Why profs don’t need more teacher training

We’re good enough already, says Prof. Pettigrew

Over in the UK, there’s more talk about university professors needing formal teacher training. One hears similar proposals more and more lately in this country, too. But in the end, it is, like so many ideas about higher education, a meretricious scheme masquerading as commonsense reform.

On the surface, the notion that university professors should have some kind of formal Education credential has a certain appeal. Professors, after all, spend a lot of their time teaching, why wouldn’t it make sense to require them to have the same level of training as other teachers? Just because you know about your discipline, the thinking goes, doesn’t mean you know how to teach it.

This argument, though often presented as an obvious solution to an obvious problem, is hollow, partly because it ignores the teaching training that professors already get, and partly because it makes false assumptions about teaching more generally.

While few university professors earn Bachelor of Education degrees, profs do get teacher training as they work their way through graduate degrees.  Most professors in Canada begin their teaching careers as teaching assistants, learning the basics under the supervision of experienced professors. Moreover, departments typically offer their TAs instruction on how to present material, how to grade papers, how to deal with student complaints, and so on. Many universities also have campus-wide programs for teaching assistants as they learn the ropes and improve their skills.

Though such training may not be as formal or detailed as a B.Ed program, it doesn’t need to be. Education programs aim to give you a wide range of skills for teachers teaching a wide variety of students in multiple subject areas, and dealing with a whole host of disciplinary and family issues. These conditions generally don’t apply at the university level.

Besides, every teacher and Education student I’ve ever talked to agreed that the best training is experience. The Education degree might help a little in the first year or two, but after that, it won’t make a difference. Moreover, even in B.Ed. programs, the most useful parts are the placements in the classroom, where Education students learn on the job with the help of an experienced teacher. And, as I’ve already pointed out, professors something equivalent already.

The fact is, the best teachers are not those with the most formal training in the latest educational theories. The best teachers, at any level, are those who know their subjects, are passionate about those subjects, and love talking about their subjects. In fact, in my experience, university professors actually tend to be better teachers than public school teachers. Your high school teachers may not even have had a degree in what they were teaching you, let alone have dedicated their life to it.

Ask anyone who’s been to university and you’ll likely find that they had some good teachers and some bad teachers at every level, but probably fewer terrible ones at university. So, please, don’t tell professors who are already obliged to complete three university degrees that they have to do another one.

They’re busy teaching.

Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.




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Why profs don’t need more teacher training

  1. I don’t know, Prof. Pettigrew. The best prof I ever had in my entire undergraduate career was a math prof who did, in fact, have a BEd, and who had taught high school math at one point in his career. He made calculus totally accessible to a bunch of first year students.

    While some profs certainly learn how to teach effectively, others don’t. I have had terrible profs/teachers at university. Profs who absolutely had no idea how to convey the information in their courses to a bunch of undergrads. No doubt these individuals were intelligent, or maybe even brilliant in their field, but they had no idea how to properly structure or teach an undergraduate course. I’ve also had profs that weren’t intelligent or brilliant. One, in particular, in an exercise science course, knew less about certain aspects of the course than I did! It was actually embarrassing how many errors there were in this individual’s course notes.

    I’m not stating that all profs need to have a BEd degree in order to be effective teachers. I’ve had some great profs who could certainly teach. I’ve also had horrible profs who could not. Clearly, not all the profs out there are getting the kind of on-the-job training or experience that allows them to become effective “teachers.” They may be great researchers, but they clearly cannot teach.

  2. Professor Pettigrew, is there any type of reform initiative in higher education that you would actually support?

  3. No, you teach at a university that values undergraduate education and this is why you think that. But to assume that teachers won’t benefit from any other instruction training is categorically wrong.

    I have professors who mumble, who think that it’s effective to go through 150 powerpoint slides per hour where each slide is a small essay, who can barely speak English, who don’t keep office hours, etc.

    Assuming that as a TA you will learn proper teaching skills since you’re being supervised by a professor is a false assumption. It’s like assuming that one will learn math because one has the best math textbook.

    If a professor doesn’t care about his teaching, and can’t teach, then the TA won’t learn any good skills.

    Teachers can absolutely benefit from learning about classroom management. Is it effective to have a semester-long team project where if 1 student doesn’t show up on assignment submission day, the whole team gets 0?

    Heck, I even had a professor who bribed us with good marks if we gave them good marks on the course evaluations. So yeah. Teachers need education. Right now, most of mine might be smart people, but they’re inept educators which should be half of their job.

  4. It’s a difficult one, certainly, but what can be wrong about providing some structured opportunities to improve teaching skills. Not everyone starting on their academic career is lucky enough to have a dedicated and effective teacher as a mentor. As Director of ecch, a not for profit dedicated to supporting the case method, I know from feedback that delegates on our workshops for business faculty wishing to develop or enhance their skills in case writing and case teaching really appreciate the opportunity to do so in collegiate and supportive company and enjoy their classroom teaching much more as a result. So, while teacher training can’t guarantee that all university lecturers are good, it certainly raises the standards across the board and we’re happy to play a part in that. After all, isn’t it the teaching that students value most?

  5. Seriously? Half the profs I have had at CBU (with the exception of my first year English prof – who wasn’t you) haven’t been able to teach me anything, the textbooks were my best friend. It is definitely necessary for a lot of professors to learn how to teach as opposed to writing things that they know on the whiteboard.

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