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Can You Teach Anything?

  • Written by Kris Nielsen
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I remember working through my third year of teaching school at New Mexico Highlands University when I encountered a philosophy, which haunts me to this day.  After running a lesson for a middle school math class, with my supervisor and the regular teacher observing, I had a short feedback conference with both.  After our short conversation, the regular math teacher offered her background.  Out of nowhere.

She explained that she was actually qualified in science and computers, but taught math because this class–the one I had just taught–was an extra class that no one else wanted.  She said that even though she wasn’t qualified in math, she strongly believed that “any good teacher can teach any subject, even one that you know nothing about.”

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“So you can teach advanced photonics, too?”

A little shaken up, I went to class that evening (I don’t remember which one) and asked my instructor about this.  She said, “Sure, you can teach anything with a textbook, worksheets, some videos…you know what I mean?”  I guessed I did.  It still smelled funny to me, though.  For instance, I hate Shakespeare.  I really do.  I’ve never made it through reading any of his work without falling asleep, and I find it all dreadfully outdated and totally unnecessary*.  Yet, according to the logic put forth that day, I could totally teach a whole semester of Shakespeare!  All I would I need are a bunch of Shakespeare books and to borrow some worksheets and tests from teachers who actually like that stuff.

Right?

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*Maybe he just needs a little bit of modern flair.

So, anyway, I didn’t buy it.  And as I’ve gone through the school years teaching and learning, I’ve decided that there is a balance that must be met to be successful at making your students successful.  I’m assuming that by “good teacher,” my colleagues actually meant that if you are a “learning specialist,” you can get kids to learn just about anything.  I’m also assuming that they were trying to say that being a “content specialist” is mostly meaningless.  Needless to say, I disagree with what they said.

A couple of years ago, I was chosen from a candidate pool of middle school math teachers that was 83 people strong.  I was the only one chosen for the position because of one thing (and I quote my principal): I “showed great passion for making math accessible and fun and achievable.”  I think you have to be both a learning specialist anda content specialist to be able to accomplish fun, accessible, and achievable lessons.

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My interview attire

To be a learning specialist, you have to have more than the materials necessary to learn–you have to understandhow your students learn.  If my colleagues believe (and practice) what they said, then they were, by no means, learning specialists.  Middle school students are social animals.  Most of them (but not all) hate sitting alone and learning stuff from an adult (or textbook, worksheet, or video).  Give them the choice to learn from each other, and almost all of them will pick that over loner-learning any day of the week–and it will work, too!  They will learn, and most of the time, they’ll be happy about it!  Textbooks, worksheets, videos, and individual practice don’t work for these kids.  They want to collaborate and they want to do it all the time.

It’s important to be a content specialist, too.  Without the deep knowledge of the subject, how can you possibly tell when your students are reaching their achievement goals?  How can you possibly tell when they’re learning?  Besides, sometimes, it’s just fun to show off how smart you are in front of them.  It’s fun for me and mind-boggling for them.  There’s nothing wrong with showing off once in a while.  I do it to show them that the really hard and confusing stuff is fun for me, and more often than you’d think, they tell me later that they can’t wait to be able to do that stuff.

No, a “good teacher” can’t teach any subject.  In my individually-formed definition, a good teacher is a true learning specialist, who knows how his students learn and use new information, as well as a content specialist, who has deep knowledge and love for the subject.

I’ll never teach a Shakespeare course, because I’m not a content specialist.  Personally, I’d rather undergo an appendectomy a day.  The important thing is to recognize that I could never teach Shakespeare, not because of the pain it would cause me, but because of the pain it would cause my students.

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“Friends, countrymen, etc., etc., lend me your ears, for parting is such sweet sorrow. Was that the bell?”

I sincerely hope that the colleges and universities around this nation aren’t spreading this terrible idea anymore.  For the sake of the kids.

 

This Article Submitted By: Kris Nielsen - Middle Level Specialist from North Carolina