We teach everything there, so what’s the best preparation for that?

    I always want there to be quick and easy answers in education. If hiring historians to teach history would work, I’d love it. Sadly, as usual, I think there is no one easy answer. Some historians are fabulous teachers, others are dull as dirt and unable to communicate effectively in a classroom. Teaching requires a pretty wide range of skills.

    1. You have to be really smart and highly energetic to teach elementary kids, as well as be able to do all those bulletin boards. That’s why I am not qualified, and I would never begin to tell an elementary teacher how to do it.

      1. Do you have to be “really smart and energetic,” or just be able to focus the energy and smarts of the kids?
        I was originally an elementary ed major, my wife taught elementary school, and my kids are now in elementary school. I think at that level there is the most “overteaching” than any other level. It seems everything is done by the teachers. That creates a learned helplessness that is so prevalent in middle school.

        1. So true! I am in the continual process of guiding my 1st grade parents away from that “learn helplessness” and towards allowing children to do everything they can do for themselves; a collaborative self-care. I apply that same principle in the day-to-day life of the classroom.

    2. I wondered about my wording in the post…should have written something more like Social Studies teachers that are historians, Science teachers who are scientists.

      I also know that teachers who were really good at their subject usually suck at teaching it because they can’t get into the head of anyone who has trouble understanding it.

  7. I believe today hiring many of these other professionals is happening in the public schools. Many of them are losing their jobs and need work so they turn to teaching. I have had the chance to work with a few or attend college classes with them Some are natural teachers, others need lots of work. Not everyone is made to understand the material so well as to teach it. To break concepts down into small chunks. Like in reading we have phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Would an editor or avid reader know how to teach second graders those concepts automatically? I would think not. Teachers go to school to learn these building blocks to learning, not only that, they do it for years and years learning first hand how little minds work. To discount that would be ridiculous.

    1. I have had a bit of experience being able to view the work of “second career” teachers. I found that they tend to be the least progressive and tend to teach most like they were taught decades before. I still worry that my kids are being taught to learn how to write for the real world by people who do not write themselves, are being taught how to “be” scientists by folks who don’t actually have any interest in science.

      Thanks for the comment!!

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