After a 13 Year Apprenticeship, Who Needs Teacher Training?

Dec 21, 2011 by

Everyone who attends school learns “what teachers do,” but beyond tradition, few teachers know the “why” of most teaching methods they use.  New teachers will likely teach the way they were taught.

Teacher training is unnecessary.  If training were a matter of teaching prospective teachers “to do what teachers do,” there would be no need for the teaching courses taught in college. Teacher trainees know what to do!  By graduation from high school, students have spent thirteen years in an apprenticeship living, observing, and interacting with teachers at every grade level and in every required school subject.  Graduates will have spent 15,000 hours in authentic teacher-student relationships, and under incredibly diverse, direct teaching-learning associations and interactions.

Students “Study” Their Teachers

As students, prospective teachers “studied” their teachers on a daily basis. They have interacted with individual teachers, observed their teaching techniques, vied for approval, earned rewards, tolerated punishments, witnessed emotions, biases, and values, learned their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and styles, smelled their cologne, seen their human side, and experienced their threats, evaluations, and critiques. Students know teachers, observe teaching, and participate in the processes.

As students, they participated in peripheral activities such as assemblies, extra-curricular programs, the daily hassle of lunch, passing in the halls, and virtually every emotion evoked through many years of mandated school procedures.  Now in the additional 5,000 hours as college students, what can teachers-in-training be taught that they haven’t already learned about teaching?

There Is Nothing Left to Learn

Prospective teachers have experienced everything the teaching profession has to offer regarding evaluation, assessment, texts, teachers, assignments, homework, classroom management, pop quizzes, fairness, discipline, behavior, lessons, rules, curriculum, and everything school represents.  Graduation from college will provide four more years of maturity and new life experiences, additional knowledge, and renewed self-confidence.  With additional experiences, diploma, and credentials, new teachers are ready to teach.  Surely, after this thirteen year apprenticeship and additional four years of college, there is nothing these new teachers, haven’t learned about teaching and about their subjects. The only longer apprenticeship is “parenting.”

The Missing Component

While prospective teachers have not been on the decision-making side of the teacher-student relationship, they, nevertheless, know enough to perpetuate the conventional routines, rituals, traditions, and myths of the noble profession.  All they need is an opportunity for meaningful reflection, confidence, some self-assurance and a few years of college course content.  However, there is one teaching component few, if any, of these teacher “wannabes” have experienced in their long apprenticeship and that is: successful teaching of non-learners—those kids who can’t, don’t or won’t follow procedures, cooperate, or even try to learn.   The apprentices have been in classes with at-risk kids. They have seen the “bad kids” marginalized, ridiculed, punished, flunked, and kicked out, but they have also seen them untaught, unmotivated, unchanged, unsuccessful, unrepentant, and unfazed.

Teachers Teach the Way They Learn

Traditional schooling has worked sufficiently well to enable prospective teachers to graduate college as certified teachers.  But their success has not likely taught them anything about teaching troublemakers, failures, ethnically different, impoverished, or the ever widening circumstances and backgrounds of increasing numbers of diverse students.  Every class has its share of troublemakers who disrupt class, interrupt lessons, and misbehave on an ongoing basis.  It is undoubtedly these individuals, not the class as a group to which new teachers refer when they say discipline is their biggest problem.

If new teachers could teach only those students who are like they themselves were in school, they would need no training and would have very few problems. But, teaching all the kids, especially the “problem learners” will require additional knowledge and skills. Most of all, teachers-in-training will need new insights, experiences, understandings, and empathy for the students whose efforts result in fear, embarrassment, bad grades, low achievement, misbehavior, and failure.  Suddenly, the contexts of teaching: attitudes, interests, feelings, and very different backgrounds, cultures, experiences, and perspectives take on an urgency and crucial importance.

School Experiences Are Different for Each Student

Everyone knows, or certainly should know, that experiences are different for each student.  Students don’t all learn what is taught or the same things.  They all experience school differently.  Some kids learn to hate math; some learn to love math.  Some love to make a presentation in class, some lie awake at night fretting about it.   Each remembers and reacts to different aspects of schooling according to the strength of his/her unique circumstances.  Student emotions, attitudes, priorities, and interests are always present and always affect learning to some degree. The learning context is always an integral part of every learning experience and can never be just a neutral influence.

Top Kids Are Different from Bottom Kids

Two distinct “educations” are occurring in the same class.  Each student learns differently, but two groups, the top and the bottom, can be worlds apart and a long way from “the average or median kids in class.”  The top ten percent of students, as determined by grades, test scores, difficulty level, ambition, outside interests, prior knowledge, and engagement, experience school differently from the bottom ten percent.

Considering that young people who choose a teaching career, and graduate from college with teaching credentials; and considering that college graduates are from the top 25 percent of all students who graduate from high school—they are “abnormal”.  There is nothing average about teachers.  They are in the top quartile of high school students.  They are a self-selected, group, characterized by school success.  For them, education worked just fine.  They conformed, listened, studied, learned, graduated, and are successful products of the educative system.

Lack of Experiences in Failure

Student teachers did not learn what school was like for kids who had predominantly negative experiences, who dropped out psychologically long before graduation, who got F’s, were retained, struggled every day, who hated school, were angry, vengeful, and bored.  Prospective teachers may have learned most everything seventeen years of engagement in the teaching-learning process offers.  But, they lack knowing what it’s like for those who suffered pain, failure, humiliation, fear, hostility, discrimination, and neglect.  They can’t know what it is like to dread daily classes, avoid unpleasant social encounters, and feel satisfaction in vandalizing the restroom.

“Wannabe” teachers witnessed the problem students, the rebels, the I-don’t-care, non-achieving “losers.”  They were in class with students who failed, who were been retained, and who “didn’t do a thing all year”; but they have no idea how to teach them because their own teachers didn’t either.  They learned only that school actions and policies coerced, punished, threatened, and failed them repeatedly. Obviously, nothing school did to or for the failing students was effective or else there wouldn’t have been all the unsuccessful failing students.

Teachers Don’t Know How to Teach the “Others”

Prospective teachers have now encountered education’s embarrassing failure—its successful denial and cover-up.  Teachers don’t know how to teach “the other kids” and neither do the teacher training institutions. Education schools are even further out of touch with teaching at-risk students and their needs than most newly graduated high school students.  Colleges are obsessed with GPA’s, honor students, higher degrees, credentials, and rigor.  Colleges don’t admit “those kinds of students,” and they don’t know anything about successfully teaching them.

Because of mandatory attendance, required curricula, and limited options available to public school students, college teaching has little relationship to k-12 teaching.  And, college teachers are not chosen for their teaching ability, but rather for their knowledge, research, publication, degrees, and scholarly ability.  Most have never had pedagogy courses and often look on such courses with contempt.  They probably have never experienced calling a parent, kicking a kid out of class, attending an expulsion hearing, or worrying about whether a student has eaten, or was beaten in the past few days.

Student teachers apparently learn very little about the why and how part of teaching techniques while they are busy taking courses for graduation.  They are doing their grade-grabbing, test-cramming, credit-gathering, prerequisite-taking, and credential-getting.  Probably the only learning they will find useful is getting into the public schools as practice teachers.  While teacher training schools are getting prospective teachers into schools earlier and more often; unfortunately, the practice teaching done by student teachers is at best a matter of which supervising teacher they get and in which school they are placed.

I Learned To Teach by Teaching

In my own education, I went through three stages in “leaning to be a teacher”—which didn’t occur until I began teaching in my own classrooms.  In my first year, I discovered my teacher training was inadequate, but I quickly realized it was not just insufficient—it was completely worthless.  Later, when I really began to understand what teaching required, I found that my training was not only worthless—it was detrimental. Most of what I had been taught hindered me from learning to teach.  In the crucial areas of discipline, motivation, responsibility, attitude, and individualization, I had been taught opposing, contradictory teaching skills and learning objectives. I was taught not to get too familiar and to stay aloof. Wrong!

Wrong and Wrong Again

I was taught that knowing my subject, lesson plans, and understanding the scope and sequence of the curriculum is the most important element.  Wrong again! What I needed was to build a relationship based on knowing, identifying with, and empathizing with my students.  I learned that curriculum content, discipline, and classroom management were separate from “teaching.”  They are the same.  I was convinced in my methods courses that I could say, “Now I’m teaching, now I’m disciplining, now I’m using good classroom management—wrong, again. They can’t be separated.

Three Crucial Teaching Components

Once I recognized my mis-education, I was able, through reflection, self-study, selective reading, friends, trial and error, good luck, dissatisfaction, and willingness to experiment with engaging and teaching the kids nobody else wanted, I learned on my own to teach troublemakers.  I learned the three most important components of the teaching-learning process for both at-risk kids and for all other kids as well:

First, relationship—“they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Kids who perceive, correctly or not, that teachers do not like them will not take their advice or follow their directions.  If kids think they can’t be like the teacher or don’t want to be like the teacher, they will resist cooperation and participation.

Second, attitude is overriding—if you can’t change students’ negative attitude, you can’t teach them.  If a kid says, “I hate math and I ain’t gonna do it.”  You “ain’t gonna teach him no math neither” unless you can get him to change his attitude. Strange, is it not, that there are no courses in “Changing Student Attitudes”?

Third, for learning to take place, individual students must accept their part of the responsibility for their learning.  Teachers cannot teach students without their effort and cooperation. A surgeon can operate without the patient being conscious, but a teacher must have the cooperation of students for successful learning.  And, even then, successful learning is not assured.  Responsibility for learning is a matter of student engagement, participation and cooperation.  Students cannot “be responsible” unless they are engaged in their own learning decisions.

The Question Is: Are Students Engaged?

Students can be required to participate, but cannot be required to be engaged.  They can only be made to “appear” to be engaged.”  Engagement begins with willing participation, moves to responsibility (becomes ownership), and can then result in engagement. Student responsibility and engagement, for me, became a matter of answering these questions:  To what extent do my students ever really participate in the decisions that affect their learning?  To what extent do the students participate in the class rules, policies, procedures, schedule, assignments, activities, evaluation, assessment, interaction, or class management?

Don’t Blame the Kids

If kids don’t participate, they can’t be responsible or be engaged.  If teachers’ unilateral decisions don’t engage the students, it’s not the fault of the students.  They had nothing to do with the teaching, curriculum, decisions, or the results. If students are not engaged in the lessons, they are necessarily engaged in “something else” and therefore; they cannot be learning the intended lesson.

With joy in sharing,

Bill Page

Bill Page has shared his classroom experiences in a book, “At Risk Students, Feeling Their Pain, Understanding Their Plight, Accepting their Defensive Ploys.”  Insights into kids who can’t, don’t or won’t behave, cooperate, follow procedures, or even try to learn. For information visit:; Available at for $19.95.


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