Majoring in “Education” Versus Majoring in a Subject

November 20, 2012

The Problem with a Major in Education

I happened to catch 60 Minutes the other day and saw an interview with David McCullough: author, historian, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  He discussed people in the US being illiterate about history.  He blamed teachers to an extent, but also cited the absence of dinner table conversations at home as being a cause.  Then he said something that really caught my interest and got me thinking.  He basically said that, through no fault of their own, teachers are coming into the profession not knowing enough about their subject area.

The Solution

He went on to say that rather than major in Education, we should major in a subject.  This got me thinking about my graduate school education.  Almost all of my courses in my path to become an ESL teacher dealt with the act of teaching.  There were courses about how to teach special education, how to discipline, proper classroom management, cultural diversity, and how to tell if a child has been abused.  There was a single course on grammar and how to teach it.  According to Mr. McCullough’s idea, most of my studies should have been about grammar, language development, and English.

Rather than majoring in Education, my major should have been called TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) or some such.  The classes I took in grad school dealt with important topics, but things like classroom management are best learned in the classroom.  You can study about how to arrange a room and how to make bulletin boards all you want, but it doesn’t mean anything until you are in the classroom doing it.  While I did take some helpful tips away from graduate school, most of what I learned in those two years could have been learned in one week in the classroom.

Knowing and Teaching Are Two Different Things

What is lacking in most ESL classrooms that I have noticed is a firm grasp of the English language.  Being a native speaker, I know how to speak properly, but it took me a long time to be able to teach the nuances of the language without simply saying to my students “it just sounds right this way.”  I could have used more classes on how to teach this difficult language to ESL students.  Likewise, many ESL teachers who are not native speakers themselves, make many of the mistakes in pronunciation and in writing that our students make, and could use some guidance in this area.  I spent a lot of time studying both English and the common problems that ESL students face depending on where they are from.  For example, Spanish speakers wanting to put the word “the” in front of words because of “el, la,” and Bengali speakers leaving the “s” off of words because they don’t form plurals that way in their language.  These are the things I should have learned in grad school.

Being an Expert in Your Subject Area

This goes beyond teaching ESL.  One of my coworkers, a very intelligent man, had a difficult time teaching Global Studies last year because it was his first year teaching that subject.  He was a social studies teacher, but had never focused on global issues.  He knew more about the topic than someone like me, but he didn’t feel completely comfortable teaching it.  I believe teachers should be experts in their subject areas, and should be treated as such.

This takes me into another area that I deal with in my book: many administrators believe that a teacher is a teacher and can teach anything to anyone.  This is their rationale for putting a math teacher in an English class, or an ESL teacher in a science class.  Might sound crazy, but I have seen the former happen to a coworker, and I have experienced the latter.   This year, I almost ended up teaching an art history class.  Anyone who knows me would laugh hysterically at even the thought of me teaching art or history.  I really think if the focus was shifted from a degree in Education, to one in a subject, teachers would be better prepared, and in turn, would be treated like the experts in their field of study that they are.

Let Me Know Your Thoughts

I’m interested to hear what others have to say on this issue, and I thank Mr. McCullough for his enlightening discussion on 60 Minutes.


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