School of Education
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
2011 Last Publication
The high frequency of beginning teachers being young females is traced in a brief review of
the history of teacher education. The argument is made that the high turnover of beginning
teachers, particularly in schools serving diverse students in poverty, is too costly to the
schools and too harmful to the students to be continued. Teacher recruitment practices in
the schools and candidate selection into teacher preparing institutions which maintain this
situation are identified. The stages of adult development according to three theoretic
formulations are presented. The nature of young adulthood in these theories is contrasted
with the developmental needs of young adults hired as beginning teachers. The process by
which school students shape and control the behavior and practice of young teachers is
analyzed. Suggestions for altering the quitter/failure rate of young beginning teachers are
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We are not damaged nearly as much by the things we don’t know as we are by the things we do
know that just aren’t so. How did we develop the belief that beginning teachers should be young
men and women between the ages of 20 – 25? I recently rented a car at the airport and noticed a
large sign on the counter that read: “We do not rent vehicles to individuals under 25.” The
attendant at a second counter informed me that they had a similar policy of not renting to those
under 25. At the remaining three counters I was informed that they would rent cars to those under
25 but that they then required insurance at substantially higher rate.
The school bus company in my city has had a “Drivers Wanted” sign out front for as long as I
can remember. I stopped in and asked if he would hire anyone below the age of 25 and he said, “No
way. The insurance, if you can get it, is triple.” In a recent conversation I asked a doctoral student
who was an insurance actuary before developing an interest in educational research if he knew the
reason insurance rates for school bus drivers under 25 would be triple. He explained that young
drivers have substantially more accidents and that the official explanation his company used for
charging more for those under 25 was, “lacks wisdom and judgment.”
I then reflected on my own experiences and those of my friends and colleagues in raising
children and grandchildren. We constantly comfort each other when our adolescent and young
adult offspring experiment with drugs, tobacco and alcohol, engage in high risk activities, abuse
their health, and waste money on things they can’t afford. We worry about where they go, with
whom they associate, how late they stay out and most of all, what they might be doing.
My own research, conducted over a period of fifty-five years, indicates that of those over 30
who claim they want to teach diverse children and youth in poverty app. one in three pass my Star
Teacher Selection Interview. Of those under 25 who say they would like to teach diverse, children
and youth in poverty the pass rate is one in ten.
In reflecting on the implications of the events at the car rental, the bus company, in my
personal life, and in my research, I asked myself what sorts of jobs should be available to young
people. After all, we can’t discriminate in hiring on the basis of age. The answer was obvious and
came to me in a flash. Let’s make those lacking the “wisdom and judgment” to drive the school bus
the teachers responsible for shaping the mind and character of children and adolescents!
The American Heritage Dictionary defines myth as a “traditional story originating in a
preliterate society dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors or heroes that serve as primordial
types in a primitive view of the world.” (Morris,ed. 1973) At the turn of the 19th century most of
the first public school teachers were itinerant males hired into small rural communities. They kept
school for a month or two and then moved on. It wasn’t long before the local taxpayers realized
they could get farm girls to keep school for as long as 8 months a year at much cheaper cost. The
typical school marm was a teenage farm girl, idled by winter, who had the equivalent of a sixth
grade education. She could read the bible and do some basic arithmetic. She lived or boarded in
the community, meted out the strong discipline expected by parents and kept order in a multi-age
cabin school room. By the Civil War the teen age school marm was the picture Americans had
imprinted in their minds of the “school teacher” and they began reproducing her counterparts en
masse. The first public normal schools providing teacher training opened in the 1830’s to teenage
girls who had completed sixth grade. After the Civil War there were over sixteen publicly
supported teacher training schools. By WWI every state had half a dozen or more normal schools
training teenage girls to keep school all over America’s farm country. These normal schools started
as one-year institutions, became two year institutions in the nineteenth century and four year
teacher training colleges in the 20th century. (Meyer, 1957)
The normal school movement largely bypassed the urban areas, filled as they were with large
numbers of Catholics, newer immigrants and others regarded as being something less than real
Americans. With the exception of Boston, Baltimore, St. Louis and a very few other cities there
were no publicly supported normal schools in urban areas. The growth and transition from normal
schools to teachers colleges to four year baccalaureate institutions was essentially a rural
phenomenon devoted to the training of teenage farm girls. This history explains the curious fact
that the overwhelming majority of America’s teachers are still prepared in state colleges located in
rural areas surrounded by rural schools: e.g. Oswego, New York; St. Cloud, Minnesota; Northern
Illinois; Troy, Alabama; etc. Towns that are inaccessible by bus or rail (e.g. River Falls, Wisconsin)
have thriving schools of education. Even today, when most new teacher positions are in cities and
suburbs, the “urban emphasis” in teacher training programs is something that had to be grafted on
to the “regular” programs as a result of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s after the normal
schools had been in operation for 130 years.
After President Lincoln established the land grant universities they also took on the mission of
teacher training. They began by focusing on the training of secondary teachers in need of more
subject matter knowledge. After WWI, the land grant universities expanded their programs
downward to include the preparation of elementary school teachers. At the same time the teachers
colleges, ever on the alert for higher enrollments and more male students, expanded their programs
upward to include secondary education. The current situation is one in which the preponderance
of new teachers are still females under 25, trained in land grant universities and in former teacher
colleges located outside of urban areas.
After WWII, millions of veterans supported by financial aid under the G.I. Bill began attending
colleges and universities. This also increased the number of males entering teacher training
programs. The influx of males was accelerated again in the early 1950’s when the selective service
system (the draft) deferred males from military service if they were enrolled in a college or
university. During the Korean War, designated as a “Police Action” but in which over 55,000
soldiers were killed, many young men stayed in college and entered teacher training programs. But
these were temporary blips in the history of teacher education. After those eligible for G.I. benefits
were graduated the age of students dropped back down to those under 25 and after the Korean
War deferments ended, the number of males entering teacher training dropped significantly.
Teaching quickly returned to its normal state of being a predominantly female career and teacher
training to regarding “traditional students” as those between 20 and 25.
It is important to recognize that no group ever consciously decided on the basis of any theory or
research how old the school marm should be as a requirement for admission into teacher training.
The focus was and remains on what level of schooling she has completed and not on her own
developmental level and maturity. In the beginning she was only required to have a sixth grade
education and was therefore frequently less then sixteen years of age. After the first normal schools
developed one-year training programs several mandated that candidates must be seventeen but not
necessarily high school graduates. It was the lengthening of the teacher training from one to two
years and then from two to four years that accounted for the increase in the age of beginning
teachers and not any concern with the question of the appropriate age at which individuals should
be prepared for teaching. Today, since new teachers must have a four year degree 90 per cent of
graduating teachers are between 20 and 25. The term “non-traditional” student has been coined to
designate older adults. The age of the “fully qualified beginning teacher” has advanced simply as a
function of the age at which most students typically graduate from college. In recent years
universities and alternative certification programs have recruited college graduates so that there is
now a substantial number of adults over 30 entering teaching; app. 10 percent. Nevertheless, the
situation that has remained constant from the 1830’s until the present is that a “fully qualified
beginning teacher” is typically perceived to be a female under 25. The deep historical and cultural
roots of this myth are impossible to shake off.
Added to the power of tradition are the benefits which universities and colleges of education
enjoy by training 90 per cent of new teachers while they are late adolescents and young adults. This
is the age when students are most likely to be able to devote themselves to full time study and pay
full-time tuition. Schools of education not only support themselves, they are the cash cows that
keep the colleges of arts and science stocked with students taking general education courses. The
requirement in many institutions that education majors now complete academic majors hasn’t hurt
the financial state of the university either. Many colleges and universities are able to keep their arts
and science colleges as well as their schools of education thriving by admitting and
matriculating large numbers of late adolescents as full-time students. As an aside, there is a certain
irony in the constant charge that schools of education don’t teach future teachers enough subject
matter when most of the future teacher’s coursework is taken outside of schools of education. In
truth, the total university benefits even more than the schools of education by maintaining the myth
of the school marm.
The assumption made by all fifty state departments of teacher certification is that the people
they certify as teachers are adults who will be teaching children. Without thinking too much about it
the public assumes that teachers represent a mature, adult generation, teaching and socializing a
younger generation. The fact of the matter is that late adolescents are declared “adults” at age 18
as a legal matter and not because they have reached an adult stage of development. In the
nineteenth century a teenage girl might have been married, borne and buried children, engaged in
the Indian wars and managed a farm. As a result of her powerful life experiences a late adolescent
growing up in the 19th century was likely to be much more mature than a female college graduate
of 20-25 in the 21st century.
When we consider the age and maturation level of youth in high school it is clear that college
graduates between 20 and 25 do not represent an older, mature generation teaching and socializing
a younger generation. Today’s school marm is in the very same stage of human development as the
late adolescents she is supposed to instruct and socialize. She sees the world the same way, listens to
the same music, dresses in similar styles, shares the same heroes and wants the same things.
Today’s late adolescents and young adults are typically in a state of development that rejects and
resists adult authority. They are consumed with concerns such as; “Will I find someone to love me?
Will I be able to earn a living and support myself? How do I become independent of my mother
without hurting her feelings?” Sociologists and anthropologists who study American society
accurately describe the period between ages 15-25 as one of self-absorption and a yearning for
independence. (Bellah, 1985) I call it the “Age of Me-ness” in which almost every thought and every
waking hour is devoted to “What do I want? What do I need? What will make me happy? How can
I get what I want?” In this stage of development behavior is never independent of, “What will my
friends think of me if I do this or that?” Considering the stages of human development in terms of
the needs and drives of people during a particular stage of life, it is clear that there is no more selfcentered,
anti-establishment period of life than late adolescence and young adulthood. If one
considers teaching as an occupation which requires making the needs of others paramount in one’s
life and in one’s work there can be no worse stage of life to prepare people as teachers than
individuals between 20-25.
As a college teacher in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee I recently received a notice
from the university administration specifying what acts constituted student misconduct in campus
classrooms and laboratories. The directive specified the student behaviors I should not allow in my
classes and provided the telephone numbers of the campus police, health services and fire
department should I need assistance. The student behaviors cited included: coming late, leaving
early, eating, drinking, reading newspapers, disturbing others, plagiarism, using cells, texting,
listening to music, wearing clothing that contained discriminatory slogans, and using laptops for
purposes other than those related to the work of the class. This directive was also sent to faculty
teaching education courses since, like other college youth, students in teacher preparation
programs engage in these same behaviors. Apparently, a remarkable degree of maturation occurs
in education students between the time they graduate from the university in June and the time they
assume the roles of fully responsible teachers in September. In three or four months they are
transformed from perpetrators to enforcers. Is it reasonable to assume that over a summer newly
minted teachers transform themselves from impolite, disinterested, disruptive students into the
official representatives of adult authority committed to enforcing the rules and regulations of the
school systems where they have been hired as teachers? My explanation of why young, beginning
teachers find discipline and classroom management so difficult (their number one problem) is that
they find it too great a leap to assume the role of rule enforcer and representative of “the system”
when they themselves are still mired in the stage of questioning and resisting, even fighting adult
authority. If the late adolescent/young adult teacher still perceives herself in the role of a “cool
student” she empathizes with students resisting school rules and adult authority. She cannot
enforce school rules with the confidence and commitment required to make those rules effective. If
the teacher doesn’t really believe school rules make sense and are fair, how likely are her students
to believe it?
Many high school principals say that they like to hire young teachers because the values and
outlook they share with their students enables them to establish rapport and make the curriculum
relevant. This naiveté is made evident when the very same principals then complain because so
many of their new teachers are not able to establish discipline and elicit respect for school rules.
The principals attribute this failure to their teacher training. It is not the case that young teachers
do not receive training in discipline and classroom management but rather they are in a stage of
development which prevents them from wanting or being able to represent authority. If the teacher
is herself still a late adolescent or young adult predisposed to fight “the system” (i.e. adult
authority) she cannot serve as a model encouraging high school students to obey and see the value
in school rules. The nature of adolescence is to resist all rules per se. Because of the nature of the
stage of development she is in, the young teacher is caught in a serious internal conflict. Her
emotional attachment will be with students resisting school rules. This empathy will exert a far
greater influence on her behavior than any cognitive notion that “schools cannot function without
order.” This problem of not wanting to be perceived as an authority figure will be exacerbated
further by the young teacher’s need to be liked and admired by her students, after all, she like her
students in this stage are desperate for the admiration of friends. The dilemma for many young
beginning teachers is that they need the approval of friends more than they want students.
46% of all teachers quit in five years or less. In some of the major urban districts more than
50% of beginners quit in less than three years. Beginning teacher attrition continues to increase.
(National Commission on Teacher Education and America’s Future, 2003) Recruiting “the best and
the brightest” is an ancillary myth that makes the situation even worse. A U.S. Department of
Education study found that new teachers who scored the highest on college entrance exams are
twice as likely to quit as those with lower scores. (Hanushek, 2009) Much of this churn (i.e. the
coming and going of beginning teachers) is due to the terrible conditions of work in the schools and
to the fact that young women tend to be more mobile as they marry. However, my studies indicate
that the primary reason beginning teachers leave is because they cannot handle discipline and
because they don’t get the administrative support they need to control the students. The studies of
why teachers quit give many reasons for teachers leaving however it is clear that their coming and
going –especially in schools serving diverse students in poverty– is not a function of racial
differences between teachers and students but is clearly connected to the teacher’s age and level of
According to The Alliance for Excellence in Education (2005) the school marm myth costs
school districts over $5 billion per year in hiring costs. The problems are that these districts keep
replacing quitters and failures with new teachers from the same immature population. In some
major school districts it is possible to be hired as a teacher without ever having to speak to another
human being. Candidates are hired by completing paper work, supplying transcripts, licenses,
references and sending in the results of medical exams and criminal checks. Interviews are with
principals for placement into a particular school only after the candidate has been hired as a
teacher in the district. The directors of many of the human service departments who hire the
teachers in urban school districts across America believe they are too busy to have all the
candidates personally interviewed. In place of a personal interview it is common for these
districts to use on-line screeners. Candidates take a multiple choice test on-line. (There is no way to
prevent a teacher applicant from having a savvier friend take her telephone or computer interview.
I have turned down many such requests.) I have never been able to identify another job, even the
most menial, which can be obtained without having to speak to another human being in some sort
of interview. Even a part-time job as an assistant chambermaid, or washing cars
requires applicants to speak to someone in a face-to-face situation. The notion that individuals can
be hired into sensitive positions such as teachers without being personally interviewed leads one to
suspect the intelligence of those in the school districts’ human resource departments. If they
stopped for a moment to consider why they are too busy hiring people to spend the time needed to
interview them they might come up with the possibility that not using in-depth valid in-person
interviews of applicants results in them continually hiring the wrong people, namely the “fully
qualified bright young teacher.”
Over 1,200 schools, colleges and departments of education turn out app. 500,000 youngsters
each year as “fully qualified.” To address critics such as myself, many of these institutions also
offer boutique programs for 20 or 30 non-traditional, older students. Colleges and universities
ought to reverse their emphasis and should focus on adults over 30 as the primary population to
prepare for teaching and maintain their boutique programs for the one in ten students under 25
who are sufficiently mature to actually become “fully qualified.” Clearly this will never happen.
There is too much at stake financially and structurally for universities to make changes which will
threaten their financial stability. Change is something we in the university pronounce as the
responsibility of others. Because we will continue to spew out young teachers and therefore
continue the churn of quitter/failures passing through the K-12 schools, we can safely predict that
the public schools will continue to deteriorate. Every three years American schools provide enough
dropouts to create a city the size of Chicago. (Belfanz & Kletgers, 2004)
It is interesting that while it is clearly higher education’s role and not the lower schools to
provide the schools with effective teachers this glaring failure is rarely if ever mentioned; it is the
K-12 schools that are attacked for having poor teachers, as if their poor teachers sprung from the
head of Zeus. After hiring the 21st century school marms today’s school systems then spend billions
trying to upgrade teachers they never should have hired initially. Unfortunately, no teacher
development programs or merit pay schemes will transform quitter-failure teachers into effective
ones. No school can be better than its teachers. The single most important factor affecting student
achievement is teacher effectiveness and teacher effects are cumulative and additive. One bad
teacher needs three good teachers in a row to compensate. (Sanders, 1998) The system of schools of
education ensconced in universities selling courses to late adolescent and young adult females will
never provide a sufficient number of the effective teachers America needs.
The rationale for the certification laws in all 50 states is based on the belief that in order for
children to learn they must have teachers who understand the nature of their development. Early
childhood teachers are supposed to be expert on the nature of children between five and eight,
elementary teachers on the nature of children up through age twelve, middle and secondary school
teachers on the nature of pre-adolescents and adolescents. This great commitment to knowing the
developmental stage of the learner as a prerequisite for being able to teach them is completely
ignored once students enter the university. College faculty, including those in schools of education,
know little if anything about the developmental stages of their students or how instruction should
be differentiated to best meet the needs of students in various stages of development. In the
university, adults aged 18 to retirement age are instructed in the exact same ways and are expected
to learn in the exact same ways. The assumption that school districts make when they assume the
teachers they hire between the ages of 20 and 25 are in an adult stage of development is merely an
echo of the mistake the universities have made in training individuals in this age group.
It is important to recognize that 25% of the newly minted teachers are male and that this
translates into foisting as many as 150,000 “fully qualified” young males on children and youth
every year. I have not discussed this population since late adolescent and young adult males in this
age group are even less mature than females. I assume the reader will readily extrapolate the
argument presented here regarding the school marm to males in the 20-25 age group. The legalized
insanity of certifying a 22 year old male to shape the character and inspire learning among middle
and high school youth boggles the mind; it requires us to simply ignore the nature of the
thoughtless, self-centered behavior of males socialized into American society at this stage in their
development. These irresponsible, self-centered young men “lacking wisdom and judgment” are
somehow transformed into responsible adults capable of serving as role models by virtue of
receiving a teaching certificate. The straw man wanted brains and the Wizard of Oz gave him a
The Nature of Adulthood and Its Relevance to Teachers
Teachers’ knowledge of subject matter is a necessary but not sufficient condition for becoming
effective. Adolescents don’t care how much their teachers know until after they have accepted them
as their teachers. Students accept and respond positively to teachers if they perceive them as being
fair, helpful and concerned with them as individuals. The willingness and ability to encourage
students, many of whom are not particularly lovable, is the essence, the very soul of teaching.
Secondary students are pushed by hormones and pulled by their friends into attitudes and activities
that are not necessarily conducive to learning. Effective teachers, because they are in an adult stage
of development, do not allow students’ poor or disappointing behavior to shake their positive views
of students as individuals worthy of respect. Ineffective teachers cannot separate students’
misbehavior from their perceptions of students’ worth as persons. Secondary students are not
looking for another friend; they already have enough peers. Juxtaposing the demands placed on
young teachers who are themselves in need of reassurance and the support of friends, with the
needs of students for encouragement from a confident, respected teacher, highlights the
irrationality of teachers and students being in the same stage of development.
Lest the reader be misled into believing that this argument is germane to only teaching in
urban schools, consider the following interaction I transcribed between a class of all white high
school seniors in a high achieving suburban high school and a young white teacher in her first year
of teaching. The class is conducting an end-of the year review in preparation for taking the final
Teacher: You guys need to listen. I already know the answers to the final, so I am not doing
this for me.
Student 1: Can’t you just tell us the answers. That way we can just go through them.
Teacher: No. That’s not how it works, but what I can do is give you the information that you
need to know to figure out the answers for yourself.
Student 2: Ms. Parker, I’m not going to lie. I really don’t care about this final because this is my
least favorite class.
Teacher: Well, you are my least favorite student so that does not surprise me.
Teacher: O.K. calm down. We need to get through this because if we don’t you will not be ready
for the final.
Student 3: Isn’t like your job to teach us? If we are not ready it’s not our fault, it’s yours.
Student 4: Yeah. You should let us use our notes for the final.
Teacher: Okay, enough. If you guys don’t want to do anything, then I can’t make you! Those of
you who want to study please move to this side of the room. Those of you who don’t care, just
leave. Go home. Sit on your couch where it is a lot more comfortable. We don’t want you here
Student 1: So we can just leave?
Teacher: I’m sorry. I am no longer engaging in your idiotic conversation. I will be working with
the students who want to learn.
Student 1: Okay. See you guys later. (Student leaves room.)
This is a teacher with 30 credits of A in education courses including an A in student teaching.
I have over four hundred of such dialogues which demonstrate how immature teachers cause and
escalate their own problems. Lacking “wisdom and judgment” and being in the same stage of
development as their students they quibble with them as peers rather than dialogue with them as a
mature adult who is leading and encouraging an adolescent.
In the more than 5,000 observations I have made of teachers, the result of placing young
teachers with secondary students is that it is not the teachers who socialize the students but the
students who socialize the teachers. The ways in which the classes are conducted, the effort that
students put forth and the amount of learning that occurs is controlled by the students, not the
teachers. The dynamic by which this occurs is straightforward. Students reward teachers by
complying with their directions and punish them by resisting teachers’ instructions. Students’
compliance leads teachers to regard a lesson or activity as successful. On the other hand, students’
resistance leads teachers to discontinue activities that are hard to manage even if they may be more
educative. Through this process, young teachers, dependent as they are on students’ compliance,
approval and affection have their instructional behavior shaped by their students’ preferences. In
effect, the ways in which young beginning teachers teach are the ways their students want to be taught;
teachers who resist having their behavior shaped by students become mired in classroom management
issues and are driven out.
The theoretic basis for recognizing the inappropriateness of making late adolescents and
young adults teachers has been known for some time from a variety of sources. Adults who attain a
more mature level of development will have a stronger and more reasonable sense of who they are
and are more self-accepting. Greater maturity increases the likelihood that individuals can become
more confident, more inner-directed and more motivated by intrinsic rewards. This does not mean
that all adults are capable of becoming teachers. Only one in three of those of aged thirty and above
who say they would like to teach can pass my Star Teacher Selection Interview. Teaching is a
moral craft. Only adults who have reached the most mature levels of their own development have
the potential for focusing on their students rather than on themselves, encouraging learning and
providing the skills for succeeding in the world of work. Kohlberg’s theoretic formulation of moral
development is framed in terms of what concerns people have as they pass through six stages of
Level I. concern about obedience
Level II. concern with satisfying needs and wants
Level III. concern with conformity
Level IV. concern with preserving society
Level V. concern with the social contract, i.e. “What is right beyond legal absolutes?”
Level VI. concern with universal, ethical principles. (Kohlberg, 1976)
According to Kohlberg, many attain Level IV. by age 25 and begin to focus on reasoning in
accordance with basic democratic principles but only ten percent of those in their twenties ever
reach levels V. and VI. Based on his experience as a college teacher and a psychologist, Sprinthall
believes that while students are capable of thinking on Levels V. and VI. they rarely do so.
Erikson contends that only mature adults overcome the stage of “self-absorption.” His eight
stages of human development are: trust vs. mistrust (first year); autonomy vs. doubt (2nd and 3rd
years); initiative vs. guilt(4th and 5th years); industry vs. inferiority (ages 6-11); identity vs. role
confusion( ages 12-18); intimacy vs. isolation(ages 18-25); generativity vs. self-absorption (middle
age); and integrity vs. despair (old age). “Generativity” refers to concerns about the next
generation either through parenting or in general. In Erikson’s formulation this means an
individual must resolve the issue of intimacy vs. isolation before reaching the level of concern for
children. (Erikson,1963) A fundamental assumption of all developmental theories is that an
individual must pass through all the preceding stages in sequence and that each stage is
prerequisite for the next. Using Erikson’s model Marcia studied college youth and found that only
22 per cent developed identity, which Erikson contends should occur between ages 12 and 18.
Marcia described the other 78 percent in states of “identity moratorium, foreclosure or diffusion.”
She defined and sequenced these states in the following manner: “moratorium” is a search for
oneself prior to making a life commitment (28 percent); “foreclosure refers to accepting whatever
authority figures prescribe (26 percent); and “diffusion” refers to a stage in which there is no
commitment to any person, philosophy or set of beliefs, i.e. living for the moment and not delaying
gratification. (Marcia, 1976) A subsequent study placed 24 percent in this stage. (Waterman, 1986)
If those doing follow-up studies on Erikson’s model are right then the number of college youth
starting to thinking about people other than themselves is about 22 percent.
The classical developmental model of cognition is Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.
(Inhelder` & Piaget, 1958) In this model it is clear that an individual should reach at least the
fourth stage of development before teaching others. This stage describes formal operations and
refers to the following abilities: a) abstract thinking, the ability to think about possibilities and not
be constrained by concrete reality; b) propositional thinking, the ability to think about the
relationship among ideas, concepts, and propositions; c) combinatorial thinking, the ability to
generate all combinations of ideas as well as cognitive operations; d) hypothetical-deductive
thinking, the ability to think scientifically about the definition and control of variables, and about
the generation, testing and revision of hypotheses; e) the ability to think ahead, the solution of
problems by defining problems, planning, selecting strategies and revising; f) the ability of
metacognition, including the thinking about cognitive processes, memory, learning and language;
and g) the ability to be self-reflective about cognitive processes, identity existence, morality and
personal relationships. (Keating, 1980) It should be obvious that those who would teach others
would be at this level of cognitive development, however, in my search of the research and
theoretic literature of college teaching I have found no evidence anywhere that these are typical
behaviors of undergraduates. When I ask college teachers about the prevalence of these attributes
among the undergraduates they teach their typical response is laughter. If college youth have not
attained higher levels of thinking in four or more years at the university how likely is it that they
will they develop them in the summer before taking their first teaching position?
In studying the content of college students’ reasoning some researchers have followed them
through four years of college.(Perry,1981) In the early stages students are moral and intellectual
absolutists: there are correct solutions for every problem and authorities are assumed to know
what these are. In the next stage students are relativistic, one opinion is as good or as useless as
another. This seems to be the stage of teacher education students at the time of graduation. In the
final stage of this model, not typical of undergraduates, individuals become committed to a search
for and an expression of their own identity.
Other models of adolescent and adult development focus on the development of the
individual’s beliefs and assumptions regarding the nature of knowledge itself. (Kitchener, 1986)
Beginning with direct experience as the support for an absolutist view, Kitchener moves through
stages of weighing conflicting perceptions, (relativism) and concludes with a stage in which a
mature view of reality combines personal experience with expert opinion, research and multiple
ways of knowing. It is indeed ironic that young beginning teachers are still in a late adolescent
stage of focusing on their own personal experiences as the most valuable mode of learning but
rarely extend this ideological commitment to the way they try to teach children and youth. It is the
hallmark of immaturity that young adults worship their own personal experiences as the ultimate
way of knowing but are driven by their need for control to focus on only vicarious learning (i.e.
texts and seatwork) as the way they teach others. Allowing experiments and hands-on learning all
make discipline and class control more difficult.
I believe that most teacher educators would agree with my contentions regarding their
preservice students’ immaturities and find teaching them a constant battle to get them to think,
reflect and base their actions on a knowledge base rather than on personal preferences and
untested beliefs. While they are savvy enough to not admit this publicly, most teacher educators
are well aware of the adolescent, even childlike stage in which many of those they certify still find
themselves. We have known for a long time that as graduation and certification approaches
preservice students’ concerns narrow significantly until they can think of nothing but discipline and
classroom management. (Roy, 1974) “Will I be able to control the class?” becomes such an allconsuming,
overwhelming fear that there is little thinking at any level. In Kohlberg’s formulation
this is a moral stage that precedes even late adolescence and characterizes the need for power and
control that is characteristic of early adolescence. Finally, the most complete summary of the
research and developmental theory dealing with young adults 18-25 leads to the inescapable
conclusion that this is clearly the wrong stage of development in which to locate teacher training.
(Pintrich, 1990) I find it sad but revealing that I have never encountered a teacher educator who
has ever referred to, cited, or even read this definitive summary of young adult development.
Some Final Notes
What I have argued may very well support the contention that all university-level education is
wasted on most people before the age of 25 but such an analysis is beyond the scope of this paper.
The decade after WWII is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Higher Education” because the
millions of war veterans who entered universities under the GI Bill were older and more mature as
a result of their life experiences. University faculty found them much more amenable to higher
levels of thinking. Similarly, the period from 1963-1973 when the National Teacher Corps
attracted 100,000 more mature college graduates into teaching, was considered by many to have
been a golden age for teacher education.
This analysis has focused on the preparation of young adults who become secondary teachers
because it is undeniable that this is peer teaching rather than an older generation teaching and
socializing a younger one. I believe, however, that the case for not using young adults as beginning
teachers of elementary age children is equally strong but would require a more elaborate analysis
than space here permits. Essentially, the same degree of cognition and emotional development is
necessary for teaching at every level and I am just as concerned with immature young adults
teaching four year olds as I am with them trying to teach geometry to adolescents.
Nowhere have I taken the position that all experienced teachers are good simply because they
have aged and not quit. Many should be removed. It is important to recognize that many people
simply grow older and never attain the levels of maturity and development described by any of the
theorists. Many experienced teachers are not learners and therefore do not grow. As a result, they
do not have 30 years of experience; they have one year of experience thirty times. My contention is
that selecting, preparing and hiring individuals over 30 will be three times more effective than
maintaining the myth of the “fully qualified young teacher” who will never take a teaching job or
who is likely to be a failure/quitter teacher if she does. This analysis is not an advocacy for
preventing all individuals younger than 25 from becoming teachers but for being more selective. If
hiring officials used validated forms of interviewing I would estimate that as many as 50,000 young
teachers under 25 could be identified each year who have reached the level of maturity needed for
teaching and who could meet the demands of functioning as teachers of record in even the most
challenging situations. While this is only one in ten of the teacher education graduates it represents
a sizable population who are needed and who should not be overlooked. It should also be noted
that many of the very same individuals who are not sufficiently mature to be teaching before age 25
may be highly effective teachers if they enter the profession in their 30’s or later.
In the final analysis whether or not an individual comes down on the side of wanting teachers
to be more mature or younger depends on how complex he perceives the teacher’s job to be.
“We need to specify which kinds of behaviors can be predicted by developmental stage and which
are irrelevant. If, for example, we wanted persons to perform some kinds of mindless, jejune task, their
level of cognitive stage would probably demonstrate little correlation to successful performance. On the
other hand, if the task required higher-order abilities such as understanding and applying abstract
concepts in a humane mode, then indeed the level of psychological maturity and the level of cognitive
development may be important predictors. And it probably comes as no great surprise to say that such
outcomes are supported by multiple research studies. The most general study was done by Douglas
Heath (1977) in his studies of adult success in four countries. He used a multiple index of success and
quality of life, and he used over 200 predictors. He found that there were four general developmental
characteristics which were highly relevant to success: a) symbolization of experience, b) allocentrism
i.e. empathy, c) autonomy, and d) a commitment to democratic values. The common or standardized
predictors such as academic grade point average and scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test were
meaningless with one exception: in his American sample there was an inverse correlation between
success in adulthood and SAT score.” (Thies-Sprinthall & Sprinthall, 1987)
I have four specific recommendations. University based teacher education needs to continue to
expand the trend of making its programs more available to older adults. In addition to the
traditional criteria, entry into university based programs of teacher preparation need to include
validated interviews of candidates’ values and predispositions to ascertain their level of
development. School districts need to use validated interviewing instruments to determine the
likelihood that the young adults they hire will be effective and remain in teaching for five or more
years. A career ladder needs to be developed for young newly certified teachers who have not yet
reached the level of mature adulthood so that they may be hired as paraprofessionals and work
toward becoming regular teachers after they have attained an appropriate level of development.
Given the unlikelihood that these changes will be made it is not difficult to predict that the
quality of schools will continue to deteriorate. As large numbers of immature quitter/failure
teachers continue to pass through the profession they will waste their own time and money, the
precious school years of their students’ and broaden the educational wasteland. The myth of the
school marm is alive and well. Convictions can be greater enemies of the truth than outright lies.
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