The Social Studies Teacher

I have been giving this topic much thought since this summer. Being a “so-called” leader in history education, I am often asked to participate in various projects, forums, meetings, and conferences related to the process by which historians gather data, and how that data is disseminated within the classroom. I have noticed a troubling trend of late. Often when asked to speak to high school history teachers, or conduct a seminar related to the processes of historical thinking, I have found way too many teachers far too focused on the process of  history instruction without fully grasping the essential ideas of the conceptual process by which they are to instruct.

Usually after talking to teachers about a critical historical concept and the essential sources that support that concept, I am inundated with questions or emails from people asking me to hand them a lesson plan. Now, do not get me wrong here, I love sharing; it is what I do. Better yet, it is the great joy of working with colleagues. It is why we attend workshops and conferences. I am most troubled by those that want to disseminate historical information, but yet in doing so, lack a full grasp for the information they are presenting to their students. In one specific case, I was asked to speak to a high school history department on the theme of “historical change agents.” During this meeting, I discussed the importance of teaching political revolutions by focusing on social periodizations. In hopes of some discourse on the content…seeing that the topic is not simple, many  wanted to focus on the lesson planning of the subject. How can one plan to teach what one does not understand? In essence, they wanted the material I gave them in order to pass it off to their students. Though I was frustrated, I did not show it. I forced my participants to do the exercise themselves. And as I expected, they found it to be very difficult. And though it was difficult, the questions teachers asked still centered around making the exercise easier. Hence, eliminating the parts that were most crucial so that it might easily be passed off to students as a mere classroom activity, and not a lesson on historical reasoning and thinking.

The Fordham study has also been very critical on this matter. Better yet, it agrees with my assessment. More than half of high school history teachers did not major or even minor in history in college. Instead, most studied education or psychology or sociology. These are highly specialized areas. But, much like political science, do require the important skills to teach historical reasoning.  As a result, teachers charged with imparting essential information to young Americans about the history of their country and world must rely heavily on the textbooks available to them—often textbooks that teachers themselves had little to do with selecting. Because these texts end up serving as students’ primary sources of information, it’s vitally important that they be accurate and interesting, and that they establish a narrative of events with a strong sense of context. They must tell “the main story” without neglecting lesser stories that form part of an accurate picture of the past. What they must not be is sprawling, drab assemblages of disjointed information in which everything matters equally and nothing is truly important.

Thus the problem with the notion of the “Social Studies” teacher. When asked if I teach social studies, I politely ask what does social studies mean? I  have assumed that it is a process taught by elementary school teachers who teach every subject. This exact concept holds true for those that home school too. One cannot have the depth nor the understanding of the historical processes when they have not been asked to do the work needed for this. How can a person teach a history course when they have not read the most recent journal article offering new insights into a particular topic? I suspect the same old information published in a textbook is taught. Thus, too many teachers become overly dependent on a book, and less on the most recent scholarship.

So, when asked by teachers attending one of my seminars how I prepare for class, I respond by saying I read. And not just out of a textbook. I seek various references and articles that might shed a different point of view. I would hope that teachers who teach U.S. history might have their students explore the significance of Marxist Historiography on the process of sharecropping. Or, in World and European History, the shift from synthetic history to Annales history; I do not think it is always important to assign titles to such classroom studies, but having students understand historical periodizations is most crucial.

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10 thoughts on “The Social Studies Teacher

  1. You and I are professional soulmates. I mean it.

    We’re interviewing for another English teacher in my little charter high school (the absolutely PERFECT guy I’ve got in the job now is leaving me to pursue his MFA – and yes; he’s leaving ME. Just when I fall professionally in love with this man, off he goes! bastid. ANYWAY…). The gentleman who interviewed today was, in my opinion, too narrowly focused. He was all about grammar and Hemmingway; he left me with no feel for what else interests him. While I appreciate that he’s got a concentration that brings him professional fulfillment, there will only be we two in the entire English department, and I’m looking for someone who is interested in investigating as wide a range of concepts, topics, and materials as possible with the kids, ESPECIALLY since, between the two of us, we’ll constitute most of the voices our students will hear in this discipline (except, of course, when I Skype YOU in!). In my humble professional opinion, English is far more than one or two canonized authors and the proper use of the semicolon; it’s about figuring out what the stories we tell – and have told – through time have to say about who we are as citizens, and as human beings. If I’m not absolutely sure someone can’t navigate as far and as wide as possible, I’m not going to endorse his being hired in my department.

  2. The hiring process is so important; it can make or break a dept. Maybe I will meet this new person while visiting you campus? English faces many of the same problems history faces. Except, in defense of those teaching in the area of history/social sciences, too many silly states want too broad of a certification. That not alwats bad. But, why do some places require just a semester of Economics then get mad when folks don’t want to teach it because they are not comfortable with it. Or, as I noted, US History. The range is smaller with English; I suspect the sciences face this too.

  3. Eddie you have hit the nail on the head. The schools of education in this country have focused on pedagogy/methodology rather than scholarship. We expect our teachers to be steeped in educational courses rather than the courses they will teach such as History, English, Science, Math, etc. It is interesting to note through the years I have read several writers make note of this trend where they have documented for example that a math major in college is required to take more hours of math courses than a math education major. Similar situations have been pointed out in History, English and Science as well. This contributes, I believe, to a lot of the anti-intellectualism we see in education today. More so in the Christian context as human beings, we have a moral and ethical obligation to develop our minds and intellect to God’s glory since we are created in His image. In the current atmosphere of instant gratification, we are not willing to wrestle with the issues so we can have a depth of understanding as you so eloquently stated above.

  4. I agree Tom; I do think there is a need to understand how to present information and why students think and lear in different ways. But I am one who also contends that the stronger one’s content of subject is, the better they are are presenting the information.

    I am a great example here. When I first stated teaching, I had never taken a World History course in its “true” sense. I took a number of egional of area courses, but that is not world history; I did use the methodology of others to link the areas and thus teach what really is a world course. But, that also required some foundational knowledge too. Does this mean I am an expert on the history China. No. I am not even close.

    Here is the problem: State legislatures are made up of folks who do not get it. They ask too much and ask teachers to be experts in too many areas. I think the model needs to be change — another blog post on how will come later. But, there is a point of historical knowledge that teachers must have and know.

  5. I haven’t had a single secondary school interview where I haven’t been asked (when applying for a ss position) “What do you coach?” I’m a short fat person-social drinking? Carousing?

  6. s parker:
    I am always asked that….Well, except at my current place. Independent schools love it when faculty members can do many things. But, one does not have to coach to do “many” things. I have done my share of coaching. I do not think places should hire a person to be a coach first and a teacher second. The nice thing about my campus is that our coaches are rock stars in the classroom. This I know is not the norm at a number of places. As for the social drinking part — that is me. Wine is my hobby; I read about it; I drink it; I talk about it. We would get a lone well.

    • Try an oregon pinot-it’s my backyard-Erath, Argyle, and Rex Hill are quite yummilicious………….
      I am certified to teach several subjects, but I always find the ss positions ask about the coaching……………..and once came in 2nd place for a job that I was certified for, and was told ‘well, we need a wrestling coach’-the other person was not certified……..oy

  7. I am going to argue to both points here, which is probably why “social studies” teachers often receive a bad rap. As a teacher in a big high school, I am expected to be able to teaching anything, at the blink of an eye. If a course needs to be added, anyone can be drafted to fill that position. Because I imagine this is common practice for many schools, teachers often have a difficult time becoming anything close to an expert in their field. I currently teach several different courses, have 150 students, sponsor various clubs, and have a family that expects me to be present in their lives. At times I know I do an injustice to a topic but sometimes I just hope “to make it through”. Now thankfully that isn’t every day, but I do see where some of your participants may be coming from. Additionally, I think many teachers are constantly balancing the desire to present relevant and valid information to students, using best teaching practices. I know many who have brilliant minds, but lack the ability to gain control of a class and actually TEACH. How many of us sat through a college course with an expert teacher who was unable to connect with their students. So, I find myself unsure if I agree completely. Yes, reading and studying is vital—but that is only one aspect of being a good “social studies teacher”.

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