Teachers and Content Mastery

Published by patrick honner on

On her blog, Diane Ravitch posted a reader quote about the importance of content expertise for teachers.  Here is an excerpt:

There is nothing more important, especially in the HS classroom, than a teacher who is an expert in his/her respective field. The “tricks of the trade” are second nature for those truly called to this noble profession. A teacher needs passion and patience, but more than anything else she needs to know what she’s talking about. That is what gives the teacher authority. 

And here is a slightly edited version of my response, originally posted as a comment on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

I disagree with the sentiment expressed by your reader.

First, it’s impractical to expect all teachers to be masters of their content. If we need 200,000 math teachers in the US, we aren’t going to find 200,000 math experts for those positions, unless we dramatically redefine what we mean by ‘expert’.

Second, content expertise is not the source of a teacher’s authority. Being a teacher is more about being a leader than being an authority, and leadership is earned through a combination of respect, effort, enthusiasm, caring, and expertise.

Lastly, subject-specific content delivery is one aspect of teaching that can obviously be streamlined by technology. As education evolves, we teachers need to make our case by emphasizing the variety of other tools and expertise we bring to students, not just content.

The original post can be seen here.

Categories: Teaching

patrick honner

Math teacher in Brooklyn, New York


thedogs'mother · July 13, 2012 at 9:53 am

As a tutor I can’t be an expert in all subjects but I can bring a love of learning and sense of wonder. My favorite subject to tutor is math.

    MrHonner · July 13, 2012 at 10:22 am

    As a tutor, there is generally less pressure to be an expert. Tutoring is pure individual instruction, and success comes from creating a positive one-on-one relationship, identifying specific learning needs and obstacles, and, as you say, leading the way with passion and enthusiasm.

    But when we see the student’s role as sitting in an audience, listening to a teacher, we sort of establish the expectation that we are “experts”. I think this is just one of the problems with this view of teaching and learning.

Andy Huynh · July 13, 2012 at 7:54 pm

I think any person who is good at something will have the experience of tutoring someone else. However, tutoring and teaching are very different. Usually when you tutor, its a friend or someone close, and also usually individualized so issues can be easily identified and the lessons can be specifically catered to the person seeking help.

However, teaching is much different. Instead of teaching to an individual, you teach to a crowd, who may all learn in different ways, different paces, etc. With that, it becomes much more different and difficult. So the best teachers are not the best people in the subject, but those who can communicate the best, since in the end, it doesn’t matter how good you are in the subject if you fail to effectively communicate what you are trying to teach. I know if I try to teach everything I know in the way my mind thinks about it, I’m pretty sure very few people understand.

With that, I also want to know if those criticizing teaching have also ever taught in a classroom to a group of people. I personally enjoy tutoring myself as it sometimes gives me a new perspective on what i already know, but I am actually scared of teaching. I even tell people that even though I understand limits in Calculus 1 quite well, I have trouble helping others understand it(unless its the ε-δ definition).

    MrHonner · July 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm


    You’ve expressed some thoughtful and refined ideas about teaching. Just understanding that teaching means more than just explaining how you understand puts you way ahead of the game. However, it’s also important to know that teaching is much more than just explaining.

    Teaching can seem scary, but it’s helpful to remember that it’s ok to feel like you don’t understand something fully. I often feel that way, and in many cases it helps us all get to a better understanding together.

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