Is Experience or Credentials More Important in Teaching English?

Experience trumps pieces of paper – but only in the classroom!

Let me explain. Many educational institutions, especially in some places, remain paper-driven. Let me give a sad example. I currently teach English at an elite private university and write articles for numerous publications, but I couldn’t get a teaching position in a California public school teaching English because I lack the right MA. The vast majority of public schools look at pieces of paper and do not ask for demonstrations of classroom skill.

Likewise, expertise and experience, for many educational institutions, remain of limited use. Coursework counts. Former President Clinton could not teach government, history, or social studies in California public schools. Academy Award winning actors can not teach theater in the schools. World class musicians can’t teach music. It’s utterly absurd.

As a result of this obsession with abstract knowledge, paper credentials and undervaluing of experience, experts and experienced teachers work with more upper-income students and elite institutions. The considerable gap between public schools and private schools becomes even larger. The public school system continually turns away experienced, quality teachers because of their very narrow notions of what qualifies one to teach students. The homeschooling movement and the rapid growth of online education programs can be seen as a populist rebellion against rigid, false notions of education.

Back in 1991 during the last severe economic crisis, I applied to teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). I had to persuade a LAUSD human resource specialist that a course in American Short Stories in the Literature department at New York University should be counted as an English course! The LAUSD “specialist” had never heard of New York University, and couldn’t care less about the quality of the educational institution. She just wanted five courses from any English department. A Literature department was not an English department. She changed my mind as I openly mocked her reasoning and promised to write an article about this absurdity. It’s also worth noting that I spoke to 22 “human resource specialists” that day because there were 22 lines on a form. The process took all day. This “create a job” approach to public education leads to dysfunction on so many levels. Every day spent downtown on bureaucracy is a dollar taken away from the classroom.

Later that week I filled out the identical form at Santa Monica Unified School District in half an hour – and spoke to one person. I chose to work in Santa Monica School District.

“We learn to walk by stumbling”, goes the Bulgarian proverb. Teachers, and students, learn by doing and making good mistakes. Larry M. Lynch, a prolific author, recently examined this problem in “Are Some Credentials Overrated?” on his BetterEFLteacher blog. He nailed the problem with reading 500 books to become a recognized expert instead of just throwing yourself in and gaining practical classroom experience. Thousands of smart, talented, and creative teachers have taught English – with limited training – with great success around the world.

The best teachers are often autotelic (self-directed), and share their passion for learning and model love of knowledge. That’s one reason that homeschooling often works better than staying in public schools. A parent focuses on the individual needs of their children, and brings great passion to the classes. Students need both guidance and inspiration.

Just adding a new set of letters after a teacher’s name doesn’t magically transform them into a dynamic, quality English teacher. The willingness to endure ridiculous bureaucratic procedures and reciting the latest educational jargon does not really certify teaching ability. Teaching remains more of an art form than a science. Our classrooms need authentic English teachers who exude vitality and arouse student curiosity for our confusing, fascinating, and wonderful language.