Originally published in 2013; updated most recently in 2021
What Are The Fundamentals Of Teaching?
contributed by Justin Marquis, Ph. D
“Those who can’t do, teach.” –Anonymous
As someone with a teaching license who has also taught at the university level, I have always found this offhanded dismissal of educators at all levels offensive.
The comment reeks of someone who does not have the slightest inclination of how educators are trained or what they actually do. Beyond this general ignorance of the profession, there is a long-standing debate regarding what makes someone qualified to be a teacher, and more importantly, an excellent teacher. Some believe that years of real-world experience are needed. Others think that graduating from a teacher education program does the job. Still others think that simply passing a test is enough to demonstrate that someone is qualified.
A few even believe that public service, such as teaching, should be a mandatory requirement of all U.S. citizens regardless of their training or interests. There are as many opinions about what makes someone qualified to be a teacher as there are people to have those opinions. Perhaps the best place to start when considering what qualifies someone to be an educator is the simple debate between whether teachers should major in education or the subject they intend to teach?
The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the national teaching program evaluation organization, believes that both rich subject area knowledge and an understanding of how to teach are necessary for successful teaching. However, the logistics of balancing these two things is very challenging. As someone who teaches in a teacher education program, I know quite well that the basic requirements for obtaining a teaching license are so extensive that education students often have little time for electives or to study abroad, let alone for a second major in the subject area they intend to teach in. Further complicating this balancing act are elementary teachers who will teach four, five, or six subjects.
Do they need to major in English, science (which one?), history, mathematics, civics, and elementary education? Considering all of the skills and knowledge that a teacher needs prior to entering the classroom opens a window onto the complexity of this debate. Here is a look at the possible things teachers could learn before entering the classroom ranked in order of importance and a look at how this knowledge might be obtained.
1. How To Teach
I have ranked this first because it is the most undervalued, yet most valuable aspect of teaching. When I teach instructional design, I have fledgling designers explain how to tie a shoe.
That may sound easy, but ask someone to explain the process to you and do exactly, literally what they tell you and see how well the shoe gets tied. Instructing is an art and a science. It is about intangible feel for a situation melded with having a comprehensive view of where the learning should go and how to get there. It is both a process and constant evaluation of that process. And it is something that is taught in education classes. It is not, however, something that is taught or often even modeled in the general higher education classroom.
2. How To Learn
If you know how to teach and how to learn, you can teach almost anything given some time, motivation, and support. While there certainly are some things like quantum physics that someone with a general science education degree could not teach easily, there is very little that an educated individual, with a science background, could not teach in high school if given the resources and support to learn it. In fact, if you consider the constantly changing nature of most subjects in the 21st century, even those who major in a subject will need to be constantly learning new material throughout their careers. Knowing how to learn is an incredibly important skill for any teacher to possess.
3. What To Teach
Subject matter, at least the basics, is extremely important as that background knowledge forms the basis for all future learning in an area. Really, everyone should have a basic understanding of everything in order to function and contribute to our society, but, particularly in the Internet Age, having specific detailed knowledge of a subject is not necessary. For someone who can research and learn, and has the basic background in a subject, any specific topic that needs to be taught can be researched and, with some planning, taught effectively.
4. How To Design Instruction
Returning to the idea that knowing how to teach is more important than knowing what to teach, the design of sound lessons, enrichment activities, and evaluation pieces is a top-level skill that all educators should have and do develop in their area-specific educational methods classes.
5. How To Manage a Classroom
For anyone who has never taught, this may seem unimportant, but for those who have been on the front lines, knowing the skills of successfully navigating the minefields of a diverse, disinterested, sometimes hostile, student population is essential. This is an entire discipline of its own that includes elements of psychology, counseling, discipline, self-confidence training, and many other subtle arts.
6. How To Advocate For Students
In a world that increasingly devalues education and children’s importance in the world, knowing how to be an advocate for the individual child who comes to school hungry or for all the students in an under-funded classroom is a skill that is essential, but seldom taught in any program. Most often it is something that must be learned on the fly, as issues are encountered, but could be taught as part of teacher education.
7. How To Advocate For Themselves
Teachers are constantly beaten down by a society that does not understand what they do, the challenges that they face, or the requirements and chores that have been forced on them. Between accountability for students who are failing and the need to teach personal hygiene and advocate for students with home life problems, teachers most often keep their mouths shut and take everything that is forced on them. They rarely, if ever, advocate for themselves, despite a strong union and the misperception that they are coddled.
Don’t forget that many teacher strikes are about unequal educational opportunities for the students, not teacher perks. This is a skill that would benefit not only teachers but also their students and education as a whole.
8. How To Engage Parents In The Learning Process
One of the most important contributors to student success is parental involvement in the learning process. The best teachers instinctively reach out to parents and know how to draw them into a conversation about their child’s learning. Too many educators do not, and this is a skill that is rarely taught at all in teacher education programs and definitely not elsewhere.
9. How To Obtain Funding For Basic Classroom Needs
Much like advocating for their students, teachers need to know that there are opportunities available outside of the normal channels for acquiring supplies, technology, and expert contributions to the classroom. Grant writing, schmoozing, and fundraising are all activities that are not customarily thought of as pertaining to teachers, but with continuing educational funding cuts, someone needs to provide the resources that can enrich student learning and prepare them for the 21st Century, if society and politicians are going to neglect their responsibility to do so.
10. How To Inspire And Motivate Learners
This probably should have been further up the list, but it rounds it out nicely as a skill that is inherent for some educators, but one that is also taught in teacher prep programs. It is also a skill that can’t be overvalued in a society where many people do not see the value of education and are not interested in being engaged.
Looking back over this list, it is clear to me that teacher preparation for the classroom should be exactly that – teacher education, or teaching people to be teachers. Digital and social media–and our rapidly evolving society–make most subject matter that could be learned as a major, outdated by the time the new teacher would get to apply it anyway. It is better to teach our teachers how to teach and how to learn for themselves than it is to teach them a finite amount of information that is quickly outdated.
Our teachers need to be cutting-edge thinkers and learners, instructional designers, child advocates, activists, politicians, and motivational speakers. Many have these qualities naturally, but teacher education programs can, or should aim to cultivate them in the next generation of educators.