Is a PhD enough to teach at school?

By Grant Jacobs 02/11/2012 22

Radio NZ writes,

The group advising the Government on how to set up charter schools wants people who have no teaching qualifications to be given official teacher registration.

The Charter School Working Group says expertise, rather than a teaching qualification, should also be enough to gain registration.

Chairperson Catherine Isaac says this may include PhDs or degrees in science, engineering or languages. “They may be people with music, arts, trades qualifications who would make great teachers,” she says.

More details are in a NZ Herald article,

While we await full details on the idea, what are readers’ thoughts?

Do read articles first; they offer at least some clues why this is being suggested.

My understanding is that high school teachers have to hold relevant first degrees in the area they teach before undertaking teacher training. I’m guessing this suggestion wants to allow a “fast entry” for those with relevant expertise that might not want to front up to a year of teacher training, perhaps targeted at those who will have a limited role in teaching e.g. a few classes a week, where the return on a year’s training might be less. But does that justify by-passing teaching training?

It is worth noting that the NZ government careers website notes,

The Government offers scholarships for people to train as teachers in subjects where there is a high need. They also offer career changer scholarships, which are available in some subject areas for people wishing to retrain.

Isaac’s suggestion also seems to potentially open a “slippery slope” as to who might qualify for this “fast entry” – you’ll note how Isaac starts with PhDs, but goes on to name a wider range of options – where do the criteria end?

(I don’t normally cover teaching, that’s more Alison’s patch, but I suppose you could argue this falls within the non-research career topic I cover from time to time. This story is apparently on the front cover of today’s edition of the Otago Daily Times, but I can’t [yet] locate an on-line copy of the article, nor I have seen the print copy.)

22 Responses to “Is a PhD enough to teach at school?”

  • Also Alison is currently extremely busy with marking, end-of-semester-admin & other ‘stuff’! In other words, I’m really glad you’ve picked up on this.

    As someone who entered secondary teaching after graduating with a PhD I have to say no, it’s not enough. The PhD tells prospective employers that I’m highly skilled in a particular research area (& hopefully also that I’m intelligent, highly motivated, a flexible thinker, & so on). It doesn’t mean that I’ve acquired the skills necessary to manage a classroom effectively & enhance students’ learning in a particular curriculum area. Frankly, that’s what teacher training programs are all about. Just having ‘expertise’ in one area doesn’t give you expertise in another (& it continues to concern me that we currently lack a system of accreditation for tertiary teachers:

    Would you mind if I had a shot at this as well? (When I get a minute, haha!)

  • “Would you mind if I had a shot at this as well?” – I was hoping you would. Thanks for the links to your earlier post.

    (FWIW: I’m flat-out myself, hence opting for a ‘question’ format.)

    PS: Apologies to readers for the mangled styling on the second quote – I haven’t time to address it, I’m afraid. (It’ll be from cut’n’pasting directly in the WP editor messing up as it seems to from time to time.)

  • I think the questions fall back to “What is/are the defining characteristics of a successful teacher?” and “How can we know that person X has these characteristics?” I assume that it is the registration body that has the final say in this – Having a teaching degree would be a big step to ensuring quality – but is it the ONLY possible way? I think that’s something the registration body needs to have a careful discussion about – free from political interference. If it allowed other routes in, what assurances of quality would it accept? There are probably many people who would make excellent secondary teachers with appropriate help and encouragement, but would be put off taking this route if it meant a year earning no salary while training. (Indeed, a year where it could cost a lot – going off on long placements away from your home and your children at your expense.) How can such potential teachers be captured while still assuring quality?

    I certainly agree though with Alison in that a PhD does not mean someone can teach, either at secondary or at tertiary level. It’s pretty-well worthless in terms of teaching. A would-be teacher needs a lot more than that on their CV.

  • In Finland, a high school teacher is required to have majored in the subject of their expertise and have a minor in pedagogy and didactics. Thus, they get both a degree in their primary field and a teaching qualification in their graduation.

    Being a capable performer in your primary subject says nothing of your teaching qualifications. Moreover, even if you are a great public speaker and give wonderful lectures, you are not necessarily a good teacher. In high school it is more important to be a teacher and even an instructor than being a subject matter expert.

    As Marcus Wilson is saying, however, not having formal education degree is not necessarily indicative of not being capable of being a good teacher. A certification procedure based on, for example, auditor evaluation of sample lessons, might be a good addition.

  • What is it about teaching that makes people assume anyone can do it? I don’t see people walking into hospitals assuming they can work as a nurse.
    However, hospitals do have volunteers, and perhaps that is where the value of those with PhD’s and other skills should contribute in schools – coming along to help teach UNDER THE SUPERVISION of a qualified teacher who can help make the experience a valuable experience for everyone involved in the same way nurses can supervise volunteers in hospitals.
    I did a short stint in a high school after finishing my PhD but without a teaching qualification and although I think I did an ok job the 0.7 position sucked the life out of me, as I didn’t have the resources teachers can draw on from their training.
    It is not easy being a teacher and throwing someone into it untrained doesn’t do the person teaching, or the students any favours.
    There are of course a few people who are naturally gifted teachers but without training even they will have difficulty navigating the ares of NCEA requirements and educational pedagogy.
    With regards to tertiary teachers there are some who are good teachers, but it is my experience that there are some who are not and put very little effort into teaching as their focus is on research. In many ways university study in the past has been survival of the fittest – if you can’t adapt to some of the quirky personalities and teaching styles then you may not survive (though I’m sure with people like Marcus and Alison teaching things must be better these days :-) )

  • The word “teaching” covers a lot of meanings. I have never been trained as a teacher, but in many ways I consider myself a teacher. (No, not a PhD, but still papers at University level 8)

    I have worked in my profession (medicine) for more than two decades. I feel that it is time for me to pass on my experience and learnings to the next generation, otherwise the experience and knowledge will be lost and account to nothing. I now “teach” and provide a collegial relationship to registrars who are training in my speciality.

    Outside of my profession I also seek to pass on the knowledge and teachings that I experienced in my youth to the youth of today. In practice this means working with Scouting NZ and St John Ambulance so that my knowledge and experience are not lost in time.

    To me, this is teaching, but not in a school setting.

    To kemo sabe, I’ve assisted in removal of appendices (yes, plural) but much prefer to be at least 50 km from where the operation is happening! I doubt if anyone would appreciate me doing one, even though I’ve never driven a bus.

  • you’re right, Stuart & Marcus – ‘teaching’ has a range of meanings & there may be many ways to gain the needed skills. I guess what’s lacking so,far is any indication from Ms Isaacs of how charter schools intend to assess the expertise of those she’s proposing to put at the front of the classroom (& by ‘expertise’ I mean their expertise in teaching.)

  • Pentti Hirvonen,

    Welcome to Code for life and sciblogs. Excuse my slow approval of your comment – now that your first comment has been approved you can comment at will.

    Am I right in reading you as saying the teaching component down within the academic degree in Finland? In New Zealand, is an additional year following the undergraduate degree. It occurs to me that if I’m reading you correctly, in Finland adding the teaching component as part of your degree, might make your qualification more flexible without taking more time.

  • Alison,

    You wrote: “I guess what’s lacking so,far is any indication from Ms Isaacs of how charter schools intend to assess the expertise of those she’s proposing to put at the front of the classroom”

    That’s what I was trying to invoke with my “where do the criteria end?” remark. It would certainly be helpful to learn more what is intended there. At face value she seems to be suggesting there will be no, or little, initial assessment of this and is thinking of relying on the ‘supervisor’/co-worker (whatever) to bring the teaching up to a suitable level.

  • Seriously though…
    It’s fashionable to compare NZ unfavourably with Finland, but given our special circumstances it would appear that our teaching must be first rate.
    Our students score nearly as well as the Finns despite our average being dragged down by the ‘long tail’, which for demographic reasons the Finns don’t have.

  • kemo sabe,

    what are the demographic reasons that mean the FInns don’t have the long tail found in the NZ education system?

  • Michael
    It is a much more homogeneous society, with a widespead traditional respect for learning and less disparity in incomes.
    Japan is similar.

  • what is enough to teach at school?
    Could there not be appropriate experience which makes up for a lack of a formal certificate?

  • John,
    What sort of experience do you think would make up for lack of a formal certificate? dealing with teenagers is quite a unique experience.

  • Michael, many have dealt with teenagers outside of a sec school context – pastoral care professions, ESOL teaching, PTE’s etc. How does this rank with 1 year training post degree? How would 20 years of ESOL teaching and and English degree rank with a 22 year old fresh out of training college?

  • John,
    I think “many have dealt with teenagers” is an overstatement, particularly when you consider that teaching in secondary schools usually means dealing with a group of 20 to 30 teenagers at one time, alone, for 40 to 60 minutes at a time.
    Though I’m sure you are correct that there would be a few people who would have dealt with groups of teenagers outside of the school environment. In such cases it would seem reasonable for them to be able to undergo some sort of assessment/ intensive training if they wanted to teach secondary school, or for them to act as a guest speaker or teacher’s aide.
    I will default to the medical analogy again – if we wouldn’t accept a non medically trained person treating a sick child in hospital then why would we accept a non-educationally trained person teaching children in school? While a non qualified person in a hospital might threaten the child’s immediate health, a non-qualified teacher could affect their whole future.

  • Michael, I am not suggesting there are people with experiences that can replace 7 yrs of med school, merely with experiences that can replace 1 yr of t’coll. Furthermore, it would be smthg extraordinary if 1 teacher out of dozens encountered in a child’s schooling cld be a threat to their future just because they lacked a particular piece of paper…I do not buy that.
    If someone lacks skills to manage 20+ teenaggers, then I wld hope charter schools would ensure they get them or not hire them. If they do not, I think they will not last long as a business – at least they shldn’t if parents taketheir parenting seriously and monitor what is happening with their children at school. I also imagine that it wld be easier for a charter school to dismiss an underperforming teacher than is currently the case in state schools.

  • adding the teaching component as part of your degree, might make your qualification more flexible without taking more time

    Would depend on how it’s done. At my institution one option is the degree (3yrs) & a one-year Dip.Tching, & that is the way I advise our students to go. The alternative – a conjoint – actually has less flexibility in that timetabling issues can really constrict subject choices.

    John, I think it’s more than simply the skills needed to ‘manage’ teenagers, although goodness knows they play a major part in whether or not someone will be good in the classroom. But there’s also things like actual methods used to help the kids maximise their learning; OK, you learn mostly theory, + get some practice, while doing your qual – but at least you have that, as opposed to coming into the classroom completely cold.

    And yes, one bad teacher can have a lasting impact, just as a good teacher can.

  • John,

    “I am not suggesting there are people with experiences that can replace 7 yrs of med school, merely with experiences that can replace 1 yr of t’coll.”

    I think you are drastically underestimating the value of one year of teacher’s college.

  • Grant,

    In Finland, a Master’s degree takes nominally five years and comprises 300 credit units. Of this, the topic you specialise in typically takes the lion’s share. In addition, you must have additional subjects for about 60 credit units. The smallest package that gives you the qualification for teaching in public or government-funded schools is 30 credit units. This sounds like one semester, but is typically spread in smaller doses over three or four semesters.

    Thus, for example, someone may have M.Sc. in physics specialising in electromagnetics but with a 30 credit unit dose of chemistry and 30 credit units in teaching. This person then graduates in the typical time for a master’s degree and has the qualifications for being a science teacher in high school, vocational school, or junior high.

    Someone else may have a full physics degree, majoring in electromagnetics with a 60 credit unit minor in, say, measurement technology. This person would then need a post-degree additional qualification of the 30 credit units before getting a permanent position as a teacher in high school, vocational school, or junior high.

  • Personally I think that the “Charter School Working Group” would be more accurately described as the “Sinecure Creation Scheme for Catherine Isaac Group”, but there you go.
    IIRC she has no experience or knowledge of education. She is one of these ACT-party stalwarts who believes that the government has no useful role to play in the labour market except to create well-paid positions for ACT-party stalwarts.

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