Confessions of a Converted Chairman: My Life with Teacher Education

by Professor David T. Gies

Originally published in the ADFL Bulletin, Volume 28, Number 2, Winter 1997. David Gies is Commonwealth Professor of Spanish in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. Professor Gies is also the CLA Spanish Project Director. This article is based on his presentation at ADFL Seminar West, 6-8 June 1996, in San Diego, California.

I hardly considered myself to be an enemy of education. After all, I had been married to a secondary-school teacher (in fact, I have been married to two of them), I had organized workshops and classes and institutes and lecture series and in-service programs through various funding agencies to work with hundreds of high school teachers locally and nationally, I had participated in bake sales and clean-up projects and car washes to earn money for secondary classroom improvements, and I had appointed specialists in applied linguistics and teacher training. As if this were not enough to establish my credentials as a bona fide fan and supporter of teachers, I had also made endless phone calls and served on committees designed to “improve, study, analyze, justify, and articulate” programs in foreign languages and pedagogy, and I had served long hours on national panels the allocated funds for improving secondary education in Spanish and Spanish teachers’ knowledge of their discipline. I had spoken with Department of Education representatives and state senators and school administrators. Still, some people considered me a kind of Attila the Hun of Ed Schools, something that left me perplexed if not also somewhat disappointed, and over the years I came to realize that I was beginning to acquire a reputation as a kind of anti-education monster because of some things I had done and said, things which at the time seemed perfectly reasonable and perfectly benign. I am talking about certain demonstrated comments and actions directed toward the education establishment in America. I think now that my troubles might have begun when I began suggesting that education in America would be moved forward considerably if we only got rid of all the education schools, by attrition, by defunding, or by voting with our feet.

What I meant by my perhaps intemperate statement about getting rid of education schools was that in my experience most hindrances to proper teacher education came from those very schools. While I did not doubt the sincerity, intelligence, and honesty of my education school colleagues, and certainly not their commitment, my experience dictated that they were misguided. As I saw it – and this perception was confirmed by dozens, if not hundreds, of teachers around the country who had been through those credentialing factories – too much time was spent on touchy-feely stuff and not enough on substantive issues or content. One teacher in particular consistently voiced anger at the structure of some courses: entire three-hour classes were taken up with “sharing” and “discussion” and unstructured anecdotal musings that, in her judgment, not only lacked substance but also wasted her valuable time. Initially I thought that such stories were the exception rather than the norm. Yet I came to believe that stories of time spent on stress management, gradebook organization, beautiful bulletin boards, and the like rather than on social studies or English or foreign language or history were more frequent than anyone was willing to admit. And all my worst fears were confirmed by Rita Kramer’s passionate indictment of the situation in her 1991 book Ed School Follies.

I began to poll teachers informally about their experiences in education school courses. Some, naturally, responded enthusiastically and praised their knowledgeable, caring professors. They lauded the hands-on nature of supervised teaching, for example, and the expertise former practitioners brought to the classroom. Others, though, were less enthusiastic, and many were downright hostile. The examples I offer might ring a bell of familiarity – many readers have probably heard similar complaints – but I wish to emphasize that the courses discussed represent neither a particular university’s offerings nor the offerings of all education schools. Still, these examples accurately reflect what teachers had been telling me for the past twenty-five years.

One teacher bitterly criticized the arrogant belief of members of the education establishment that they knew all about teaching, and that everyone else needed to shut up and listen. Others mentioned curriculum design courses that theorized endlessly about design rather than implementing it and that created teachers who could not design a simple workshop for teaching assistants or for students. Courses in tests and measurements were also judged by some people to be overly theoretical and “useless” (an adjective that appeared with alarming frequency as I spoke to teachers; the other two, alas, were “boring” and “trivial”). One teacher scorned a course called Fundamentals of Curriculum Writing, which he said consisted entirely of sharing, talking, chatting, and digressing. In fact, he claimed that he never even turned in the final paper and still got an A in the course. His experience confirms Rita Kramer’s observations:

Hardly anywhere did I find a sense that any kind of knowledge is valuable in itself or more valuable than any other, a fact which ceased to surprise me once it became clear that among teacher educators today, the goal of schooling is not considered to be instructional, let alone intellectual, but political. The aim is not to produce individuals capable of efforts and mastery, but to make sure everyone gets a passing grade. The school is to be remade into a republic of feelings – as distinct from a republic of learning – where everyone can feel he deserves an A. (209-210)

Computer-assisted instruction was singled out by one respondent, who claimed the last two-thirds of the course had been dominated by learning to use jargon and flip charts. She went on to state that this course, as well as others she had slogged through, took “real information and generalized it into meaninglessness.” This assertion reflects Kramer’s description of a similar course: “In all versions, the subject matter consisted largely of terms like ‘bouncing off,’ ‘feedback,’ ‘auding’. Everything of value in this course – including what’s in the textbook – could be presented and absorbed in a lecture discussion of an hour or two, and then put in use in a practicum in the time saved” (135).

A course on the teaching of culture was likewise dominated by theorizing on non-language-specific materials; no examples and few details were given. An administration and supervision course studiously avoided confronting practical issues such as budgets, discipline, angry parents, and other problems that every school administrator has to deal with a hundred times a day. One teacher I polled claimed that in her experience, “many education courses are too lofty and don’t address what a student teacher would really need to know in the classroom. Being in the trenches is what really opens . . . a student’s eyes.” Another wrote simply that “many courses were frankly not stimulating, and if these instructors had been public school teachers . . . the kids would have had them for lunch.” Clearly, these are the worst cases culled from a broad sampling, but my experience suggests that these examples are not – or were not – so exceptional as to rule them out of my discussion. In fact, it began to seem that Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching” (6).

Part of this lamentable situation might be ascribed to a change that began in the 1970s, when many bright and accomplished women, who previously had gone into teaching were siphoned off into law and medicine and business as new professional opportunities opened up to them. Statistics show that the average SAT scores of students entering teacher education programs in the 1970s plummeted dramatically. This decline hardly means that all teachers entering the profession in the 1970s were intellectually challenged, but it does demonstrate that many applicants who previously might not have been admitted to college and graduate school were being admitted, even wooed, by schools of education, which in those troubled times were experiencing shrinking enrollments.

This is a harsh vision, I know. But it gets worse. I was beginning to realize that the enemy was not just them but also us. That is, it was too easy to pin the blame for our failures exclusively on the education establishment. Since I (naively? arrogantly?) thought that I knew better, or at least that I could do better, when I became chairman of my department (Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese) I was determined to work with the ed school to figure out ways to train future teachers in both areas content and pedagogy. Part of my battle was local, of course; that is, I needed to work with my own faculty members to broaden our offerings, make courses more relevant and to be more responsive to teachers’ professional needs. I saw us becoming progressively more self-indulgent. I joked about the course titles in our graduate programs – Semiotic Analysis of Two Short Stories by a Seventeenth-Century Nun Whom You Have Never Heard Of – and pointed out that we scheduled our courses so that teachers, even if they were interested in enrolling, could not attend. I do not think we had yet faced up to the responsibility of educating beyond the borders of the PhD. (I still do not think we have met this challenge).

In the early 1980s I began my work in earnest – polling students, teachers, and colleagues to set a base line for information; forming committees and task forces to study the issues; meeting individually and in groups with instructors from my department, the other foreign language departments, and the ed school; suggesting new courses to meet the needs of future teachers; and the like. We had on staff one nationally recognized and highly regarded specialist in second language acquisition; I hired a second applied linguist to work with him, the TAs, the language coordinators of the other departments, and the ed school to create a viable, high-quality master of arts in teaching program. I asked what I thought were rather simple questions: What education courses does a student need to take to become certified? What are the requirements for the education degree in foreign languages? What expertise do the education supervisors have in training and evaluating student teachers of Spanish, French, and German? Much to my surprise, then shock, and then anger (here is where the Attila the Hun stuff comes in, perhaps), I found that no one took responsibility for these programs. Even though there were several professors of education who were nominally in charge of the teacher preparation programs, none had expertise in foreign languages, none knew the rules of the program, and none had a clear idea of certification requirements. You will be saying to yourself that the ed school at the University of Virginia must clearly be one of the worst in the country (perhaps in the universe), but (as Richard Nixon said in a different context so many years ago), that would be wrong. Indeed, our ed school was considered a very good one, even a national leader, and it was ranked high by those ubiquitous and mysterious rankers who put numbers on things like college programs.

I had failed to crack the nut of the education school. Rather than a nut, though, the proper image at the time might have been something like Silly Putty, that is; a substance which, as I grabbed one side of it, bulged in another direction, and remained in an amorphous, indefinable lump. Each year I sent three or four candidates who wanted to teach foreign languages at the secondary level to talk with the coordinator of the language program at the ed school, and each candidate (I am not exaggerating) would return to my office with a different understanding of what was necessary. What courses did they need? Each told a different story. One student was told that she had to get a master’s degree in teaching to teach in the state of Virginia; I called the troops in Richmond at the Department of Education to confirm this and, unbelievably (to me at least), found it was just not true (that year, at least; the rules seemed to change frequently in Richmond as well).

Even when we started to figure out how to make our graduate courses more relevant and how to get around or through the education school morass, I found that the structure of the university presented more-fundamental problems. For example, it seemed perfectly logical to allow our distinguished expert on language acquisition to teach his own course to all students, regardless of their target language. Yet each time I “lent” him to the education school, where the course was listed, I lost the FTEs for that course, and this loss resulted in a financial punishment to me and my department . If I insisted he teach it just in Spanish for Spanish students, either we did not have enough students to allow the course to go, or I was cheating those students in French and German who did not have access to a similar expert.

So not only did our MAT degree program languish, it presented obstacles that I, my faculty members, the students, and the teachers could not surmount, so I canceled it and started from scratch. After wide consultation with dozens of teachers, we decided to create and offer a master’s program in teaching that would be organized and run exclusively from the Spanish department and that would enable practicing teachers to earn a degree. We created new courses for teachers and even offered to go into secondary schools to give the classes during the academic year; unfortunately, since two residential summers were required for the completion of the degree (another university rule), this initative too failed to move forward as hoped.

We gave up in frustration and ceded supervision of teacher certification and of teacher training in languages back to the school of education. Our responsibilities would be the language, culture, and literature part of the degree, and the school of education would take care of the rest. At least, this was the theory. And I confess that, as much as I wish it were so, not all of the blame could be ascribed to the ed school. While Kramer has observed that ed school majors know “more about how to teach than what to teach,” we were learning that while we had a very good undergraduate Spanish major, we were not doing a very good job at preparing that specific population of students who wished to go into teaching. We in Spanish had let the “what” founder for those students. We learned that without a mandated semester abroad, without entrance and exit competency exams, without a structured program of special courses designed for teachers in training, we were ill equipped to prepare future teachers for their professional worlds. Our undergraduate major, while flexible and attractive, was a smorgasbord of pretty good courses, but they were not courses designed sequentially to build language, literature, and culture competency that would enable our students to teach Spanish language, literature, and culture in the secondary schools. The students did their seat time, collected their miscellaneous credits, and were awarded a degree at the end of it all. Oh, sure, we had good advising and good courses and dedicated professors and various tracks in the major and study-abroad opportunities and, I am thankful to say, superb students, but nowhere in our thinking or action had we outlined exactly what our students were supposed to know at the end of their seat time. Nor did we test them to make sure they had actually learned something that would enable them to teach Spanish. In fact, we did not even know which students planned to become teachers, since they were registered in the ed school and appeared on our rolls as Spanish majors. Worse yet, we did not really think deeply about these issues because they seemed somehow beneath us, not really worthy of our full attention. Those students, after all, were “merely” going to be schoolteachers. We thought our business was the preparation of professionals and university professors, not elementary and secondary language teachers.

A new project, created jointly by the Modern Language Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, seemed to provide a bridge between our rather arrogant and narrow thinking and the ed school’s lack of focus on content. As it has developed, the MLA-NEH sponsored Teacher Education Project has given us the opportunity to revisit our old goals, establish new ones, and develop a teacher preparation program in foreign languages, working with the ed school rather than against it or in spite of it. This exciting new initiative has been a major revelation for us because it has forced us to own up to our shortcomings and stopped us from merely casting stones across the street at the ed school, as we were wont to do. I hope that our experience can be useful to others as they think about their own programs.

The first thing we learned was that we could actually work together with our colleagues in the ed school once we established the common goal of our project, which was simply to train secondary language teachers in a high-quality program that offered the best preparation possible in two areas: language acquisition and the language itself. This will hardly strike you as a radical discovery, but in fact for us it was, because it forced both us and our ed school colleagues to take a long, hard look at the shape of our programs, the courses we offered, and the outcomes we wished to achieve.

After working together for a year both locally (on our campus) and nationally (in two conferences in Houston) with other groups from the project, we came up with a list of eight concrete recommendations that we plan to implement for the class entering the program in September 1996. The recommendations built on several years of discussions with language teachers, who were always articulate and clear about their needs (needs that we had ignored over the years because we “knew better”). As you will see, the recommendations are simple in concept and in implementation (in fact, many of them have been in place for years), but we hope they will lead us toward a new and dynamic working relationship that will produce students who know Spanish language, literature, and culture and who know how to teach them effectively.

  1. Attract qualified students (publish informative descriptions in appropriate places in order to attract and inform qualified students).
  2. Improve advising (name specific advisers for students).
  3. Improve guidelines for course selection (simply completing the standard major is not sufficient).
  4. Improve proficiency (require diagnostic and exit testing; aim for “advanced” proficiency in speaking and writing).
  5. Require practical language experience (a minimum of six weeks of study abroad).
  6. Improve communication (institute an annual meeting between advisers in the college and in the ed school).
  7. Provide instruction in teaching literature, culture, and film (workshops for students and teachers).
  8. Require advanced study of language, culture, and literature.

Model programs were developed in Spanish and French. For students in the joint BA-MT degree program the total number of credit hours in the foreign language, literature, and culture has been increased from thirty to thirty-six. Both sequences focus increased attention on practice with the language, on confidence in reading and interpreting literature, and on cultural knowledge of the societies in which the languages are dominant. Most courses will be taught in the target languages (as is done now). The programs are unique, but they have common goals.

The Spanish program contains ten courses at the undergraduate level and two at the graduate level; several may be taken abroad. We arrived at our tentative list of offerings once we completed a multiple-stage study with secondary teachers called What Should Spanish Teachers Know? This project included polls, meetings, workshops (one, two, seven and fourteen days in length), discussions, and analyses of existing materials. We posed a series of questions: How were you trained to teach Spanish? How do you wish you had been trained? What preparatory experiences are essential prior to teaching? Should study abroad be a mandatory part of training? What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first entered the classroom? From the answers we received, we developed a document which was distributed to Spanish teachers across Virginia; we solicited feedback, and received hundreds of responses. The list of courses which developed as a result of the dialogue with teachers is in no way meant to be an end product. Rather, it is a working document, a set of guidelines that we hope to use to build a better program for teachers. Over the years Spanish teachers have repeatedly told us that their most urgent need is for specific information (authors, works, cultural topics), not general concepts (“to know Spanish better”) or general techniques (“to be able to teach better”). In response, we propose authors, works, and topics. We recognize that most colleges and universities cannot be all things to all students, and will not be able to offer every item suggested here, but this gives us at least a starting point for a more focused program. We have suggested the following courses:

  1. Spanish peninsular culture
  2. Latin American culture
  3. Approaching literature through analysis
  4. Spanish peninsular literature (masterworks)
  5. Latin American literature (masterworks)
  6. Phonetics and phonology of Spanish
  7. Advanced grammar and composition
  8. Situational vocabulary
  9. Literature elective
  10. Language elective; (recommended: sociolinguistics)
  11. Graduate elective
  12. Graduate elective

Readers will need to decide exactly which courses best fit your local population and specific situation, but this list might help them discover common ground with their colleagues from other departments and schools in the struggle to work together to improve teacher education in languages. Some will want or need more literature; others will demand more linguistics (applied, structural, and historical). Some will advance a case for more division between “high-C” (aesthetic) culture and “low-C” (behavioral) culture, although our goal is to integrate both into our courses. We might need to pay more attention in Spanish to Hispanic literature in the United State. But my point is that the MLA-NEH Teacher Education Project has helped us in Spanish, French, German, Russian, Latin, and English at the University of Virginia to focus on a specific population of students, not to lump them together too easily with other majors, and to think hard about their specific needs (and, on a broader scale, the needs of the commonwealth and of the country).

We do not know what the results of these changes will be. Yet certainly this initiative has forced me to draw back from my frustration with teacher education and schools of education, and to discover new ways in which we can work together to improve language teaching in the United States. This deeply collaborative project involves various departments from several schools, as well as students, professors, and secondary school teachers. I am a new convert to new goals and new methods. Still, we have a lot of work ahead of us if we are to make a real difference in language teaching. Many years ago William Cowper expressed a cynical, if amusing, view of education:

The schools became a scene
Of solemn farce, where Ignorance on stilts,
His cap well lin’d with logic not his own,
With parrot tongue perform’d the scholar’s part,
Proceeding soon a graduated dunce. (The Task II, vv. 735-739; p. 108)

Our hope is to make Cowper’s lament irrelevant.


Works Cited
Cowper, William. “The Task” and Selected Other Poems. Ed. James Sambrook. London: Longman, 1994.
Kramer, Rita. Ed School Follies. New York: Free, 1991.
Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying. New York: Dodd, 1911.