Effective history teaching: passion and deep knowledge (and stay classy!)

Eric Foner, a distinguished historian of the Reconstruction-era of the United States, makes a terrific point in an interview with David Cutler at The Atlantic.  (My apologies if the title of the article is his takeaway point:  “‘You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It.'” ) To wit, Foner says:

I tell my students nowadays who are in graduate school and going on to become teachers—the number one thing is to have a real passion for your subject and to be able to convey that to your students. Obviously the content is important, but that’s not as unusual as being able to really convey why you think history is important. I think that’s what inspires students.

In a follow-up question, Foner explains this in terms of the deficits in historical education he sees at the high school level:

The first thing I would say is that we have to get away from the idea that any old person can teach history. A lot of the history teachers in this country are actually athletic coaches. I mention this in class, and students always say, “Oh yeah, Coach Smith, he taught my history course.” Why? Well, Coach Smith is the football coach, and in the spring he’s not doing much, and they say, “Well, put him in the history course, he can do that.”

They wouldn’t put him in a French course, or a physics course. The number-one thing is, you have to know history to actually teach it. That seems like an obvious point, but sometimes it’s ignored in schools. Even more than that, I think it’s important that people who are teaching history do have training in history. A lot of times people have education degrees, which have not actually provided them with a lot of training in the subject.

This is only a problem when you work in a profession and write in a genre that is so open to amateurism.  The upside is that our publishers imagine that there’s a broader audience for our books; I heard someone last week quote Jim Grossman of the American Historical Association as saying, “there’s no such thing as the Anthropology Channel, but there is a History Channel.”  The downside is that most of the public doesn’t really want to buy or read what we professional historians are selling.  (See Anchorman II with Ron Burgundy for more insight into this problem:  “why do we have to tell people what they need to hear?  Why can’t the news [or history] be fun?”)

Foner is right:  you have to know French to teach French.  You have to know something about science and math to teach them effectively, and that professional training is recognized not just as a nice thing for teachers to have but as a necessity by the principals, superintendents, and school boards who staff our secondary schools.  History expertise?  Not so much.

I remain grateful to my high school history teachers, both of whom had master’s degrees–or at least took graduate courses in history in the summers–and who talked about their master’s-level coursework in class with us.  One of them, William (Bill) Hill of Sylvania Southview High School, was clearly extraordinarily passionate about his subject, American history.  He was in many respects very different from me:  he was a huge Civil War freak, and I resent most of the nineteenth century.  He was such an Abraham Lincoln fan that he not only delighted in passing along scandalous gossip about Southern politicians and generals, he even repeatedly gave us  slanderous and inaccurate information about Mary Todd Lincoln.  At least as of the mid-1980s, he didn’t have a lot else to say about women’s history–in fact, he caricatured me one day in class (affectionately, I’d like to believe) by waving his hand above his head and shrieking, “what about the women?  What about the women?”  But Mr. Hill loved his subject, he knew a great deal about it, and he shared his excitement with his students.

I honestly don’t think it mattered to him whether or not we loved it–he was having a great time, and that was a memorable lesson in itself.

17 thoughts on “Effective history teaching: passion and deep knowledge (and stay classy!)

  1. I think about this stuff quite a lot, in terms of what kinds of teacher inputs summon or create what we now call “engagement” from students, but have never worked it out systematically from personal experience. I learned a lot of stuff from a lot of different kinds of teachers. A hard-assed but fiery old geology prof. with a name that appropriately suggested weathered granite, who almost had me thinking about being a major before I realized how much chemistry there was in anything beyond intro geology–and I already knew how much math there was in chemistry. I had an anthropology prof. who was technically a terrible teacher, looked like he didn’t want to be there, and from the internet I now know he soon moved to a more research-oriented place. But he had a very (left)-moralistic tone to his classroom presence, and I can still remember a couple of very specific things he said and how much mentation (and some consternation) it cost me to process and stow his judgmental observations. I value that friction now. Whereas with the young emergency step-in adjunct I had a few minutes later in psychology, who was cool, Beatle-esque, and guru-istic, I can only remember the style and the styling, not the substance. A clunky history guy would break into a (very) occasional Methodist camp hymn to drive home a point (or maybe to hold service while he thought about what to say next). Another history guy whose memorial service decades later revealed that one of *his* teachers on his Ph.D. committee at Belgrade U. had been one of the “Black Hand” conspirators who started WW-I!?! A grizzled humanities prof. who had to leave class one day to bail his wife out of jail after she threw a refrigerator off the balcony of a rental house they owned to evict a student who wouldn’t pay the rent. Who cares if that wasn’t in the syllabus? The “liberal” part of liberal education was extracting things of utility and value from the differential topography of the faculty as a whole, not experiencing vendor-tested, cross-curricular, webinar-driven “best practices” regimes.

    When I hear all the stuff we hear now about “outcomes,” and its “assessment,” I like to point out that there weren’t any “outcomes” in me when I graduated, thankfully, not any that you could have reached with a ten foot probe, anyway. Only inputs, and some of those are still metabolizing, usefully and productively, many years after they were probably toppled by continued research in their own specific disciplinary contexts. (What are they saying these days about tectonic plates and globigerina ooze?).

    Sounds like you really got in Mr. Hill’s wheelhouse on the woman question, Historiann, and how cool is that? Ohio was a pretty Copperhead state, some parts, and I guess being a Civil War scholar out there would have involved a considerable amount of wear-and-tear.


  2. Thank you for this post. I’m a musicologist and have encountered this issue frequently, unfortunately at the university level. At many schools (most commonly universities with schools of music), some or many music history courses are taught by performance faculty, who generally hold DMAs rather than musicology degrees. While I have met performance faculty who take this duty seriously, very few of them are engaged with the field and most of them–understandably, considering it’s not their primary job–have never done significant research or are very thoroughly trained. Students who are getting degrees in music often never get a real introduction to musicology and, like some of the performance faculty themselves, feel that it’s something that the university imposes on them when they should be off practicing. (It’s also bad for our job market–why hire another musicologist when the trombone prof could teach some more?)


  3. As usual Professor Foner is RIGHT ON!!! I went to a pretty prestigious private school and my 10th grade history teacher was the baseball coach, who READ THE BOOK to us almost every day. He was totally useless. Luckily I did have a great US history teacher who got me into AP history and instilled a passion for history that started my academic career. History is seen as “easy” so the coaches gravitate to it. I teach at a CC and I more or less treat my students like upper level undergrads or even grad students, not necessarily with a heavy reading load but by working with them to really break down primary source documents. History takes WORK but if you really enjoy it then it pays off for your students, even if most of your students will never do anything else with formalized history themselves.


  4. Sam Wineburg has a great study in Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts which compares how four new teachers teach history, and how it is shaped by their undergraduate major. Because in high school, the license is social studies, so you could major in anthropology, or political science, and still qualify.


  5. Pingback: Weekly Roundup: On Copernicus and Historical Expertise | Darin Hayton

  6. Susan, I was thinking about the Sam Wineburg book too! I think it should be required reading for all college professors who are training social science history teachers (SSHT). The way our program is set up, most SSHT majors pick a course of study in one discipline and a lot of them will end up choosing history. They don’t have to do a thesis, but they take many of the same classes.

    I appreciate Foner’s point about Coach teaching the history class, but that is fast becoming a legacy problem around here. The teaching profession in the upper Midwest is pretty competitive. You have to have a pretty high GPA to get into our SSHT program, and if you graduate with a GPA lower than 3.3 you are probably not going to land a teaching job (baring nepotism). You need to have A’s in the subject area you want to teach in. There are too many good candidates who aced their history classes and can also coach on the side.


  7. I assign the Wineburg when I teach historiography: enough of our students are interested in teaching, and it also helps them see the moves they need to make in becoming historians. And students really like it.


  8. Passion in what you do makes a world of difference. Several of the above comments say that one way or another. One of my PE teachers was very passionate about his work. We all liked him and whatever he wanted us to do. (This takes care of putting down coaches.)

    From high school I recall the passion of one physics teacher, one literature teacher and one geography teacher. She was a real looker and was dancing the material in front of us; she was a great teacher.

    Their faces, movements, opinions, reactions and appearances are fully with me more than 50 years after school.


  9. I had some great history and social studies teachers in high school – none of them were also coaches, and as far as I know they all had at least some history training. My favorite was a wonderful woman, Deborah Willard (Deborah Skauen when I had her), who really loved history, and went on to be named Connecticut Teacher of the Year in 1986, long after I had graduated. I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to have her, I just knew she was great. I was glad to meet her sometime later and let her know I was getting a PhD in history; she was thrilled. Two of my friends in my graduating class also went on to get PhDs in history, and I am sure they would also give credit to Mrs. Skauen (as she was then) for her enthusiasm and encouragement.


  10. A related issue is that as a result of students having history classes in elementary and high school, but not say anthropology courses, is that when they get to college and have to contend with college-level courses, there can be a problem, because college level history isn’t like high school level history. I have had any number of student become very frustrated with me, because what I teach isn’t like what they learned in high school. I always suspect this is at an issue for anthropologists as much, because students don’t already think they know what anthropology is. But it also feeds into student and public stereotypes of academics. We only teach leftie history ie full of women an minorities, not the important stuff of white men and wars. So the believe that students have that they know what history is already has larger ramifications.


  11. I thought a lot about this in High School. My sophomore history teacher was a water polo coach who told us to sit and read the textbook for 98 minutes each class (ugg, block scheduling). But in junior and senior year, I had a teacher with a Masters in History and who taught at the local Community College. That man taught me to love history and is responsible for my ending up in graduate school.
    Now that I teach at a high school level, my Ph.D. is incredibly valuable. I know how to stay updated in my field to build an up-to-date curriculum AND I can really explain what historians do (and teach students historical skills) rather than just relying on a textbook to determine my curriculum. What I thought would intimidate students (my degree), has become my greatest asset in reaching them.

    Truly progressive educators like Rick Wormelli (http://www.amazon.com/Rick-Wormeli/e/B001JS321Q) would argue that all teachers need to be up-to-date experts in their field AND constantly working to improve their pedagogy. I like to think I follow in that vein.

    Shameless plug alert: I’ve started my own blog to explore the challenges and questions that arise from being a high school teacher with a Ph.D. (http://highschoolphd.wordpress.com/).
    In addition, it will cover is a year-long project that I, another high school teacher, and a few college professors (old grad school buddies) are undertaking. For the next year, we’re going to talk across the high-school/secondary-school divide to try and develop a history curriculum built on fundamental historical skills — new and old (primary/secondary source analysis, writing, digital literacy). We’re going to try and present at next year’s AHA. But if we don’t get accepted as a panel, we plan to do this anyway.
    It will also cover my attempts to transform curriculum at my school. I want to develop a primary-source-driven, American History curriculum by throwing out the textbook completely. If the school lets me, I plan to blog that as well.

    Sometime I feel like I live in a void — devoid of contact with a larger community because I bridge the gap between the academy and secondary teaching. The blog is an effort to change that, so comments are most welcome.


  12. Hello, and Happy 2014!

    I have a colleague that says on the first day “This history class will be different — I am not named ‘Coach,'” and gets a good laugh. I thankfully never had that experience as a student — at my SoCal high school, the science teachers were the coaches and seemingly very qualified at both — but I have found it a common experience among my students.

    In terms of Katherine’s point about what they expect, and triangulating it with Sam Wineburg, Eric Foner’s comments, and whatever NCLB and Common Core are providing us, I start the survey with a slide that says “Not Your High School History Class” and I get all those fears on the table, those expectations, those preconceptions. Then I talk about what actual historians do, and how different it is, and I use Lendol Calder’s Uncoverage approach to make them into historians — imperfect “dueling textbooks” rather than a Voice of God Consensus book; lots of primary source analysis, both visual and textual; and final assignments that make them form the syntheses. It has been working well.


  13. Sorry it took me so long to check in. I had my first foray into working with public school teachers at the NEHTA conference this year. (For those who don’t remember who I am, I’m a PhD who teaches Upper School in an independent K-12). So many of the folks had so little history background, but many were eager to learn.

    Far more frustrating were the days of the AP World listserv where I (and others) kept trying to explain to people that “No there are not 100 top facts in World History that every student needs to know.” However, asking students to come up with a list of 10 and justify their choices would be an excellent review for the exam. So many people just. didn’t. get it.

    And as long as us hs types are plugging our blogs…

    Most recent posts are about trying to teach students and other teachers how to think and act like historians. One of these days I’ll tell the story of my material culture classroom collection which consists of a 1950s vintage gieger counter and a 1920 Hamilton Beech vibrator.


  14. Speaking of amateurs … I’m an historian of science, and have encountered more scientists than I can count who claim to be able to teach the history of science. Once again — it helps if you know some history.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.