The Teacher is the Center of Education (Not)

All fifty states base their education policy on the notion that the educational process centers on the teacher. Since 1952, the government has placed nearly all its educational eggs in the certification basket. Despite the lack of evidence that teacher certification positively affects student outcomes. Still, states cling to it. Worse, many parents believe that trained teachers can do a better job.

Of course, gifted teachers exist, and they benefit from good training. That doesn’t mean that they can teach your children better than you can. My experience as a teacher convinced me to homeschool my own children. I realized that no amount of skill or training could compensate for a parent’s love and intimate knowledge. In addition, the classroom setting itself frustrates learning. Confronting a frustrating task in the homeschool tempts parents to think some other remedy might be more effective. Frustration encourages us to believe that a master teacher could help the child master the subject matter with little effort.

In spite of our experience, sometimes we still believe the teacher matters most. The magic of certification still humbles us, but it need not. Certification tells you all about what courses the teacher took. It says nothing about whether he actually learned anything, or about his ability to teach. Would you evaluate a restaurant by the quality of the food the chef has eaten? Not knowing whether he got the recipes, or whether he can produce good food based on those recipes? Yet that’s precisely what certification does. It evaluates teachers based on the courses they have taken.

When it comes to any profession, whether teachers or cooks, many are trained, but few are gifted. The skills of many highly regarded teachers lie mainly in the area of classroom management. Without order, no one can learn, but good classroom management doesn’t produce learning, it simply removes one set of obstacles. Many orderly classrooms are intellectually sterile. Few indeed are the teachers who can actually foster learning. But even they face almost insurmountable obstacles in the classroom setting.

No matter how skilled the teacher, he or she must compete with twenty to thirty others in the classroom, each modeling various types of behavior. Much of the time the teacher loses and student attention wanders. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, anyway. The simple truth is, what the teacher does, doesn’t matter much at all.

We’ve all seen students flunk classes taught by brilliant teachers. And we’ve seen students flourish under terrible teachers. If teacher training mattered so much, then student outcomes should have improved steadily since 1952. No one believes that. What the teacher does pales into insignificance when compared to what the learner does, and actually, it all comes down to storytelling, especially in the early years.

Making the teacher the center of the learning experience limits what the learner can do. I have a permanent certificate and a Master’s Degree, plus many years of teaching. Many homeschoolers have said to me, “Oh, it’s easy for you to homeschool, but what about when the children need to learn things you don’t know?” That happens nearly every day. My children continually discover things I don’t know and develop skills I don’t have. Had I limited them to receiving instruction from me, that could not have happened.

That’s one of the prime differences between traditional classrooms and homeschools. Successful homeschools focus on the learner because the learner determines the outcome. This brings good news on top of good news. You need not worry about your lack of skill or even knowledge. The student’s desire and good work habits will make up for any and all inadequacies on your part, except for one.

Every parent can model the learning process. It doesn’t matter what you learn, or that you need to know chemistry or calculus, but that you’re willing to learn. In short, if you model learning, you teach your child to learn. Henry Brooks Adams, son and grandson of presidents, told us, “They know enough who know how to learn.” Model learning, and your children will learn for themselves what they need to accomplish their goals, whether chemistry, calculus, or cooking.

The late Isaac Asimov, the author of more than 400 books, tells of showing his father all the books he had written. “Who taught you all this?” the father asked. “Why, you did, Papa,” Asimov replied. His father, a Russian immigrant who ran a candy store, said, “I did?” “Yes, Papa. You taught me to love books, and they taught me all the rest.” In the same way, teaching our children to love learning equips them to find everything else they need.