Hi again! It’s Karen! And I’m thinking about teachers…

Hi all, it’s Karen, back after a long hiatus. I’m up to my ears in projects, and haven’t had time to even think about posting in ages; sorry!

Dana saw a Facebook post of mine, and suggested it would be a suitable blog post. Since Dana can be very persuasive, I will share the gist of it with you all.

I was thinking about teachers (especially high school teachers) the other day. When I studied for my geology MS, I ended up taking a bunch of undergraduate classes, playing catch-up because my BS is in computer engineering. Now, my university department offers two undergraduate degrees: a BS in geology, intended for scientists, and a BA in earth science, intended for teachers. The undergrads working on their BA were often not at the top of the game, scientifically speaking; they didn’t get the top grades; and there was an undercurrent of, “oh, they’re not real geology students, they’re going to be teachers.” Nobody ever came out and said that, but you could feel it. (This was NOT from faculty, by the way, but from other students.)

And I was thinking about this attitude. Too often, I hear the disparaging claim that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. But do I give a rat’s patootie that my high school earth science teacher can explain the details of, oh, the metamorphism of blueschist-facies minerals? No, I care that she or he can explain much more basic things, but in a clear and interesting way. How rain forms. How the members of ecosystems support the whole. The gist of how plate tectonics makes mountains and basins and volcanoes and big earthquakes. And most importantly, why students should care about any of these things.

And so I raise my cup of tea to teachers who weren’t the A students in metamorphic petrology, or 18th century literature, or the history of the Roman Empire, or advanced organic chemistry… but are busy successfully guiding young people in learning the basic principles of science, language, history, math, and whatnot. It’s a whole different skill set, difficult to learn well, and incredibly important in our society. You rock.

Geography class, early 1900s. Note the box that looks rather like a stream table. Zonia Baber advocated hands-on education. Image courtesy Peace Monuments Around the World.
Geography class, early 1900s. Note the box that looks rather like a stream table. Image courtesy Peace Monuments Around the World.



Hi again! It’s Karen! And I’m thinking about teachers…

11 thoughts on “Hi again! It’s Karen! And I’m thinking about teachers…

  1. rq

    I also heartily endorse this message, though I am not a teacher (though I have worked as a teacher). However, most of my scientific interest and thinking has arisen as a result of teachers who were thoroughly dedicated to both (a) their chosen science (chemistry, physics, etc.) and (b) teaching. I could not imagine a better teacher than someone with a passion for the subject and willing to pass it on to others. While scientists in and of themselves are Very Important People, it is just as important to have Very Important People ready to inspire new generations of scientists-as-scientists (and perhaps some scientists-as-teachers).
    And I have it on great authority that these teachers were perfectly capable of canning the science they were teaching, but they just happened to have a special interest in passing on both their interest as well as their knowledge of science.
    And for what it’s worth, they had very awesome and clear ways of passing on that knowledge (difficult concepts in simple, understandable terms), something that I do believe some scientists can sometimes find difficult. So bonus points to #TeamTeacher. ;)

  2. 3

    I’ve taught at universities. We are amateurs when it comes to teaching. When I started I was thrown into a classroom with zero guidance and no supervision. My experience and credentials in the field were enough to get me my first adjunct position without even being asked about teaching skills. When it came to teaching, we sank or swam.

    I’ve always admired K-12 teachers. They are the professionals who have actually studied how to teach.

    As for the old saw, one of my colleagues always said: Those who can’t do teach. Those who can’t teach administrate.

  3. 4

    Budding teacher here!
    One of the big mistakes our university system makes is to basically NOT distinguish much between teachers and scientist. Sure, it got a little better with asking the BA/MA students to do poster presentations and the teacher candidates (not BA/MA but “state exam”) to take some didactics, but still, we learn mostly the same.
    Now, in English this matters probably less, but in subjects like maths it becomes a real problem: tons of formerly enthusiastic maths students drop out because they’re expected to keep up with the scientists. As a result we have too few maths teachers and instead of getting teachers who studied maths though not at the level of the scientist kids are taught by people who didn’t study maths at all but who didn’t run fast enough when the principal needed a teacher…

  4. 5

    As a math and science tutor and former ‘A’ student, I can tell you that getting ‘A’s in advanced courses never gave the the depth of understanding that came from tutoring a course. When you review material with an aim of figuring out how to explain it, you engage with it far deeper than when you’re just trying to complete a homework assignment or study for an exam. Those BA students might not be acing the upper level BS courses, but I’d reckon that after a year or two of teaching, they have a far better understanding of the fundamentals than the BS students who went on to get advanced degrees.

  5. 6

    I have had a lot of bad teachers myself. When we got classes into our lab for a field trip, I was appalled at just how much many of those teachers clearly hated their kids.


    A good teacher, hell, a mediocre teacher, is worth much more than their weight in saffron and if we treated them with more respect, we could maybe get rid of or improve the bad teachers. But you know what? Taylor Mali says it much better than I can.

  6. 7

    I’m mostly in agreement with the comments here, with one particular exception:

    I would feel utterly underqualified to teach math(s) if I only had as much as the science students learn, A student or otherwise.

    Some physics students might get the minimum exposure needed to understand the subject well enough to teach it. For the most part, though? I really, really don’t want to repeat the mistakes of certain people who taught me math in high school and didn’t know that the version of math useful to engineers isn’t the whole story.

    (Of course, I’d feel just as underqualified if I took my math training into a classroom without learning how to teach. But the level of math required to make a decent math teacher — while it may be less than required of a research mathematician, even if we ignore the possibility that teaching secondary-level math might be the ideal career for someone who genuinely loves the subject enough to devote the required time to it — is still a few rather large steps beyond what just about anyone would need or find useful if science is the end goal. Math teachers can’t, if they want to be halfway competent, be the people who were a step behind the science students — anything less than a few steps ahead is just not enough.)

  7. 8

    M can help you with that.
    So you think that maths teachers need to be at the level of scientists. Fine.
    We don’t have them. Seriously. Because most people who can do maths at that level* go into science. Leaves you with the others. Make them work at the scientist level and they drop out. The result is a shortage of maths teachers. Do you prefer kids being taught by somebody who can kind of juggle the concepts covered in the classroom without a decent training in either maths itself nor its teaching? Because that’s the situation right here right now.

    *Though we might indeed talk about different levels. I was mighty surprised to learn that stuff I did in highschool is college level in the USA

  8. 9

    It’s not really a matter of “at the level of scientists,” really — more about focus than anything else. The future scientists in my math lower-division math classes were better at it than I was; but I kept doing my “good intuitive sense of the material, could stand to be more rigorous, gets overly excited about the weird bits, might prove a theorem or two but won’t be a great mathematician” A-minus schtick into upper-division and abstract math…and I’m not the only one I know who fits that description and wants to teach math. I don’t have to be better at the math than the future scientists (fortunately — because I’m not), but I do need to study more math, if for no other reason than to avoid things like to avoid teaching the mistakes that my own high-school calculus teachers (an engineer and a chem grad student…long story) taught me.

  9. 10

    I think we’Re in basic agreement that maths teachers should get a very solid education in their subject. Clearly “having done well in highschool” isn’t any more a good qualification for being a maths teacher than being a native speaker is for being a language teacher.
    They should also have a very solid education in didactics and pedagogy because there’s a really big difference between knowing something and being able to teach it to somebody in the middle of puberty.

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