How Teachers are Taught – A Crash Course on Colleges of Education

While many of my colleagues were kind, supportive, and inspiring, their complacency along with the  decisions made from the top-down left me feeling concerned and anxious. Substantive questions were never asked during the bureaucratic boondoggles we teachers were frequently subjected to: equity trainings, anti-bullying programs, social emotional learning seminars, etc. By the end of most professional developments, I was left pondering, “How does a place that prides itself in cultivating critical thinking, avoid any opportunity to actually practice it themselves? 

I feel as though a lot of the general public are unaware of just how teachers are trained. Sure, you’ll occasionally hear a funny joke about the failures of the public school system, but it’s hard to hear any specific criticism of how the system runs. From my experiences of just telling people that I was an elementary school teacher, people would always respond with praise and support. They would proclaim my bravery and courage for taking on such a vocation. Perhaps the most common comment I would receive, was something along the lines of, “You should be paid more!”.

It became clear to me that teachers have an infallible, almost angelic image, in the eyes of the general public. Of course I appreciated their kind words, but it was really hard to actually soak in the compliments. I believe those types of exchanges can lead teachers, and more importantly the people who train them, away from asking critical questions.

This results in complacency within public school institutions. Why improve our methods, when everyone says we’re doing just fine as is? Let’s keep our process the same, and instead, just keep asking for more money and more resources. I believe the general public should be informed on just how teachers are instructed, for it could provide some insight into the mediocre product that we are witnessing in many schools.

First of all, it’s important to disclose that I live in California. There are many paths towards getting a teaching credential, and paths aren’t exactly similar from state to state. I will just be speaking about the path I chose, which was: attending the College of Education at San Jose State for 3 semesters, in order to attain a masters degree with a teaching credential.

To preface my analysis of teacher college, I’m going to share an excerpt from Inside American Education by Thomas Sowell. I didn’t read this book until about a year and a half after leaving the program, and as I read it, I realized how accurate it was to describing my student experience. The book was published back in 1993, and it baffles me how relevant it is to this day.

Thomas Sowell opens the book by making the argument that public schools are incentivized to operate as a monopoly—they want as many students going to their schools, and their schools only. They don’t want students going to private, charter, or even home schools. He adds that this fear of competition stems from the “low levels of substantive intellectual ability among public school teachers and administrators, and among the professors of education who taught them.”.

To bolster the point of low intellectual ability, Sowell states that “…hard data on education student qualifications have consistently shown their mental test scores to be at or near the bottom among all categories of students. This was true of studies done in the 1920s and 1930s as of studies in the 1980s. Whether measured by Scholastic Aptitude Tests, ACT tests, Vocabulary Tests, reading comprehension tests, or Graduate Record Examinations, students majoring in education have consistently scored below the national average.”.

Sowell quotes Martin Mayer’s assessment of Colleges of Education and how it contributes negatively to public school classrooms. This is the last excerpt I’ll share:

“Most education courses are not intellectually respectable, because their teachers and the textbooks are not intellectually respectable.” In short, some of the least qualified students, taught by the least qualified professors in the lower quality courses supply most American public school teachers. There are severe limits to how intellectual their teaching could be, even if they wanted it to be. Their susceptibility to fads, and especially to non-intellectual and anti-intellectual fads, is understandable.

I have to be honest, I would definitely be in that group of low test scores Sowell was referencing. Sure I didn’t enroll in a college of education until grad school, but let’s just say I’m pretty sure I got into Marquette for my undergrad, with a little help from affirmative action. I do have some disagreements with what Sowell and Mayer said, but I couldn’t deny that I saw glimpses of it during my classes. And no, I was not sitting in teacher school thinking “everyone here is dumb except for me”.  Instead, I was sitting there and noticing the class material, not in its content, but more so, in its lack of difficulty.  The material, and the classes structured around it, for a Masters Degree, surprisingly didn’t require much thinking.

Classes in teacher college are dry and unengaging. I personally love taking notes, and when the program began, I had my pencil and paper ready to go. As classes progressed, I realized that I didn’t need to write much because a lot of the lessons seemed to follow common sense. For example, I was not compelled to write down that shaming a child in class is not a good idea. That seemed obvious to me.

A much more engaging alternative to that specific example, would be a class discussion on whether or not there is value in shaming. I’m not talking of corporal punishment of course,  but a class should be able to deliberate on the idea that if you never shame a child, how can they register that they have done something wrong? Or, if you do have to shame a child, is there a productive and ethical way to go about it?

What I’m trying to say is that that type of conversation, never happened during the duration of the whole program. Many class discussions would involve a lot of ego stroking, like stating how important our role is as teachers in a child’s life. About 70% of what is given to aspiring teachers , is framed based around the professor’s politics.

Most of the classes consisted of them giving Power point presentations, and their PowerPoints, would be subtly woven through with their political ideologies. As a result of this, the class discussions are heavily sanitized. You won’t have debates or hearty discussions over the practicality of certain ideas. It’s more so, we know the response that the professor is looking for, let’s just say it to them, and then we will be able to go home.

This environment, where the professor is basically giving  their views of the world and presenting it as facts, creates what I call the “good student problem”. A good student is someone who responds exactly with what the teacher is looking for, never challenges the teacher’s thinking, never asks questions that inconvenience their own individual thoughts, and just sets about to please the teacher by all means. The sad thing about all this, is that with the way school is set up, that’s a reliable strategy to get an A. But no matter what the marks on a report card say, the truth is that that is not learning.

What you’ll see in the classrooms,  because of these sanitized, dry, and unengaging environments, is a lot jadedness. It was common to see people, including myself at times, on Amazon or checking sports scores. And overall I can’t blame them, because there was no real contemplation in regards to what we were doing within the institution of public schools.

The work given to aspiring teachers is largely irrelevant and time consuming. This is perhaps the only aspect that serves as an argument in favor of teacher schools. They do prepare you for teaching… by getting you ready for the bombardment of paperwork coming your way the second you actually become a teacher. The questions that are asked on assignments are not thought provoking.

If the assignment does not ask you questions, they will ask you for a reflection. However, it is not really a reflection, it is more of a report. They don’t actually want to know what you think about an experience and what you can do about it. They just want a paper trail that shows you were in a classroom and you talked about school.  Overall,  none of the work is difficult, it is just the volume of wasteful activity that will break you down. The challenge is not in the material—it’s in the workload. Your patience is what is tested the most.

I’ll end by sharing this last piece of information. This fact is what leaves me so conflicted about my experience of becoming a teacher: I liked a lot of my professors in the program. I lived 45 minutes from campus, and although I was displeased with how they conducted their classes, I still made an effort to attend their office hours or to  speak with them outside of class. I did this because I wanted to let them know that, despite disagreeing with some of their cultural philosophies, I still respected them. And from these many conversations, I just left feeling that it was such a shame that I could manage to learn so much more from talking to my professors in 30 minutes, than I could from attending their entire 2 hour class.

I started this article with that Thomas Sowell excerpt because it is rare to hear criticism of public schools, while in teacher school. Actually, it is rare to hear criticism even when you’re out in the field as a full time teacher. Instead, you’ll often hear that external forces are the reason public schools are not thriving: racism, other non-public schools, the rich, government frugality, etc.  To me, the fact that  I had fruitful conversations with the same professors that lead these misguided classes, serves as evidence that the potential of public schools is there, but it’s just dormant.

I believe this is because of our own complacency. Instead of looking in the mirror, making self-assessments, and ultimately adapting ourselves, some public school institutions, insist on ignoring their accountability, belaboring external forces, and grandstanding with their politics. As a result, there are a lot of schools that end up committing onto themselves the same act they commit onto their students: squandering inherent potential.

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