Highly skilled teachers?

Ready to learn, ready to teach.

Recruiting teachers at a higher level doesn’t necessarily mean  higher outputs, but it is still desirable.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in France, primary school teachers were recruited just after lower secondary. They followed a 2 years training course which made, all-in-all, slightly less than a full high school curriculum. Those teachers didn’t know much, but what they had to teach, they knew it pretty well. We remember Pagnol’s father looking at the alphabet perfectly written on the blackboard, and telling his apprehension to his son: “This is all my science. Will you despise your father, after completing your high school curriculum?”

Of course, sometimes, those teachers said stupid things, for instance about the church believing that the Earth was flat. But they were good in reading, in grammar, in calligraphy, in spelling and in calculation, which consituted the core of the primary school curriculum.

In lower secondary today, one can meet many teachers who don’t consider themselves as French teachers, but as literature teachers. It isn’t a bad thing to be knowledgeable in literature nor to teach it. But it’s absolutely essential to adapt one’s lessons to the actual needs of the pupils. Younger students need to read a lot, but they don’t really need to analyze the texts too much. It’s enough, if they understand the explicit meaning of them. They don’t need to recognize all the subtilities of the style, with a precise definition of the tropes and their greek names. On the other hand, they need to work on grammar, conjugation and vocabulary. Sadly enough, most of the students in 2nde (grade 10 or so) can’t even recognize the tenses in French, let alone use them properly in an essay. But during their younger years, they were taught a lot of complex things, such as “schéma actantiel”, or metonymies, that we still have to teach again, because they haven’t understood them. Each lesson has its time. Unfortunately, new teachers have their mind full of what they’ve learned at the university, not what they’ve learned in the lower grades. There is an effort of remembrance to be done, before you can teach.

Pride is a danger in any human activity. In the lower grades, the teachers will have to deal with messy handwritting, with discipline, and even corporal hygiene. They may have to judge important affairs over marbles or misunderstood insults. None of those tasks are beneath a true educator.

I’m not even talking about the bitterness and resentment of skilled people, who feel stuck in a low-paid ill-considered job. Nor am I telling you the despair of successful students who are suddenly unable to do anything good because they don’t know how to force teenagers to listen to them. Those new teachers are just not prepared to face a bitter reality, after having spent too much time in a protected environment.

Intellectuals have a tendency toward abstraction, which is precisely what can lead young pupils to misunderstand their lessons. Some teachers become prone to despise the trivial tasks like repetition, memorization, calligraphy or even spelling. In France, spelling is often called “a science for donkeys”, especially by high-ranking officers at the ministry of education or in our training institutes. As a consequence, many students in high school write so badly that it is barely possible to understand them. The level in spelling has dropped so low during the last three decades, that nobody bothers to deny it anymore. Officials rather pretend that this loss is compensated by some improvement in creativity or whatever.

Another issue, a very deep one, is doubt and leadership. Strangely enough, very intelligent people tend to be more indecisive than their more stupid counterparts. People with a high IQ know that there are several possibilities for any given problem, and that each of them has advantages and disadvantages. It can lead to inconsistencies and poor classroom management. People with lower IQ tend to have a more simple but also more efficient understanding of hierarchy.

Trying to create new stuff all the time is one of the biggest mistakes in teaching. By attempting to be very smart, some teachers fail to implement the routines required for a safe and effective learning. On the other hand, teachers with low academic level and poor imagination can sometimes be more efficient, because they rely consistantly on their manuals.

We need the best, in many respects!

Let’s be very clear. I am not saying it is better to be dumb. Unimaginative teaching is not necessarily better. It’s just safer. Very smart teachers are more likely to be very bad or very good. Teachers with goodwill and low academics are stuck on the average. What do we want for our children? Certainly not mediocrity.

There is a myth, that a good teacher can teach things he ignores himself. Here is the ground for such a myth: as a matter of fact, the learning process is complete only when the student has fully assimilated the knowledge. It’s like a digestion process. It’s not enough to fill the stomach. You must transform the food to make it a part of your own body. In the same way, the student must transform the lesson to make it a part of his own spirit. There are some methods to facilitate the digestion of intellectual food. You can even tell the students where to find food, and have them take it by themselves. Make them do a research, make them read. Ask a few questions to guide the learning process, for instance, the famous 5 W: who, where, when, why, how. Those approaches are good.

However, there are intrinsic limitations in them. Firstly, a teacher who makes the students work in the library doesn’t really teach unknown things. He simply relies on the skills and knowledge of other people, namely the authors of the books. A true research process, like those one can find in post-graduate studies, are very different. It goes at a very different pace, with relatively low chances of success on a daily basis, and amazing breakthroughs from time to time. That pace isn’t suitable for children or teenagers. Ordinary teaching is meant to save time by conjuring the wisdom of past exprimenters, not by clearing new path in the unknown. The effectiveness of the learning in the library relies much more on the quality of the books and other ressources than on the cleverness of the method itself, which is relatively easy.

Then, we can spot the main limitation. To be able to guide the students properly, the teacher has to check out the quality of the material and direct the students toward the good stuff. He also has to make assessments and to validate the intrepretations of the students. If the teacher doesn’t have enough knowledge on the subject, the student may well build impressive intellectual constructs, but on soft ground. The need for validation is especially important at the lower grades or at the start of any subject.

No professional training can fully compensate for a lack of solid academic background. As I told before, a consciencious teacher can be quite efficient without knowing much… as long as he sticks on a good manual. When it comes to creativity, he’s lost. If teaching was only about giving information, we’d need only a computer to play videos or to register the books borrowed at the library. It would be less expensive! But we need very smart and erudite teachers to deal with the unexpected. A teacher has to think well and fast.

We need complete teachers, able to think, but also to decide. Teachers who can aim high, but are ready to do all the dirty or boring job required to reach the goal. Teachers who are models of wisdom and intelligence, but are still able to discuss with sinners and ignorants. A very good engineer may design complex machinery on his computer, but he will gain respect, if he can put his hands in the dirty oil to show the good example to the workers. We need people who are able to do both.

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