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.

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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.