In response to my recent article “This Is A Democratic School!” reader and commenter “Liberals USED to be the optimistic ones”, wrote:
I came to the conclusion in my masters program to get my teachers cert that teachers are among the least intellectually curious people on the Earth.
I swear, it is like they have this attitude that learning is good for other people, just not for me.
Are teachers intellectually curious? It seems a simple question, perhaps one that can easily be answered “yes” or “no,” but that may be a mistaken impression. Some might be tempted to think I’m about to engage in Clintonian parsing, trying to obfuscate by figuring out what the meaning of “is” is, but in fact, it’s important to understand that teachers, particularly those in non-union states, are very much the product of the desires—and in some cases, the benign neglect—of the public.
But first, let’s consider the reality of the college teacher, and by that, I mean professors or those on a tenure track to professorship. For these fortunate few, teaching is a secondary pursuit in most colleges and universities. They commonly teach from one to three classes per semester, dealing with the work of as few as a handful of students. The remainder of their time is spent in research and study, as many schools still hold to the “publish or perish” model requiring academics to publish articles or books. I know that many college teachers work harder and spend more time in the business of actually teaching, but the traditional model is still widely practiced.
This model assumes that teachers should and will be intellectual curious and continually updating their knowledge and ability. As anyone who has attended college knows, this is not universally true. Every college graduate has had their fair share of entrenched professors who taught from the same yellowed, crumbling notes they used the first semester they taught a given course in 1723, or the professor who might condescend to drop by the first day of class, thereafter turning it over to long-suffering and grotesquely underpaid graduate students. Suffice it to say such teachers commonly show little evidence of intellectual curiosity, but are quick to claim exclusive rights to it.
The point is that college teachers may be, on average, more intellectually curious, more likely to read and write in their disciplines, and even to read more widely than secondary teachers. Not only are the conventions of their profession organized to encourage—even to require—at least the appearance of intellectual curiosity and accomplishment, their daily tasks are structured to give them substantial time—paid time—to accomplish it. The reality of secondary public school teachers could hardly be more different.
There are, of course, stereotypes. Coaches are anti-intellectual over-grown adolescents who care only about children’s games (the first name of most history teachers is “Coach”), librarians are bookish, shy and sexually repressed, English teachers are pointy headed scolds only interested in correcting the most nit-picky facets of grammar, etc. etc, ad nauseum. There is usually some truth in stereotypes, but they sometimes obscure more than they reveal.
For what little it is probably worth, now follow my general observations on the intellectual curiosity of secondary teachers. I define “intellectual curiosity” as a continuing and visible interest in intellectual growth and inquiry, as evidenced by reading, writing, improving and updating lessons, conversation with peers about such issues, and in general, the pursuit of the life of the mind. Probably the most obvious and important manifestation and evidence of intellectual curiosity is reading. I have found that those who read regularly and widely tend to be better spellers, writers, thinkers and speakers, more academically accomplished, and much more interesting conversationalists. Perhaps this is merely the ingrained prejudice of a teacher of the mother tongue—as practiced in America—but it seems a reasonable standard.
Let’s pick on coaches for a few paragraphs. Those who go into coaching seldom make that choice because they are highly academically oriented. They want to be coaches, first and foremost, and accept—sometimes grudgingly—having to teach some discipline as one of the unfortunate requirements of employment. Many treat their teaching assignments with the disdain this attitude suggests (I have a plethora of true horror stories), but I’ve met more than a few excellent teachers who also happen to be coaches. One factor is clear, however: one can be an excellent coach or an excellent teacher; it is very difficult indeed to be both.
Why is this difficult? Time. Coaches are focused on before and after school practices, and often travel on weekends, significantly limiting the time available for the pursuit of intellectual development. Add in the demands of family and simply maintaining a life, and the kind of intellectual curiosity and development about which we’re speaking becomes quite unlikely simply because there isn’t sufficient time, even if a given coach were intellectually hard wired.
History teachers tend to be coaches, so one might be tempted to believe that history teachers—taken as a whole—are not terribly intellectually curious, and there is some truth in this. I’ve told this story before, but it is particularly applicable here. When I returned to college after many years in military and civilian police work, I intended to take a history major and English minor, but the registrar refused to allow it. Surprised, I demanded to know why, and she explained—as though talking to a particularly slow student—that all history teachers had to be coaches, and no school district would hire a history teacher who was not a coach. So I became an English major and vocal music minor and the rest is—you guessed it—history.
It sounds silly, but the registrar was mostly correct. In the school where I teach, only about 30% of history teachers are non-coaches. The stereotype, it would seem, is well grounded in fact.
As for the other disciplines, it has been my experience that relatively few teachers spend substantial time reading, and those who do tend to read—and occasionally at that–primarily novels in one genre or another rather than non-fictional reading in their discipline or on a wide range of other topics. In fact, I know a disturbing number of teachers who brag—to their students and to their peers—they haven’t read a book in years. Obviously, teachers should never encourage their students, by example or by explicit admonition, to avoid reading. Our charge is encouraging students to see the value of the life of the mind, not to discourage them from a minimal understanding of the concept, yet I know more than a few teachers who seem secure in and proud of an anti-intellectual life.
It will probably come as no surprise when I observe that those with the most obvious intellectual curiosity tend to be English teachers. This is so, I suspect, primarily because they generally actually like to read and think about and interpret what they have read. In college, they are required to read hundreds of pages every day, and while many don’t keep up with those assignments, I’m certain the sheer volume of their reading far exceeds that of virtually every other discipline.
However, the system works hard to discourage this kind of intellectual curiosity, and nowhere more obviously than in English. English teachers, if they are doing their jobs correctly, have far more grading, and more time consuming grading, than any other discipline. A single essay can take 10-15 minutes to adequately grade, which includes correcting errors and writing suggestions to each student. Multiply that by 125 or more students, and the idea of free evenings and weekends is exposed as the fallacy it is. This leaves little time for reading, for professional development or pleasure, yet many English teachers somehow manage.
Perhaps another telling indicator is the number of books a given teacher maintains in their classroom, which is the functional equivalent of a college professor’s office. The walls of my classroom are lined with bookshelves containing more than two thousand books. These are English-related books, reference books, novels, science, biography and autobiography, books on music and art, poetry, politics, religion, and a variety of other topics. I keep them as inspiration, a tangible indicator of the life of the mind, and also loan them to my charges. Students are amazed to learn I’ve read them all, and far more reside at home. I’ve discovered that in this, even among English teachers, I’m unusual. Virtually all English teachers have far more books in their classrooms than the teachers of any other discipline, but not nearly the number I keep.
For those who do want to read, secondary—and elementary—teaching is not structured to encourage it. Teachers generally have only one brief preparatory period each day, which they virtually always use for grading and preparing lessons. There are virtually no opportunities for sabbaticals, and there is no publish or perish ethic operating in the public schools. From the moment a teacher arrives in the morning until they leave for home in the afternoon, every second of their time is accounted for, and the more dedicated they are to teaching, the more of their free time is encumbered in preparation and grading.
I’ve discovered that I am also at least somewhat unusual in that I use as much of the ever-shorter summer vacation to read and update lessons. Many teachers are so worn down by the time summer arrives, they spend much of it comatose, or as most teachers must, doing maintenance around the homestead they simply didn’t have time to do during the school year.
Many believe the schools are nothing like free enterprise, but they are, at least in this: the public will get what it values, encourages and rewards. Until the public values a high level of intellectual curiosity in teachers, and until it is willing and able to provide the funds necessary to lighten teaching loads to allow for that, only those who are internally driven toward those things will tend to pursue them. What percentage of teachers are so driven? It’s hard to say. I’d guess no more than 10, in general, but in some schools the figure will surely be higher–or lower.
But this need not be wholly negative. Teachers generally work very hard to provide a high level of educational opportunity. They know more than enough to present their lessons and to inspire their students, and manage to stay far enough ahead of the kids to do their jobs properly. Despite claims that the schools are universally failing, the truth is, fortunately, otherwise. The simple truth is one need not possess an Einstein-level intellect to be a good teacher. They need, more than anything, to possess the genetic endowment necessary to teach well, an endowment relatively few possess, despite disparaging aphorisms to the contrary. The best teachers know more and do more and inspire more even if they don’t have the time to read a book a week. This kind of performance is human nature, and is true in every endeavor, not just teaching.
Unlike Lake Woebegon, not everyone can be above average. The public would never pay for it anyway.