The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an editorial that was picked up and run in my region, raising a question about the "most important component of teaching."
The actual issue was the substitute shortage (which I can report, via the experiences of the Board of Directors is severe--they have never had a sub when their kindergarten teacher is absent, but are just shunted into the other K teachers). Ohio has shifted to their own version of a warm body substitute law; in Ohio, if you have a college degree, you can apply for a subject-specific substitute license. IOW, if you have a BA in English, you can be an English class substitute in Ohio.
Pennsylvania has loosened up the rules as well, including letting near-graduated teacher program students sub and allowing retirees to sub without having to give up pension payments (though no retiree I know, including me, has gotten a call from a district to step in). This measure would loosen things up more. But what raised the question is part of the Post-Gazette's rationale:
Knowledge of the subject matter is the most important component of teaching.
Is it? And if not, what is?
I am a huge believer in the importance of subject matter knowledge. When you are standing in a classroom, there is no substitute for knowing what the hell you're talking about. It helps enormously with classroom management and earning the respect of your students (yes, you have to earn that). It helps you stay fast on your feet and adapt to whatever kind of teachable moment presents itself.
I'm not saying you have to be the world's foremost expert, nor is your job to strut your stuff as the smartest person in the room. But a teacher who plans to get by by just following the textbook makes me cringe. It's the difference between being a guide who knows the paved path to the destination, but is stumped if anyone takes one step off the asphalt, and a guide who knows every part of the territory, on the path and off, and can guide you to any spot from any other spot. I want a classroom with the latter.
But teaching also involves being able to convey that knowledge you have. Everyone knows (and some have experienced) the cliche of the person who's really smart but can't actually explain what they know to anyone else. You can't be a good guide if you arrived at the destination with no idea how you got there and the only advice you can offer others is to keep hollering, "Well, just go to the place!" You have to be able to break the trip into comprehensible pieces.
And that means you have to understand your audience and read the room. You have to be able to communicate with the young humans that you are supposed to be teaching. For the younger students in particular this means some exceptional communication and empathic skills are required of teachers. If you can't read the room, every teachable moment will fly right past you and every opportunity will be lost.
And you have to be in charge, but not a tyrant. You have to maintain the safe learning space, which means all those people skills have to be harnessed in service of balancing all the needs in front of you.
Yes, there are plenty of pieces of conventional wisdom that dance around this issue.
"I want them to love learning." And that's absolutely the important goal, and you can only achieve it if you know something to teach them and are able to do so.
"We teach students, not subjects." Sure. What do you teach them. I get the point of this one, that we should not get so caught up in our material that we get things backward and think that the students are there to serve the content instead of vice versa. But we still have to teach the students something.
"Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage." Honestly, I don't know a teacher who still sticks closely to the sage model and just stands up there bloviating away the days, but it would be a lousy model to follow. But it's a serious mistake to over-correct into the
"We're all just here to learn together and I'm just one more learner and they teach me as much as I teach them." If you don't know more about what you're teaching than your students do, just go home. You are the grown up adult specialist. That is the gig. If you don't know more than the students, if you are not the expert guide on the learning journey, then what exactly are the taxpayers paying you for? Your heart can be as big as all outdoors, but your brain needs to be full, too.
None of this means you have to be an all-knowing teacherbot who is the supreme authority on all matters, just standing in the classroom spewing forth your infallible wisdom.
All of this is a lot of work, and constant work because teaching is about balancing a whole bunch of things and the eight is always shifting so you can never ever get into a stance and think, "Well, I can just lock this down exactly here."
Which means on top of all the rest, you have to want to do the job. You have to want to succeed, to do everything that's called for. You have to want to teach, not just grab a paycheck or add a line on your resume. You have to give a shit. You have to care.
So I'm torn, because in my mind, almost everything on the list rests on knowing your content. Except the desire to do the job. But of the two, content knowledge is the element that can be learned. I don't know how to teach you to give a shit about teaching, but I know lots of ways for you to learn the content so that you can do the job.
So I think I have to put knowledge of subject matter at #2, right behind "Want to do the job." Which is why I suspect the Ohio idea won't help much, just like most of these bar-lowering warm-body-recruiting ideas aren't helping all that much. It's easy to find people with college degrees and warm bodies, but the people who want to teach and really care about the work are already there. If you are a policy maker (or newspaper publisher) who imagines that there are millions of folks just dying to teach and the only thing holding them back is some paperwork, then you have some subject matter knowledge problems of your own.