Are Teachers “Experts”?

Since the COVID-19 school dismissal, or really going back through this spring, I’ve been on an ed reading tear.  Since I no longer have access to the library (or, even worse, my university library), my newest pleasure has been ordering old or obscure ed books for increasingly low and improbable sums of money.  Robert Welker’s book, The Teacher as Expert: A Theoretical and Historical Examination, I think I picked up for something like $2.58.

It’s a relatively “new” book compared to many others I’ve been reading; it was published in 1992, the year I was in fourth grade.  I don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but this is clearly an “academic” book.  It’s scholarly, dense, complex, subtle, and, for someone of my interests, a little like drinking out of the firehose.  It’s one of those books that both gives me a new way to think about important books I’ve already read, as well as leaving me with loads of new ones that I clearly need to read.  During the process of reading it, I probably accrued six new books saved into my Amazon cart (most of them, of course, cost less than $5.00).

Welker starts by asking two main questions: “How appropriate is the concept of the teacher as an expert?  What advantages and disadvantages does expertise present for teachers and the public they serve?” Welker notes that this topic is unique: “few educational theorists have viewed expertise as a direct concern.”

It’s a really interesting question that I think a lot of teachers might have wondered about . . .  without realizing it.  

I remember during my first year of teaching hearing a long-time veteran teacher complain about a parent questioning his methods.  “You wouldn’t go in and challenge a doctor on how he does surgery, would you?” he remarked.  In a sense, any teacher who has wondered why teachers aren’t more respected by society has wondered about the questions Welker is asking.  Are we experts — should our profession be considered more prestigious because of our knowledge and skills?  Or are we something different?

The public, of course, goes in and out on teachers.  On the one hand, many people do not believe teaching is difficult or especially “expert” work.  You can see this in the calls for waiving the requirements of any kind to become a teacher.  Master craftsmen have been “teaching” apprentices forever.  Anyone who can parent is “teaching.” It’s almost as though teaching is something elementally human, a transferable skill belonging by definition to everyone, not a special science.  

On the other hand, many people profess to be in awe of what teachers can do.  You see that especially now during this time of enforced “homeschooling.” Sometimes the public claims to be impressed by our work, particularly at the way we can handle large groups of trying children at once.

At the start of the book, Welker cites a number of reform efforts from his time (which have not really changed much in 30 years) that are based on the assumption that,

. . . teaching is to be founded on a more scientific, more expert basis.  The beguiling promise of expertise is that the same standardized and calculated methods that worked to harness natural forces can be used to mold and direct human potential, including the human potential of both teachers and students.

The problem is, teaching and learning are deeply complex, to the point that Welker wonders at the outset, “whether there exists in the immense research on teaching anything resembling a science or giving evidence to the idea that there is one best way to practice.” Can teachers be considered “full professionals” — workers whose “vocation is more formed by their competence than their character”?

Welker also raises the question of the “moral nature” of teaching.  With technical advances, it has become less important for doctors to be considered good people.  Instead they are expected to be technical experts.  Teachers meanwhile, are in a different position.

There is also the issue of whether the expert model is the best fit for the profession.  The modern notion of the scientific, technician offering expert service implies a passivity on the part of the person who receives the service.  You go to the heart doctor because you just had a heart attack, he tells you you need to do x and get y test and take z . . .  you listen to him and you do it.  (If you do not, and you become more sick or die, nobody believes it was because the doctor did not do his job.  Nobody judges doctors on the number of patients whose condition improves.  This of course is a whole other debate about teaching . . . ) But is passivity really what we want in students?  

So what are we?  Experts possessing esoteric, valuable technical knowledge specific to our profession?  Or self-sacrificing public servants who make due with low pay and low status because we feel a calling to work with children?

And what’s more important in good teaching — technical competence and knowledge, or character and personality?

Welker looks for the answers far and wide — and in doing so he surveys some really, really interesting perspectives.

The Progressives

He starts, as so many ed books do (I am realizing) with the battle over defining the emergent profession during the early 20th Century Progressive era.  Ellwood Cubberley is the figure he highlights first.  Cubberley believed that education needed to be designed more scientifically from the top down and that education was best left to pedagogical experts.  By this he did not mean teachers, but administrators.  He saw education as a chief lever of social progress, the ideals of enlightenment, represented by the emergent science of teaching, against the forces of ignorance and darkness.  Efficiency was an important concept for him.  

Welker contrasts Cubberley with another progressive, George Counts.  Counts shares the view that education is major driver of social progress, but rather than seeing educators as technocratic experts, Counts sees teachers almost more as social activists, as he put it “indoctrinating” their students in the importance of progressive, almost socialist attitudes.  Teachers have a strong moral component to their work — it is not just scientific, what they do.

It’s a really great contrast that Welker sets up.  I am summarizing it poorly.  But it’s really fascinating.  I have wanted to read more about (and by) George Counts for sometime — you can clearly see his strain of thought about teachers as drivers of social change in today’s schools.  Just the same, you can see so much of what Cubberley wanted come true in the efficient, bureaucratic design of modern schools.  It really does all go back to the Progressives, doesn’t it?

The Sociologists

The next section is a fascinating contrast between the sociologists William Waller and Dan Lortie.  Lortie believes teachers need to become more like doctors — experts with arcane knowledge, while Waller believes that the “expert” model does not fit the teaching profession because . . .  well, I wasn’t entirely clear.  To be honest, I’d tried to read Waller’s book, supposedly a landmark (and treated as such by Welker) and found it dated.  It felt as though most of the “teachers” talked about were the sort of unmarried single women who must have dominated the profession back in 1932 when he wrote . . .  but didn’t feel particularly relevant to today’s profession.

But I could not have been more excited to see perhaps the most penetrating, insightful book about education I had ever read, Schoolteacher, by Dan Lortie, given a whole chapter of analysis and critique.  Honestly, there is nothing better than having a book or a thinker who you consider unimpeachable taken out for an extended critique by someone who knows more than you.  That’s what Welker does.  He is not persuaded by Lortie.  In the context of what Welker is writing about — the troublesome nature of trying to see education in purely professional terms — he sheds a lot of light on what Lortie was trying to do — which was basically to try to explain what teachers must do to gain the professional status of doctors and lawyers.  In essence, for Lortie, teachers must develop a greater understanding of the scientific principles or “best practices” of the profession — a “shared technical culture,” in Lortie’s words.  Yet Welker criticizes Lortie for discounting teaching’s moral and social dimensions: the sense of service that animates many teachers, the desire of many teachers to improve the lives of their students (which is maddeningly hard to measure in a professional sense), and the general ambiguities of real classroom dynamics that hardly lend themselves to “one best system” — a “science” of teaching, so to speak.  It’s a great critique of Lortie, even as I still feel as though Lortie’s is the best analysis I’ve ever read of the profession.

Welker contrasts Lortie with Waller, whose account he believes is fuller.  I didn’t really see the point Welker was making though.  I’ll have to give Waller another try sometime.

The Romantics

The next chapter is a critique of the teacher-as-expert model by the men who Welker calls the “Romantic Critics” of the 1960s.  Ah, the ‘60s.  Seems like so much happened in education during that decade that it’s wonderful to read someone like Welker, who seems to astutely narrow down what was going on to a few key thinkers and ideas.  The Romantics’ view was that students, innately good and desirous of learning, should be allowed to learn autonomously; the traditional concept of the teacher as expert is overbearing, sometimes out-and-out discriminatory, generally harmful to a child’s natural development.  For some Romantics, such as Paul Goodman, the school should not be the sole source of education; these thinkers reject the notion that any special group should “claim sole jurisdiction over the type of pedagogical knowledge needed to teach” (in Welker’s words).  Welker spends a lot of time discussing a writer I’d never heard of, Ivan Illich, whose principles, for Welker, are deep down just as individualistic and autonomous as the self-interested society they criticized.  Essentially Welker argues that this arch Romantic critic of public schools is, in his own way, not dissimilar from free-marketer Milton Friedman; both believe, according to Welker, in the autonomy of the individual unrestricted by society’s demands.

This section was interesting in that it doesn’t really feel like a critique that a lot of people are making right now.  If anything, I believe that the more popular critique is the George Counts critique: that schools are important levers of social change, perhaps of social resistance in response to the Trump era, and schools have an obligation to take a moral and even political stand to teach right values.  

That said, the Romantic critique is very much still with us.  One the one hand, the Romantic / child-centered / Progressive idea that schools kill an innate creativity in children, forcing them to follow rules and memorize dull information, is very much present.  So is the more insistent edge of the Romantics’ critique — that in many cases schools actively “oppress” or discriminate against students with its rules, its hidden curriculum, and its narrow notions of success.

It’s interesting to think about a writer like Kozol, who is out to expose appalling conditions (“savage inequalities”), with the child-centered Progressives of the early 20th century — men like William Kilpatrick.  In many ways, from what I could tell in Welker’s book, the Romantics have similar Rousseau-ian ideals as the Progressives, but the Romantics to various degrees do not believe that schools are a capable instrument for upholding these ideals.  Many of the Romantics, according to Welker, later became associated with the free school movement, the homeschooling movement, or even the deschooling movement.  Like Counts, they believed that schools were educating students for an unjust social order, but unlike Counts, they did not believe that traditional public schools were the best mechanism for changing this order.  It seems to me right now we are much more oriented toward Counts.  

This makes sense, of course.  I am thinking about educators mostly.  It’s an awkward position to be in as an educator to say that schools cannot improve the world.  You have to believe in the power of school if you want to be able to get through five days a week inside of one.  But at the same time, I do not see a contradiction in a limited view of what broader social change schools can accomplish.  Even playing a small part in changing a few individuals, in educating them and showing them a broader world or the promise within themselves — even something so small as this can have a large effect.  

The Modern Critique

In many ways the most relevant and fascinating chapter was called “The Modern Critique.” This is the section that, after the dust has settled from the ideological disputes between the Progressives and the Romantics, really takes a careful, measured look at what teachers really do and asks, Are teachers technical experts or something different?  

The two thinkers Welker highlights I’d never heard of before, but you can bet I’ve got their books being shipped to me in the mail right now: Phillip Jackson and Alan Tom.  There are so many interesting questions raised by these two thinkers, brought to the forefront by Welker in his best section, clearly where his heart lies.

It was here, starting with Phillip Jackson, that I really felt a real recognition of teachers’ jobs.  Jackson really does well to describe why learning is so much different than getting your leg repaired, or your teeth fixed.  He characterizes the learning environment as ambiguous, he calls it “the idiosyncratic nature of learning events” which are, “mediated by the personalities and life histories” of students and teachers.  He cites “the organic and contextual nature of human knowledge” and says that teachers face so many unpredictable human interactions in just one day, all arising with great unpredictability.  

All of this is so true.  Lortie did seem to recognize this, citing the ambiguous outcomes that teachers as a profession seem to look for.  Lortie seemed to discredit teachers as a result, or to suggest they move to firmer, more scientific ground.  But now that I look back, I can start to see that Lortie didn’t really have the full picture.  Based on Welker’s analysis, it seems to me that Jackson is getting closer.

As always, it’s hard not to feel, once you start get closer to the heart of what teachers must do, that you’re getting back closer to Dewey.  Welker happens to note in passing Dewey’s belief that if he had to choose between education as an art or as a science, he’d choose the former.  Also his belief that science was more a mode of inquiry than a settled body of knowledge.  For him, to employ science was to interact intelligently with a changing educational world, in the spirit of inquiry.  It’s this idea — situational teaching, reacting to students in an organic fashion, constantly returning to the subject matter and measuring the distance between it and students, that is at the heart of good teaching.

Jackson is asking the question — can technical knowledge benefit teachers without “violating” the nature of learning — so heavily context-dependent?  To me, it seems very clear that of course technical knowledge helps.  Understanding human development, understanding the phases of teenage development in particular, can really help a teacher understand his students.  John Dewey’s metaphor was of a teacher as a farmer and students as his crops; the good teacher must have intimate working knowledge of just what his students need.  This knowledge is also in itself highly contextual and situational.  It can depend on the community; teaching even in two nearby towns in Vermont yields an entirely different student body with different cultural knowledge and different goals.  Imagine teaching a classroom primarily composed of immigrants in Winooski, compared to teaching wealthy or middle class students in South Burlington, compared to teaching rural poor students in Bethel.  These three radically different groups, and a good teacher must know his context.  

It gets even more specific, of course, than that.  A teacher must know the class before him — which students work well together.  This is how situation the profession is, after all: the wrong two students together in class can wreck the learning experience for themselves or for others.

It gets even smaller, too.  Many students arrive with highly unique misconceptions or prior beliefs that aid or hinder their learning efforts.  Others are not emotionally ready to access learning, sometimes on very specific days, often without warning.  They very same lesson that works with one class may not work with another class on the same day.  The same lesson that may work well with one class on one day might not work with that class on a different day (perhaps someone in the community has passed away, or perhaps their chemistry teacher just chewed them out, or perhaps they are grumpy because no snow day was called).  Teaching is immensely, immensely improvisational and situational.

That said, I think it’s hard to imagine that general knowledge of the nature of teaching is not helpful — even crucial — for new teachers.  This knowledge of teaching’s situational and context-based nature in itself is critical knowledge.  The ability to read and react to individual students and to groups — how to even create deliberate opportunities to do this — is something that can be practiced and prepared for.  At one point, Welker writes that the Romantics believe that teachers skills and knowledge “must constantly be formed and reformed in the act of human compassion and concern for others.” This is, in my view, clearly wrong.  Even the quality of one’s improvisation can be improved by an understanding of the typical situations one will find oneself in, and through an understanding of the most meaningful and most yielding ways a teacher can react in these situations.  

Now that I think about it, it seems to me that Jackson’s question — is teaching all on-the-job training, or is there technical knowledge that should be learned? — should once again reach for a higher Deweyian synthesis.  If only teachers had residencies like doctors — not just student teaching, but more open laboratories for teaching and systematically studying their practice in a variety of settings?  What if teachers had this degree of coaching?  What if they had a chance to, as we used to do in kayak racing, “break down film” and analyze their improvisations? 

Finally, for Jackson, teaching itself is a kind of learning process, in which teachers model themselves as learners — sometimes about the material, but also about what works best for their students.  He calls these teachers “transformative teachers” — the ones who aim not just for repetition and imitation (he calls these “mimetic” teachers), but a change in students’ attitudes, outlooks, goals, or character.  

Alan Tom is the second thinker considered in this section.  His major work that Welker discusses is called Teaching as a Moral Craft from 1984.  Tom believes that that technical model of teacher-as-expert is false.  There is no one “best” way of teaching, first.  Second, the “billiard ball” theory of teaching — that teacher inputs are directly correlated to student outcomes.  After all, says Tom, learning happens in a social context.  Not only do other students influence each other, but students themselves influence teachers.  I had a coworker once who rather cynically would remark that all educational research is meaningless because there are so many variables.  Perhaps that’s not fair, but it certainly puts any notions of a one best technical system of education on rather shaky ground.

Tom thinks of teaching as more of a Deweyian science, a constant pursuit of best methods: Good teachers, “Conceive of . . . teaching in purposeful terms, analyze a particular teaching problem, choose a teaching approach that seems appropriate . . .  judge the results . . .  and reconsider either the teaching approach or the original purpose.”

And yet here is where expertise can matter.  If you don’t know what you are going for with students — if you cannot formulate your teaching in purposeful terms — how can you hope to achieve your outcomes?  It sounds passe, but knowing what you are going for take expertise.  Dewey would say that it requires knowing your content.  It’s more than that.  It’s knowing what can be gotten from your content, and what is important about your content.  This took me a long time to understand as a teacher.  I knew I wanted students to read and write well — but what kinds of reading and writing?  What about these skills was most important?  What do you I want them to get out of a given reading assignment?  Both the process of knowing how to derive these goals and align them with daily teaching as well as the knowledge of the content or discipline necessary to get there are tremendously important — and I would argue largely context-less.  You do not have to understand a particular group of students to understand what worthy disciplinary knowledge implies in your subject.  This applies both to a general overall categorization of knowledge in your subject, as well as the methods of designing units, assessments, activities, and daily lessons.  All this can be learned apart from any locally specific context.

Tom also has some interesting thoughts about teaching as a craft.  Whereas for Lortie this metaphor implied that teaching was merely imitative, simply following the patterns and methods of one’s mentor, divorced from any more generalized or professional understanding of the profession, for Tom a craft is something critical and reflective, the pursuit of worthy learning goals skillfully and persistently.  In a way, it is more like writing than medicine or dentistry; in teaching it’s more important to adjust to an organic process by constantly evaluating and “revising” your work (or your approach). 

For Tom, this constant reflection involved asking what type of students we wish to produce; teaching is a deeply moral craft for Tom, rather than an amoral and technical affair.  For this reason, according to Welker, both Tom and Jackson critique the primacy of science as the sole lens through which to see education; the process of education is concerned with important social and moral questions.  Doctors do not think what type of patients they wish to produce (other than healthy ones).  They also need not concern themselves too much with the social element of their practice; beyond a friendly professionalism, they need not be concerned that the social environment of the office, laboratory, or operating room is not conducive enough to a patient’s social needs.  Theirs is the detached hand of science, the steady hand of the surgeon.  For them, patients are best served in a neutral, scientific environment.  There are few in this country who object, for instance, that the “hidden curriculum” of western-centered medicine in most doctors’ practices is harmful to the outcomes of patients whose backgrounds are not reflected in these practices.  Science is science and generally it is taken for granted that modern medicine is an amoral good.  Those who wish to search elsewhere for remedies are more than welcome to their faith healers or naturopaths.  

On the other hand, teachers must constantly think through these questions and about both the moral ends and the social conditions of their work.  While the administrative progressives tried to establish an amoral, best science of education, the moral dimension of education inescapably leads to the types of questions that modern medicine does not need to deal with.

For Welker, both Tom and Jackson, unlike the Romantics or the Social Reconstructionists, have far more skepticism about the importance of schools in social progress.  Also, as Welker writes, “Tom and Jackson lack as well the dramatic concern with social injustice so apparent in the romantic critique of public education.” Tom seeks to move beyond the race- or class-based critiques of the romantics, toward something more useful.  For Jackson the role of the teacher is so many-layered and ambiguous as to make her contribution to social change a much murkier proposition.  As Welker writes, “For Tom and Jackson the teacher is neither an expert upon which to foist greater social obligations, nor a savior who might usher in the new age.”

Yet Tom in particular believes that a clearer understanding of a teacher’s practice as a moral craft allows teachers to more capably conceive of their work in purposeful terms.  

I think this is all quite important.  I do think that most teachers enter the profession out of a belief that they can have a significant impact on children.  Not saviors, perhaps, but certainly mentors and benefactors.  I know I felt this way and still do.  That said, my own “education” as a teacher and advisory has led me to a much more nuanced understanding of a teacher’s ability to influence individual students.  Many and varied interactions at the nexus of student, teacher, and family have shown me that many students, despite our best efforts, are largely beyond our influence in important matters.  Even the striving of an apparently mould-breaking child, destined it seems to break away from generational poverty, is often less a result of the school’s or teacher’s conscious work than something more personal and elementally ingrained — the grandmother on welfare he wishes to support, the more whose example he wishes to honor, the poor examples of his older brothers he wishes desperately to avoid.  

And yet, as Tom and Jackson seem to note, there are things that we as educators very much can influence, especially if we all work together toward common visions and goals, and (though they do not touch on this), provided that we work in partnership with communities and individual families.  You can have a dramatic influence as a teacher, but not, perhaps, in the soul-saving, all-encompassing, utterly transformational way you might have thought when you were 21.  Instead, you can still be transformative — but it will be you teaching a student to love reading, or not to fear math, or to learn that hard work pays off.  Sometimes it is as simple as teaching a student that men can love books, or that not all adults yell when you make a mistake (in fact, perhaps mistakes are to be lauded as signs of approaching success).  

 The section ends by noting that our current vision of the professions — including of the “expert” such as the medical doctor as the gold standard of highest regard dates only back to the 19th century, and Welker suggests that perhaps teachers should not look to others to define what their profession should be.  Meanwhile, it’s less important to see teachers as experts with authoritative answers than as professionals asking the right questions, reflective, thoughtful, becoming more and more clear on what the goal is of their particular work.  Welker ends by saying that perhaps most important is that teachers share stories about their approaches to different problems, collaborate with each other, and share knowledge — as fellow practitioners practicing a craft, not as scientists looking for shared definitive answers.

Is writing a science or an art?  It’s closer to an art — it’s a craft.  And teaching seems a lot like that to me.

Critical Pedagogy

There is one more section in the book and in many ways it was the part I was most interested to read.  Perhaps I am looking in the wrong places, but I have trouble finding good, authoritative, reasonably dispassionate analyses of critical pedagogy.  Even though this is the school of thought that I see as most ascendent in education now, and in many ways, ascendent in much of our culture as the primary means of looking at the world.  And yet at least within education, most of the writing I can locate seems either completely laudatory, or absent entirely (as with Diane Ravitch’s splendid 2000 book, Left Back).  I have read very few works that do seem to try to evaluate critical theory and its effects on education.  Strangely, Welker’s book, which was written back in 1992, is the best at this I’ve read.

Welker identifies two primary writers — Maxine Greene and Henry Giroux — to embody two strands of critical theory.  I have to say, I didn’t really understand the section on Greene — whether because of her ideas, or because of the way Welker portrayed them, I’m not sure.  But the section on Giroux certainly helped me better understand what critical pedagogy is and where it comes from, which I think is tremendously important because I believe that right now, this is the box that we are inside of.

Welker cites much of the origin of critical pedagogy in the work of Giroux.  He believes the Giroux “forcefully advocates a utopian mission for the schools . . .  that both teachers and students can become agents of social reform.” My sense is that, unlike social reconstructionists like Dewey or Counts, both of whom did not really question the primacy or the “problematic nature” of knowledge itself, Giroux believes that knowledge, is both made by socially dominant groups (“history is written by the winners”), and transmitted by socially dominant groups through schools, largely for the purpose of social control.  While, schools pretend to offer objective knowledge for the purpose of social advancement, in reality they are designed to reproduce status quo social conditions, thereby maintaining inequalities.  In response to this system, Giroux has two critical elements to his thought, as cited by Welker:

1.  “The sense that the differing experiences and backgrounds students bring to the classroom have the right to be articulated and examined.”

2.  “The sense that education, as radically conceived, must be committed to a social vision grounded in radical pluralism and democracy.”

I have always found this Marxist critique — that schools are set up to preserve the status quo; that they offer politically-tinged curricula that pretend to be objective, that many students do not get a chance to achieve because the schools sort them into lower tracks or the schools do not acknowledge and nurture them — to be rather hard to get out of my head.  Perhaps it is the guilt of being a compassionate educator.  But the question of course then becomes — what’s the best response?  Welker has helped me understand the various ways that such critiques can lead.  I think it’s important for educators to try to undercover the latent political goals of school.  I’ll have to do a further post sometime in the future about this question.  And yet, it’s hard to shake off the feeling, again because we are compassionate educators, that we must be doing more.  Specifically, that:

1.  We must on the one hand believe in our bones that schools and individual teachers can cause dramatic changes in society.  Even if we do not believe this, we must act as though it is — because otherwise, what’s the point of teaching if we are not improving our society?

2.  Our primary goal must be the creation of a more just, democratic society.  This must be the primary goal above any other educational goal (helping students as individuals achieve self-knowledge or economic independence, etc.)

3.  The primary means of this should be a curriculum explicitly focused on social change and political questions.

It’s something of a moral throw-down, and it makes me uneasy.  Yet it’s hard not to think that sometimes this is what we should be doing.

Giroux’s hope is that schools, oppressive and repressive for many, can become “democratic sites” open to “the language of possibility” — places where everything is contested, questioned, and hopefully improved.  Not surprisingly, he has strong words for writers like ED Hirsch and Allan Bloom, and Welker cites one of his responses to them in this book, which seems strangely thin.  He critiques both writers for operating from a “transmission” perspective — simply transmitting, uncritically, preconceived truth to students — which is clearly a misrepresentation of both thinkers, and also shines a light on what I consider hypocritical about many critical theorists — who themselves wish to transmit their own ideas of, as Welker puts it, “radical democracy.”

For Giroux, teachers must become “transformative intellectuals” who Open up every aspect of formal education to active popular contestation” (in Welker’s words).  They do not simply transmit knowledge to students without asking them to question it, but nor do they:

. . .  [H]onor student differences as inherently sacred, as if the potential and limitation of personal experience did not have to be explored on the basis of how it helped students engage a vision of democratic community and broader collective hope.

They are instead expected to ensure all students’ experiences are reflected in school, but then engage students in questioning those experiences in order to engage with a broader political goal.  

Once again, I like the focus on (as one writer put it long ago), “windows and mirrors” that students should have in school.  But it strikes me very much that educators must balance a variety of educational goals of preparing students to find their place in a community (economically and purpose-wise), to identify what kind of values they want to support and how to do that (which might mean supporting a socialist-tinged, radical democracy, or it might involve something different — a strongly libertarian perspective, perhaps), helping students attain the kind of self-knowledge important for living a happy, contented life, and helping them train their minds to think carefully through a variety of problems.  While having teachers engage students to move toward a “more perfect union” — to improve our society — is certainly a worthy goal, there are many ways to do this: serving at a food bank, helping neighbors, even becoming active in local politics or simply voting.  The idea that we must train all students to be fighters against systemic injustice, campaigners and crusaders, is, as they say, “problematic.”

Welker gently chides the critical theorists, joking about their apocalyptic tone and their lack of humor, and sometimes offering dry asides.  In response to Giroux’s call for teachers to “change forms of economic and political power that promote human suffering and exploitation,” Welker writes simply, “This is heady business.”

Welker relates this political urgency to Dewey’s thought that “democracy must be won by every generation,” but he points out astutely that Giroux’s writing — so focused on overtly political questions, often seems intended for teachers of a more mature audience than young school children.  This reminds me of how Paulo Freire was a teacher of adults himself and not children.  Welker admires Giroux’s goal to “make the pedagogical political and the political pedagogical,” but he rightly questions bringing “all the contestation, the give-and-take of the political world into a classroom of the young.” After all, most children and not able to tease out complex moral or social questions and to form mature perspectives on them.  

Even more interestingly, Welker also points out that while critical pedagogy is based on critiquing received knowledge and personal experience, most children simply do not have much experience or received traditions and values.  It is one thing to teach students to rebel and to question tradition, but what happens when children do not have much sense of cultural or academic tradition in the first place?  The past, for Giroux, is more an “encumbrance” than something important to be learned.  Here, Welker gets at the heart of something for me.  He writes, “But the concern for the foundational knowledge of children does not merely represent, as Giroux has responded, a ‘flight from serious politics and an apology for the status quo.’ Rather, it represents the realization that as much as the school reflects political and social life, it does not simply reconstitute it.” Instead the school provides, “a secure place in which to grow.” Tradition — perhaps the kind advocated by Hirsch — is not just “the legacy of historical oppression,” but a “community of memory that can be a foundation for cooperative spirit.” THis is a poetic way to put things, and it’s hard to tell exactly what Welker means.  The best I can tell, he means that tradition provides both a shared Hirschian vocabulary necessary for collective understanding and action, and a set of shared ideals that create community.  For Welker, this conservation provides an element of modeling cooperation, respect, and tolerance that “are not to be found in pedagogy of problem-solving or in critical reflection.” Again, it is hard to tell exactly what he means here — is he emphasizing that study of the past should focus on positive models?  He goes on to say that education necessarily has a “conserving” mission; it must preserve what is important about the past (for students who’d otherwise neglect it) and to conserve students in a sense by nurturing them apart from harsh political realities.  

Welker ends the chapter with something of a backhanded compliment to both Greene and Giroux.  He asks, “How does one balance the need to teach those moral values that form a sense of cohesion in community life and those senses of structure that allow for pluralism and individual development?  To Green and Giroux’s credit, this is precisely the question on which they have always been engaged.”


Welker ends by considering the teachers studied by both Lortie and Jackson, who said their greatest successes were not in students doing academically well, but by seeing students become better people and better citizens through education.  Lortie considered this a futile effort because such characteristics are impossible to measure.  Welker however believes such victories are not only meaningful to teachers, but exactly what the public expects of schools.

Meanwhile the technical mastery approach to teaching is seductive precisely because it offers the possibility that teachers will become highly regarded experts, on par with doctors and lawyers.  Welker concludes that such an approach, given the contingent, situational, unpredictable nature of teaching, is unrealistic.  That said, he does not believe that these realities preclude an understanding of professional best practices.  

Stories and descriptions of good teaching tell us a great deal about the need to be prepared, to have in mind specific and understandable learning objectives, to gear method to content, and to expect the very best that students can offer.

Yet no single method is successful in every situation and “even in the most well-prepared lesson, contingencies will arise that will subvert our best efforts.” The technical vocabulary of the expert must also make way for the language of “perseverance, patience, humor, and good will.”

But even the most expert teachers lack the ability to describe what they do in great detail or clarity.  Like great performers in a variety of fields, many classroom experts rely on familiarity and intuition.  Because the process of teaching and learning often defies easily quantifiable results, and because as a process it insists on the primacy of relationships and nurturing — and because it has historically been a profession populated primarily by women — “it has also created within the profession feelings of inferiority that always seem to lead to the search for more masculine and patriarchal sense of craft.” 

The findings of particularly Jackson and Alan Tom, with whom I can tell Welker has the most sympathy and agreement, point for him toward a new understanding of teaching, in which such previously marginalized qualities like “the ability to pose the appropriate questions and the ability to still one’s own voice in an effort to draw out others seem crucial for human development” — critically important for students and teachers “to accept and respond to the ambiguity and uncertainty that always attend genuine groping after knowledge.” 

Welker then debates the question of whether it’s important for teachers to have greater training and education (he’s ambivalent), and invokes Counts and Giroux to propose that social reconstructionism and critical pedagogy, with their reminders that schools not only exist to benefit individuals, but also society, must be given greater importance in teacher education.  Schools, if not the most important lever in creating a just society, are certainly one of the levers.  

Meanwhile, Welker concludes that education is a public good, and teachers cannot be the sole experts with exclusive care over this profession; they must work in concert with parents and with their communities.  He believes that in this capacity to communicate and to work to make students independent and autonomous, teachers have a great deal to tell other professions.

In the end, Welker’s quashing (or complicating) of the dream of technical competence and doctor-like respectability is still a little hard to swallow.  While I love and enjoy my day-to-day work, I often wish that teachers enjoyed the sort of public esteem, exclusive domain, and monetary compensation as doctors.  Why, for example, does Betsy Devos or Arne Duncan, neither of whom taught for a single day, get to be the Secretary of Education?  Why do teachers make a fraction of the money that obscure specialists such as radiologists or urologists make?  Here in Vermont, the best paid “educator,” our own secretary of state, who oversees a mammoth department and nearly 35 school districts, makes less money per year than the average dentist.  How is this right?

It is in just this context that Dan Lortie’s critiques and proscriptions are so alluring.  Teachers must take charge of our own profession, professionalize our ranks, require far more schooling and credentialing, and insist on identifying better metrics.  Cast away judgment of our profession based on things we cannot control.  We should even, Lortie hints, take back control of education from the layperson school board.  It’s interesting when you think about it — sounds like a lot like privatization. 

But at the same time, it’s hard not to think, especially reading a book like Welker’s, that it’s precisely because teaching cannot be reduced to simple technical work, that it’s so interesting and meaningful.

I realize I have written almost 7,000 words now, but this in itself has been a deeply meaningful exercise.  This is a great book, fully deserving of this sort of parsing and close reading.  I’m glad I did.  I don’t expect anyone to have read to the end of this.  

But that’s not the point, in the end, is it?