A Monopoly on ’Relating to Children’?: Teacher Certification Further Refuted

Terrence Moore

February 1, 2006

Whenever anyone even questions the efficacy and legitimacy of teaching certification as a requirement for public-school teachers, he is confronted with a host of objections, most of them coming from teachers’ unions or teachers themselves insecure about their own intellectual inadequacies. Yet there are a few well-meaning people who actually take these objections seriously, so they must be considered. The first objection is that prospective teachers who have not been certified will not know how to "relate to kids." This argument is stated in various ways. "Today’s kids are really different and have various needs," say the educrats. "Teachers must know different ways of motivating them." Or, "you can’t just be smart and know your content area; kids can’t always relate to that." Such catch phrases are used to justify the numerous classes in pedagogy and childhood development required for certification and to produce a stereotype of the merely intelligent graduate of the arts or sciences as being an absent-minded egghead who would aim too far above the heads of today’s children. A closer look at the particulars of this defense of teacher certification will show not only that certified teachers do not have a monopoly on being able to relate to kids but are very often the people least able to do so.

The educrats are at least pretty astute in their propaganda. If children are different nowadays than in the past, then certainly a new science of pedagogy and childhood development is needed to deal adequately with them. Yet children are not different. True, there are inner-city high schools in which students carry knives and form themselves into gangs. Nothing like that’s ever happened in the past! Unless, of course, you have actually studied the past and know that in Augustine’s time a group of young thugs in Carthage called "the wreckers" used to break into schoolrooms and disrupt lectures. Pedagogy is no match for those situations, anyway; only martial law could help. The majority of teachers whose schools are not in the inner city, however, face the same sort of students and the same sort of problems that teachers have faced for centuries.

Consider, for example, an eighteenth-century schoolmaster named Alexander Adam. One of the most celebrated teachers of his day, head of perhaps the most "elite" school in enlightened Edinburgh, Adam is probably most remembered through his most famous pupil, the novelist Walter Scott. According to another accomplished literary Scotsman, Henry Cockburn, Adam taught "Latin, some Greek, and all virtue." Now here surely was a teacher and schoolmaster who had only the most affluent, astute, and willing children under his care. Anyone who goes through Adam’s papers will find a different story. Among those papers is a note to the headmaster from another teacher with a fishhook through it. A boy had taken more interest in this fishhook than the lecture (probably on Latin grammar) and had to be sent out of class. Imagine that! A boy wanting to fish more than parse Latin sentences. Another letter is from a mother who wanted to have tea one afternoon with Mr. Adam so she could explain the nuances of her child’s behavior. The collection also contains notes Adam wrote to himself while visiting the classes of other masters. One reveals both the unique seating arrangement of eighteenth-century schools and the level of the students’ preparation on that day: "No boy could explain the rule, from the fool to Hinton Spalding, 7th from the top." Still another letter is from a member of the community pleading with Adam not to allow the boys to carry guns to the school since in their antics after school they might put out a boy’s eye or worse. Boys wanting to play more than be in school, mothers attributing their children’s behavior to some special circumstances, students unprepared for their lessons, boys playing with guns: has school or has human nature really changed much over time? Remember that William Golding while writing Lord of the Flies was a schoolteacher at a British grammar school. He knew his pupils.

The fact is human nature and students have not changed over time. What has changed is the claim that today’s students are so different and need new and different methods of education "to motivate them," methods over which education schools supposedly have a complete monopoly. In the past, children who did not pay attention were punished. Nowadays, entire university departments and schools are devoted to finding whiz-bang ways of "reaching them." The old-fashioned idea of a teacher (called a master, implying both authority in the classroom and mastery of the material) knowing his subject and insisting that children learn that subject cold has become entirely passé. Recall that a century ago the great promise of Dewey and the other progressives was that children would never be bored again in school. Following the upbeat view of children and human nature found in Rousseau, the progressives held that students would be so fascinated with the perfectly "integrated" and "relevant" lessons of teachers trained in the science of pedagogy that they would take to their lessons as fish to water, whereas in the past, according to the progressives, students’ "creativity" had been stifled by "rote" lessons in grammar and history. A century later, we see the results: students who have never been more bored and learned less in school.

If human nature, and therefore children’s nature, has not changed fundamentally, then the new science of pedagogy (studied not through the great philosophers and novelists but through mind-numbing textbooks) can hardly be the only road one must travel to learn how to "relate to" or to "motivate" children. In fact, common sense tells us that many people are able to teach and to discipline children without spending even a minute in education schools. My son’s baby-sitter, who is sixteen, relates to kids really well, and yet she has not been to ed school. She has worked in the nursery and with youth groups at her church. A graduate of our school who is paying her way through college serves as the second-in-command, as it were, in our after-school care. And yet she’s pursuing a degree in literature. Another of our graduates, working on a degree in biology, serves as a teachers’ assistant and is doing a wonderful job of helping the students in math and reading groups and grading stacks of papers. And what about all those church and camp counselors around the nation who have never taken an education class; how did they learn to "relate to kids"? Must mothers and fathers go to education school before they know how to raise their children? The fact of the matter is that most individuals who want to be teachers will have worked with young people in some capacity and hardly need to go to ed school to demonstrate to a school principal whether they would be able to teach and to discipline children.

Furthermore (and this is a point the educrats hate to hear), some people are just naturally good with young people, charismatic we might say, and are therefore natural teachers. One of the biggest assets to any teacher, or for that matter to any public speaker, is a sense of humor. Even the best students can find a difficult text pretty dry sometimes and therefore welcome the teacher’s ability to drive a point home with a witty remark. Do education schools claim to teach a sense of humor? Can humor even be taught? The ability to teach is partly a function of what one knows and partly a function of one’s personality. Education schools do not teach content (unless bad content such as whole-language learning) and cannot teach personality, which is a product of one’s nature and upbringing.

Finally, the whole objection that merely intelligent people cannot relate to children shows just how silly we have become about childhood and adolescence. The purpose of education is to turn children into thinking adults. The undue worry that smart people will not be able to "relate to kids" simply exposes the current, absurd notions that children cannot be treated as and asked to reason as adults-in-the-making and that teachers must themselves have the intellect and personality of a juvenile.

What we do know is that there are plenty of certified teachers nowadays who cannot relate to kids precisely because they do not understand the intellectual needs of children and adolescents. The education schools claim that students these days have to be "motivated." The students themselves complain about being "bored." The biggest complaint of students nowadays is not "my teacher is really smart but doesn’t know how to teach" but rather "my teacher doesn’t know anything except for the textbook." Given how watered-down textbooks have become, that is a telling critique. Why then all this talk of motivation and boredom? Precisely because the ed-school monopoly sends the least curious and least knowledgeable people at the university into the nation’s classrooms equipped only with the tools of false motivation and gimmicks. The students, especially once they become teenagers, see right through it. Yet the more bored students become and the less they learn, the more the educrats call for more training in pedagogy and whiz-bang teaching techniques. Then the educrats cover their tracks by letting no one teach in the schools who merely knows his subject and has a true rapport with children based on their desire to learn and his desire to teach. The failure of the certified teachers’ methods becomes the justification for more training and research in those methods. The educrats do manage to teach one thing to parents and to the press, however: their chorus of "certified teachers good, uncertified teachers bad."

If you want an in-depth look at what really goes on in schools of education, there are two books you should read: Rita Kramer’s Ed School Follies and, even better, George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Terrence O. Moore is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and the principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado. This column is the second of a series on teacher certification.