Teaching requires intellectual preparation

I read the Sept. 19 Daily article about Tufts students and Teach for America with a mixture of pride and concern. On the one hand, Tufts is a place where social justice, commitment to community and education are taken seriously. Graduates are leaving the Hill with a desire to make the world better; I am proud that my institution fosters a belief that teaching is an opportunity to make change. As a colleague and 30-year veteran of the profession said, “Teaching has enabled me to meet my lifelong need to feel useful and appreciated.” So, bravo to Tufts and to the graduates of this fine place for fostering commitment to the profession of teaching and the fulfillment it brings.

At all levels, teaching is deeply challenging, humbling. Most of all, it is an intellectual endeavor. Within what we call the “wild triangle” of relationships – between teachers, students and content -a massively complex and dynamic system exists that takes time to understand and to navigate. True professionals spend years studying their craft – honing their skills of listening and attending to student thinking. After all, successful students are those who think and reason in sophisticated ways, and nurturing their intellectual development demands that teachers undergo rigorous preparation.

On the other hand, Teach for America thinks that entry – not expertise – is most important in becoming a teacher. Rather than seeing teaching as complex and intellectual, TFA sees teaching, and children, as a simple problem. They operate on a belief that because you are intelligent, passionate and driven, you are a great teacher. You do not need experience, you do not need careful preparation and there is little intellectual work in the task of becoming a teacher. You need your own experience as a successful student, a short summer workshop and a desire to make change. This is the view – where inexperience is an asset – which TFA promotes.

The problem with this view is that it’s simply not true. Great teachers recognize that teaching is intellectual work; they embrace the complexity and study their craft. Caring is not enough. Scholars like Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford have argued this position for decades, with convincing data to support the claim that rigorous preparation is necessary for success as a teacher. There are skills to be learned and ideas that need to be discussed, debated and considered at length. Walking into a classroom without having done these things means that you are not going to be as successful as your students need you to be. This is not to say that Tufts students lack the potential to be great – we know they possess this – but greatness is not achieved by simply gaining entry into an elite program and professing a commitment to underserved children. 

It is no wonder that Tufts students are such bright stars in the TFA sky. The commitment to changing the world for the better is strong on this campus. With this passion and charge, I urge you to consider the intellectual work of teaching and the importance of entering this field in ways that respect what all students deserve – thoughtful, well-prepared professional teachers.