by Howard Seeman, Ph.D.
Founder, Supervisor of Instruction
May 7, 2005

I am not the only one who is critical of Teacher Education in the U.S. The U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has sounded the alarm (as posted on Fri, Oct. 30, 2009 in The Philadelphia Inquirer): more must be done to prepare future teachers, especially those sent to failing urban school systems...Future teachers must be as adept at managing a classroom as they are at preparing a lesson plan....Duncan citing (2006 report by former Columbia Teachers College President Arthur Levine) that 61 percent of educators believe they were inadequately prepared for the classroom....that most of the nation's 1,450 teachers colleges are doing a mediocre job, at best, of preparing future teachers.

But, specifically, what is wrong with teacher education in the United States?

The short answer? The curriculum that prospective teachers are put through. Teachers need less training in: Piaget, Erikson, Maslow, or the history/philosophy of education, nor even better methods courses for teaching, e.g., the Pythagorean Theorem.

They need more help with classroom management and classroom disruptive behavior.

In 2007–08, 34 percent of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that student misbehavior interfered with their teaching. Student verbal abuse of teachers was up to 12% and non-verbal disrespect as high as 18%. (National Center for Educational Statistics, Indicators of School Crime and Safety, US Department of Education, 2010)

Classroom disruptions lead to nearly two million suspensions a year! (Daniel Macallair, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 2005)

More than 1 in 3 teachers say that they have seriously considered leaving the profession - or know a colleague who has left - because student discipline and behavior became so intolerable. And 85% believe that new teachers are particularly unprepared for dealing with behavior problems. (Teaching Interrupted, Public Agenda, May 2004)

These classroom disruptions do not just hurt our schools. They also fuel truancy, youth crimes, gang recruitment, family dysfunction, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and suicide.

What is wrong with teacher education for so many years that it has not helped teachers with what they really need?

  1. Most teacher education curricula taught in our nation's colleges are loaded with too much abstract theory and too little realistic practical help. Courses in the history and philosophy of education, learning theory, and child development do help reframe teachers' perceptions of students' learning, but they do little to help teachers with their priority need: what to actually do in the classroom on the spot. There is a training gap between giving teachers informed perceptions, and actually helping them with what specifically to do for over 6 hours a day, 180 days a year. Even the usefulness of subject methods courses only help get across the subject matter, IF the teacher can control his class. Teachers want effective classroom management to be a priority in their education. It is not.

  2. This is because teachers have little to no say regarding the courses they must take. Instead, professors of education have most of this power. And, most education professors tend to select theoretical courses they are comfortable teaching, rather than teach to the priority of what their students need. In many institutions, if the course offerings were more about what teachers really needed, many of these too theoretical professors would be out of a job. Many cannot teach the priority of what these teachers need. Professors vote for curricula that more secures their jobs, than that which would really help the jobs of those they are supposed to help. Some education professors, assigned to train K-12 teachers, would, themselves, fall apart in front of a real K-12 classroom.

  3. Teachers are handcuffed to this professorial-chosen curriculum in order to get college credit, to get salary increments. They dare not buck the system or ask too many reality questions in their education classes that are "off the ivory tower curriculum" for fear of getting a low grade, no credit, and, thus, no salary raise.

  4. Why don't we have more education professors who can teach the priorities of classroom management? Because their training is too conceptual. Unfortunately, teaching (and classroom management) is not just conceptual. Instead:

  5. It is a Performance Art. It is not like learning chemistry formulas. Nor is it like learning what a car needs and then fixing it, no matter how good the (lesson) plan. It is also not like learning Math concepts and then plugging them in.

    Instead: teaching is more like learning the game of tennis: first, how it is played; then actually practicing how to play it, with coaching; then, learning the strokes; until these become instinctive; and finally performing these skills interactively, with other players, on the spot.

    Yes, it involves learning to reframe one's perceptions, as does a trained counselor listening to his clients; thus, educational psychology is useful. But, like the counselor, one must learn the appropriate responses, how to use one's personality, one's authentic responses in order to help. Notice: "responses", "how to use…" performing!

    Or, teaching is more like playing jazz piano: where you learn concepts, practice reactions (e.g., learn to hear the chords), and then perform these responses spontaneously, interacting with the other musicians in such a way that you play with honest feeling in order to make "music" together.

    Or, it is like learning lion taming! where you learn and practice spontaneous decisions, using your feelings, personality, intuition to deliver the appropriate, correct reactions when confronted with the myriad of responses of those to be trained - when that door opens, without having too much time to think.

  6. Training teachers in this Performance Art is very important because without it, or with just theories for reframing perceptions, teachers will fall back into just teaching the way they were taught! And, some of these teachers have had some really bad teachers, and/or parents.

  7. Since teaching is a Performance Art, then we must face the uncomfortable fact that the most powerful tool in the classroom is not, e.g. the blackboard or even the computer, but the teacher's personality. That is why Johnny can be a brat in period 3, then an angel in period 4. He did not change when the bell rang, his teacher did!

  8. This is an uncomfortable fact for some because this means that good teacher training requires teachers to look at their feelings, not just their attainment of cognitive knowledge, or methods. A math teacher who knows his math, even many good methods for teaching it, still falls apart if he cannot manage his class. And he cannot if his personality's interactive-responses, his performance, creates an adversarial relationship with his students.

  9. Thus, teachers need to look at their over-reactions, biases, inappropriate responses, displaced anger, and miscalled discipline problems. They need to learn how to correct these, practice appropriate responses: fairness, how to keep track of promises, warnings, systematic rewards, be properly assertive, and identify the causes of correctly identified disruptive behaviors. For a very few, this art of teaching comes naturally. Unfortunately, these few "naturals" know very little about why what they do works, nor how to transfer what they do naturally to others.

  10. Thus, we need to analyze what is "natural" for some, and turn these intangibles – into tangible, trainable, transferable knowledges and skills for new teachers and troubled veteran teachers. We can.

    What are some of the crucial skills of this performance art? Here is one, which is also another reason why it is so difficult to train teachers:

  11. Congruence. We have not been able to help teachers with the performance art of teaching because you cannot just tell teachers what to do, e.g., when Johnny does x. If a teacher does not respond congruently, authentically, is not being herself, real, honest,… whatever she tries, will be ineffective. Carl Rogers: "When a person delivers a message that does not really match his/her feelings, that person is being incongruent". For example, a teacher who yells: "I am NOT angry with you!!" is being incongruent. Or, who looks bored while saying: "The civil war was very important." Or, seems really not to be behind the rule: "If you call out again, you will, ah, get, ah, an assignment,…soon." In other words, an incongruent teacher is phony; he has not really figured out how he feels, or what he really believes in. He seems to be acting like the TEACHER, from some kind of tape recorder in his head. Instead, we need to, and can, train teachers NOT how to be the TEACHER, but how to incorporate their real selves into their teaching so that they can be professionally person-al. Real, authentic, self aware, congruent teacherpersons tend to have more rapport with their students. Congruent teachers have fewer discipline problems. When someone tries to be a class clown in this congruent teacher's class, the other students tend to say to this class clown: "Hey, cool it, she is trying to teach us something!" We need to train teachers at being congruent, that helps establish this rapport with students. We need to help them with how to put their real person into their teacher, and how to practice this. We can.

  12. Thus, we cannot train teachers in classroom management by just giving them a recipe of what to do when…. If we have them do what is incongruent for them, the students will see they are wearing a "mask" and will try to rip off this phony masked set of responses. One of the key causes of disruptive classroom behavior is when a teacher is incongruent regarding: classroom rules, warnings, promises, subject matter delivery, and his general interaction with his students.

    How can we help teachers with the specifics of what to do in the classroom and at the same time, support their congruence?

  13. We need to give teachers guidelines for effective rules, and suggested procedures for homework, warnings, rewards, handling cursing, but, not tell them exactly what to say or do. Then, we need to give them training exercises in these areas, exercises where they can find the responses that feel right for them, and then practice these, within helpful guidelines. We need to help them practice, simulate and role play these tailored-to-themselves suggestions, so they may be effective and still be themselves. We can.

  14. Also, school administrators need to be mindful that they should not ask teachers to enforce rules that their teachers feel incongruent with. Thus, they need to allow teachers to participate in the formation of school rules. Or, at least, they need to take the time to explain to teachers the rationale behind such rules in order to enlist the authentic backing of the school's staff. Furthermore, they need to go out of their way to back teachers' rules in their classrooms, assuming that the teachers are "correct", before declared guilty by a complaining parent.

  15. Training good teachers is also difficult because of what I call: "the picture problem": When a teacher asks me, "Prof. Seeman, how should I handle a class clown?!" my response first is to ask: "Is he funny?" With my answer, this teacher looks at me questioningly. Why did I answer that way?

    Because when this question is asked, we all think of different class clowns, different kids. Similarly, with the question: "What do you do when a kid just does not listen to you?!" Notice, with this question, we are all picturing different kids, different situations, different causes for this situation. So, in teacher education we need to first clearly picture what it is we are working on, the causes, the context, what happened before, not just give advice, perhaps, to the wrong picture. This is why in-the-field student teaching, at the end of most teacher education curricula, is more effective than teaching theories to teachers.

    But we do not have to wait for this in-the-field experience. We can do this training right in the college classroom. We can role play and simulate the specific problem, diagnose possible causes of the disruptive behavior, and help teachers practice congruent, effective responses. A troubled teacher can show us how Johnny responds when she does x. Then, we can teach her guidelines for handling, e.g., "back-talk", and how to follow these guidelines her way, by doing what is congruent for her. Then, in the final semester, we can nail these skills down more when she gets to student teaching.

    For example, for me, if the "class clown" is funny, and makes me laugh, I do what is congruent for me: I might first just laugh. Then, I follow certain guidelines (discussed in my book: Ch. 12 A.) my way, as a personteacher.

    There are also guidelines for effective rules that teachers can learn; and then, within them, help them to be themselves as they follow these.

  16. It is also difficult to train teachers to prevent and handle, e.g., discipline problems because many teachers are simply embarrassed to talk about these problems. In faculty lounges, they talk about their weekends, not that Johnny made a fool of them in period 3. Thus, in order to train teachers in classroom management, we need to first help teachers feel unalone with these problems. We need to learn how to build a trust level in education classes. We need to help teachers find support for, and with, each other. We can.

  17. We need to help teachers not with just how to handle, e.g., discipline problems, but with how to prevent these problems. The best time to fix a problem is before it becomes one. We need to help teachers diagnose and locate the CAUSES of disruptive behavior, e.g., why Johnny became a brat seven minutes into the lesson. Of course, it is not all the teacher's fault. But, some teachers know how to channel his behavior even before he becomes disruptive. We need to train teachers in these skills.

  18. One of the causes of discipline problems that we need to train teachers in is what I call: not making "miscalls", viz., when a teacher calls a behavior a "discipline problem", when it should have been labeled and handled differently. For example, if Johnny puts his head down on his desk in the back of the room, it might be better to call it an "education problem" and not hit it with a "hammer". Instead, it may be better to use a "screwdriver", e.g., let some behaviors slide for that moment, or use: "See me after class." When Mr. Smith stops his lesson and yells to this student: "Hey, what are you doing sleeping in my class?!" – Mr. Smith is usually more disruptive to his own lesson than the student. Futhermore, his "miscall" does not "help" the student by reprimanding him in front of the class. We need to train teachers in about 15 typical "miscalls", and what to do instead of making these.

  19. One more point: I mentioned we need to teach more than just subject matter methods. But even in teaching "subject matter methods" we need to go further. Since the personality of the teacher is the most effective tool in the classroom, even a good Lesson Plan, chock full of good methods, will still not do. We need to train teachers in not just "good lesson plans" but in the delivery of good lesson plans. The same on-paper lesson plan that is effective for teacher A, bombs for teacher B. Jay Leno does not get paid for his "lesson plan" of jokes written out for him. He gets paid for his delivery. We need to train teachers in this performance delivery, and how to practice this: timing and affective-effective momentum, not just teach them how to make good Lesson Plans. Stand up comics learn this art of delivery. Public speakers are coached in this area. We need to teach this art to teachers as well. We can.

Now, if you are not one of these professors putting teachers through a curriculum that does not speak to the priority of their needs, fine, don't defend yourself.

However, if you are one of these professors, spend a lot of time in your teachers' classrooms, listen to what they need, then revamp and supplement your teacher education curriculum, and then re-train.

Be more threatened that:
once caring teachers are now giving up all over our country and quitting;
we have fewer and fewer competent "lifeguards" for our children;
some incompetent teachers are not re-training, and just staying for the vacations they get; and our children are in grave trouble from classes in disarray - to school violence.

Be more threatened by these, than your concerns about protecting your traditional professorial teaching.

Howard Seeman, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus, Lehman College, C.U.N.Y., author of Preventing Classroom Discipline Problems, 3rd Ed. (Rowman/Littlefield Publishers),
and Instructor/Consultant at:

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