This essay originally appeared in educational Horizons, 70,3 (Spring 1992)

The Classroom Teacher:Who Wants Experts?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

 

 

"Education is a weapon whose effect depends
on who holds it in his hands and who is struck with it."-- Joseph Stalin
RETURN
edited 4/3/12

Should each teacher be an expert? It all depends. Let's assume we are talking about teachers, who, because of their knowledge and skills, actually cause the learning they intend. In the minds of some, such truly expert teachers would have a potential for disruption. They could affect the demand for goods and services. If they convince their students not to smoke or to watch less TV, in the long run they might undermine whole industries. Students might come to figure out, for example, that any 3% solution of sodium hypochlorite is as good a bleach as -- not to mention cheaper than -- the Clorox the actors in the ads can't do without. They might even come to realize that their sex appeal is not greatly enhanced by imbibing quantities of Coke or Pepsi, or by paying twice as much money for designer labels sewn conspicuously on their clothing. Profits might fall and jobs be lost.

In addition, truly expert teachers would be in a position to communicate radical ideas that might "weaken the social order." In short, the more expert teachers are, the greater the possibility for both economic and social upheaval. So many people might want to forget about developing their expertise. It is safer to let them muddle along and leave the real world to its own devices.

From another point of view, teachers are a potential for good. Not only may teachers affect the demand for goods and services, creating new economic opportunities, they are in a position to introduce our children to innovative ideas. It is in school, for example, that children learn to use and to expect access to publicly funded libraries. Also what teachers teach kids might prepare the way for what many understand to be needed social reform. The more expert teachers are, the greater the possibility for both economic and social renewal. So those who desire change must be concerned to develop such expertise. Such persons would see the time to be long past when we can permit them to merely muddle along.

From either of these perspectives, it seems that truly expert teachers can greatly influence society at large. But expert teaching will not be perceived to serve everyone's interests equally well. So the real problem with experts -- of any kind -- is whether they can be trusted. And by whom?

Being an expert teacher is not merely being an expert. There is a moral dimension to teaching children that it is critical not to overlook. In the economic sphere, markets are morally indifferent to the products offered in them. In politics, too, the ends often justifies the means. One's repute as a good investment broker or political adviser is seldom diminished by misgivings about one's morality. However, in education, moral concerns are of the essence. "He's a good teacher, but rather immoral!" is almost an oxymoron, particularly as schoolchildren are involved.

To judge from our popular culture alone, there seems to be widespread consensus on this matter. Think of immensely popular movies such as To Sir With Love, or Stand and Deliver. Here the virtues portrayed are not so much those of a pedagogical technician as those of an individual of moral stature. In movies such as Teachers, or The Karate Kid, teachers or coaches who teach dishonesty or foul play get their deserved comeuppance. TV programs such as Head of the Class or Davis Rules reinforce these images. That good teaching incorporates a moral component indicates both a direction for defining teacher expertise and the inadequacy of some present-day programs of teacher education. Teacher education cannot be merely a matter of developing pedagogical technicians. It must also be a process that helps teachers articulate and enhance the moral dimensions of the teaching enterprise.

Sometimes it is an uphill battle. A school-teacher colleague of mine was hired part-time by a major university to teach a course in philosophy of education. He was told that what he could do for their soon-to-be graduated education majors was to help them understand the value basis of educational decision. My colleague took great pains to pose to these college students the real problems he faced in his daily work as a middle school teacher.

His efforts were met with considerable consternation. Was school-teaching really this problematic? Why bother with the moral issues? Why weren't they told about these things at the beginning of their professional program rather than at the end? Why weren't there simple answers?

Some students complained. The department head called my colleague in and told him that he was upsetting too many students by exposing them to "the real world." His course was meant to be icing on the cake and not to be taken too seriously. It was important to maintain enthusiasm. Truth, reality, ...they were not quite so important.

Where wishful thinking takes precedence over the pursuit of truth, however problematic that pursuit may be, the ethical foundations of teaching are undermined. It is immoral to demand of one's students what one will not do oneself. Every first grader knows that. One of the most important results of education, observed Thomas Huxley, is the ability to face unpleasant facts. By this measure, some prospective teachers are not being well-educated.

Various technical occupations can be performed by the ethically indifferent. But the moral substrata of good teaching require those who would claim expertise to exhibit certain virtues. They must show not only pedagogical expertise, but the recognition that the moral issues at the heart of education are no mere matter of that expertise.

Not the least important virtue is the willingness to purge one's enthusiasms of self-deception. It is unfortunate that in the United States most public discussions of education and schooling are liberally larded with wishful thinking. Teachers should leave such discussion to the pundits who confuse America 2000 with educational planning. Teachers have to focus on possible realities and make the most of them.

Start at the beginning. Teacher, know thyself.

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