Why do we fear expertise?

A few years ago, a colleague and I wrote an article about coaching pre-service teachers as they established themselves as literacy educators (Gelfuso & Dennis, 2014). We spoke about this relationship as a knowledgeable other supporting the developing understandings and reflections of a novice. Several of my colleagues questioned this view, because as constructivists, they didn’t feel there was room for expertise. Instead, they believed that we should learn as much from the pre-service teachers (about the teaching of reading) as we expected them to learn from us.

This is problematic. You see, I have actual expertise in literacy. My expertise is borne of both classroom experience (in the K-12 sector as well as years of working with pre-service teachers) and a deep understanding of the research in literacy studies. In this case, I do know more about the teaching of reading than someone who has yet to teach for the first time as the instructor of record. And it is my responsibility to ensure they are equipped with as much knowledge as possible before they enter the classroom and begin working with children.

There are certainly experiences I want my students to have that allow them to come to understand themselves as educators, and those experiences will largely be co-constructed. But, those experiences are different than the ones I expect them to have when teaching children to read. Because children get one chance at an education, and we as teachers must educate them with as much urgency as possible. We must have a purpose and we must be explicit with the content that supports our purpose.

Like pre-service teachers, children need opportunities to explore. Those opportunities, however, are best offered when they have a foundation on which to build new understandings. The same is true for pre-service teachers. In our study, the scaffolds we provided were essential to the pre-service teachers we coached, because they needed that explicit support in order to ascertain how to best support children’s understanding (Gelfuso & Dennis, 2014).

I can not hold that back in hopes my students will come to it automatically. Most won’t. They need my expertise to grow into the kind of teacher that can support children’s literacy learning, just as children need their teacher’s expertise to grow as literacy learners. For the life of me I cannot understand why educators want to withhold this from either pre-service teachers or children. Doing so is what another colleague and I referred to as instructional malpractice (Dennis & Parker, 2010).

If we fear expertise in education because we do not believe those teaching are truly expert, then we need to rethink the way we prepare teachers for the classroom (Dennis, 2016). But, if we fear it because we think using it somehow disadvantages our students, we need to reconsider our epistemological views and address that students have very real needs to learn content in order to develop their own expertise.

Dennis, D. V. (2016). A teacher residency melds classroom theory with clinical practice. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(7), 14-18.

Dennis, D. V., & Parker, A. (2010). Treating instructional malpractice: Reflexive protocols for entrepreneurial teachers. Childhood Education 86 (4), 249-254.

Gelfuso, A. & Dennis, D. V. (2014). Getting Reflection Off the Page: The Challenges of Developing Support Structures for Pre-service Teacher Reflection. Teaching and Teacher Education, 38, pp. 1-11.