457. Professors

One word I sometimes enjoy playing with is “professor.” I haven’t bothered to find out how the word came to mean what it usually means, but I enjoy thinking of a professor as one who professes. That is, it’s someone who professes to know and teach, but may or may not actually know and teach. That definition fits some of the people who have been in positions to teach me.
When I first thought about moving from my position as high school English teacher to one as elementary school teacher, I was worried about whether the cut in salary would make it hard for me to support my family. I was sure that teaching second grade would be much more fun than teaching high school (which it was, for me), and I assumed that I would therefore be paid much less. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I would be on the same salary schedule as high school teachers.
In some ways, I didn’t have to know as much, nor profess to know as much. I didn’t have to think about the fine points of grammar any more, nor worry about whether the people I taught would have vocabularies richer than mine. True, I’d have to know math, science, and other things high school English teachers didn’t even have to profess to know. But I wouldn’t have to know them too far beyond a second grade level.
But it wasn’t too long before I discovered that I did have to know more about how people learn than I’d had to know as a high school teacher. High school teachers can get away with not knowing diddly about how people learn; they can put their pupils totally in charge of being or becoming students. I knew high school teachers who held themselves accountable for their pupils’ learning, but I also knew quite a few who didn’t – who professed to teach, but were quite content to let some pupils fail.
Some of the least effective teachers I’ve known taught in college, and some were called “professors.” They had various college degrees which were supposed to indicate that they were knowlegeable, and somewhere along the line, authorities had surmised that these degree-holders’ supposed knowledge would make them good teachers. And so they were entrusted with the education of some more potential degree-holders. And so on, and so forth.
It’s too bad. As long as teaching is useful, it’s a skill, an art, and a science. We do encourage children, as much as possible, to take charge of their own learning. But if teachers put their pupils totally in charge of their own learning, then they aren’t teaching, shouldn’t be paid, and shouldn’t have any power over their pupils’ futures. If they don’t teach, they aren’t teachers.
This sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? I do know professors I admire – people who do more than profess to know and teach. But I think there’s a hole in the system, and it lets in people who may write books, and may have done well in courses, but who have no idea how to teach.

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