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Do Ph.D.s Make Good Teachers?

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Do Ph.D.s Make Good Teachers?
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Private schools around the country are increasingly hiring teachers who have their doctoral degree, or Ph.D., in their field. This hiring practice is particularly prevalent at prestigious boarding schools and day schools. Why are private schools looking to hire people who have been trained to work in universities, not in secondary schools, and what effect does this hiring practice have on the quality of teaching?

Why Private Schools Hire Teachers with Ph.D.s

Private schools in part hire Ph.D.s because the subject matter that students are expected to master in college-preparatory public and private schools has become increasingly more vast and difficult over the years. For example, many private schools offer AP or Advanced Placement classes in most disciplines, and the subject matter is often very broad and detailed. While it is not always necessary to hire a teacher with a doctorate to teach this subject matter, it can be helpful, particularly in math and the sciences.

in addition, private school rankings, which often appear in various media outlets, tend to rely on easy-to-gather statistics such as the percentage of a school’s faculty that has advanced degrees, including a master’s or doctoral degree. Media like to look at these types of statistics to rank schools because they are easy to find, using schools’ websites. However, these types of statistics do not express how good the quality of teaching is at a particular school. In addition, schools like to tout the percentage of their faculty who have doctoral degrees on their websites and in other literature, believing that these types of statistics will draw parents and students to their schools.

Do Ph.D.s Make Good Teachers?

There is no doubt that some teachers with doctoral degrees make excellent teachers, particularly at the high school level. They are often knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subject matter—and these are qualities that make teaching great. However, it is not only the doctoral degree that makes them excellent; instead, other qualities that make teachers great, including experience, commitment, and the human touch.

Having witnessed the interactions of countless teachers and students, I can not emphasize enough the importance of commitment and the human touch in teaching for students in primary, middle, and high schools. They need to know that their teachers care about them and their learning, and, particularly in private schools, with their small class sizes, teachers have an amazing effect on their students—good teachers, that is. Schools that tend to hire Ph.D.s without as much regard to their connection to their students are doing a disserve to the students and will often wind up with inferior teachers. For example, just because a teacher is an expert in a certain area, it does not always mean that he or she can truly reach the students and relate to the material to them in a way that makes sense. In addition, Ph.D.s may be used to teaching college students, who are much more independent and may not need the types of reassurance and skills-building work that students in the younger grades need. While a teacher with a Ph.D. may possess these types of skills, their doctoral degree does not in and of itself make for excellent teaching.

The hiring of so many Ph.D.s in private schools can also create a good deal of stress on the part of the student. Many teachers with doctoral degrees have unrealistic expectations of their students and do not teach in ways that are developmentally appropriate. That is, they expect their students to produce academically sophisticated results without providing scaffolding or explanation for each step along the way. As a result, students may feel stressed, and they may not learn as much as they might have with another teacher who took the time to impart skills.

Read more about what makes a good private school teacher.

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