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Friday, February 19, 2010

Education Professors: Blind Leading the Blind?

I don't know about you, but my education students have often groused about what they perceive as the lack of teaching experience among those tasked to teach them how to teach. Every term, after my self introduction, my students come and tell me how happy they are to finally have a professor with significant teaching experience. But my students are only speculating. Perhaps they surmise a lack of experience because their other professors do not claim any when they introduce themselves.

On the other hand, I found myself also often speculating. I would listen to my colleagues and shake my head. Once I checked all the online resumes of my colleagues in the education department. I was disappointed. Most of my fellow education professors lacked what I would consider significant teaching experience. Maybe they spent some time as a guest in an elementary or secondary classroom for the purpose of completing a thesis or dissertation. But real, in-the-trenches experience? Not there. I mean, the kind of experience where you are held responsible for the academic achievement of anywhere from 20 to 180 students at a time while receiving no administrative support and routinely suffering the indignation of having your professional judgment undermined, because as everyone knows, US teachers are no good. The experience of maintaining classroom control in difficult circumstances. The experience of being called a professional while expected to teach from a scripted, “teacher-proof” curriculum.

Most of my colleagues had never really taught students. For many years afterwards, I wondered if my university was unique, or if the lack of teaching experience is a common characteristic across the board, anywhere in the country. I knew conducting such a study would be difficult. Department chairs would be unlikely to grant me access to curricula vita, the fancy academic term for resumes. I did not want to conduct a survey. Respondents self-select, and I was not sure I would be able to trust the data. Respondents often try to tell you what they think you want to hear, or what will reflect positively on them.

I made an attempt to find resumes online, just as I had for my own university, but the results were sparse. Intermittently I repeated the attempt. In November 2009, I finally felt I got enough hits in my Google search to take a random sample. I did not include myself even though I have decades of teaching experience. I could have collected data from hundreds of resumes, but after seventy I got tired. It seemed I had more than enough. A clear picture was emerging.

A full 25 out of 70 resumes had no teaching experience listed. However, I cannot positively conclude that the professor had no significant teaching experience, only that there was none listed. It is possible the professor omitted it from the resume. People often leave earlier job experiences off resumes in favor of more recent experience. If I were looking at typical one-to-two page resumes, omission of early experience is perfectly sensible---except these online resumes were very long and detailed. They can run to ten pages or more, and list every conference or workshop ever attended, every publication even if only a letter to an editor, and evidently, every education job ever held.

I can only speculate why so many professors of education neglect to list any teaching experience. The most ready conjecture is that professors who list no teaching experience actually have none. But in the interest of being fair, I will only go so far as to say 36% of education professors did not list teaching experience. I did not count what appeared to be short-term guest appearances or student-teaching experience. Many of the professors who did have significant teaching experience had never been student-teachers. The student-teaching requirement is actually fairly recent. I, myself, with 35 years of teaching experience have never been a student teacher.

Another 26% either did not specify the number of years teaching or taught three years or less. In fact, a mere two years is the most common number for years of experience, accounting for 9 out of 70 resumes. Therefore, a total of 43 education professors (61%) our of 70 have little or no significant teaching experience. Furthermore, what teaching experience there is tends to be very old. Thirty professors have not taught for twenty years or more. Only five had teaching experience within the present century.

The big surprise was that my random sample turned up two very famous and well-published education professors. One had zero experience listed; the other taught high school math for two years in the early seventies. I have greatly appreciated the published insights of both of these professors over the years, and have cited them liberally during my long career. Clearly their lack of “significant” teaching experience has been no disadvantage to them. It makes me wonder how important experience really is.

The student we can observe most closely is ourselves. Perhaps careful reflection on the eighteen plus years each of us spent as students can be nearly as informative as actual experience. Perhaps education students are asking the wrong question. It is not how many years of experience, but what was learned from experience. An old quip asserts that some veteran teachers have twenty years experience, while others have one year twenty times.

The picture of professor teaching experience is not entirely bleak. The good news is that 8 of 70 professors (11%) had more than ten years. The professor with the most experience had 17 years. Half of the professors with more than ten years of teaching experience got that experience in the 1980's. There was one professor with 16 years experience whose last year of school teaching was 2005.

Recency by itself may not be relevant. Naturally, older professors likely taught longer ago than younger professors. It is also not clear if professors do anything to stay in touch. I teach summer school in a kid's program held at a community college. I fully recognize that my summer school teaching is significantly different than academic year teaching. I do not assign homework, give tests or grade performance. Things are pretty laid back. Discipline is rarely an issue. As an aside, I have observed that student learning in this no-stress summer school environment is not less than in an stressful academic year environment.

I teach both “fun” subjects, and academic subjects designed to supplement their regular school curriculum. Kids sign themselves up for the fun subjects, and parents sign them up for the academic subjects because “it will be good for them.” There is quite a bit of student resistance to the academic subjects. Sometimes I win them over before the end of the session, sometimes not. I often feel if the sessions were longer than three weeks, I would have 100% buy-in. It is unclear from the resumes how many other professors have regular contact with elementary or secondary students, even if not “significant” in the way I have defined the term.

One thing apparent from the resumes is that teaching experience is slighted even by those who possess it. The resumes give only the briefest summaries of teaching, such as “1977-1979 HS math.” I cannot speak for my colleagues, but my teaching experience during a stint as a high school math teacher included guidance counseling, grant writing, club advising, and all kinds of other responsibilities. I can list many accomplishments during my teaching career. The lack of detail regarding teaching experience on so many very lengthy resumes may be a reflection of the value of teaching in our society.

The saddest fact of all is that colleges of education consider applicants with a PhD and minimal experience superior to applicants who devoted themselves to students until they were gray-headed. They have nothing to offer the colleges of education but experience, but their experience is unappreciated.

Raw Data:

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