Becoming a Social Studies Teacher
The other night, I had an anxiety dream. In it, I was conducting research at an international school on its approach to civic education (you know, part of what I do in real life). My host was a teacher I know well, with whom I’ve worked in Peru. But before I could get started, he said I needed to meet with the principal. I entered her office, where another social studies teacher was waiting; across from us, the principal sat at her large desk, her head slung down while she napped. Worst nightmare of a job interview EVER.
Eventually, the principal jolted awake and leered at both of us. Our college transcripts were in front of her. She inspected each, and then looked at us with disgust: “Why would I hire YOU, either of you, to teach social studies when you do not even have good survey history courses on your university transcript? How can you even pretend to be social studies teachers?!” The other woman, who was clearly interviewing for a teaching job at the school, began to explain how her high school offered a plethora of college-level survey courses, and so when she got to college, she was able to move into advanced history seminars. She showed off her flashy knowledge of dates and names, and then went down a wormhole about some 1800s Navy admiral she was obsessed with. She ended with a summary of her students’ AP scores for the past twenty years. The principal nodded, clearly assuaged.
Then she turned to me. “What about you, little miss interdisciplinary?”
I gulped. I began my usual explanation of what it means to have studied Women’s Studies as an undergraduate, the various social science lenses on the same questions. I showed her on my transcript the “surveys” of sociology, history, literature, political science, but how they were all focused on questions of gender. And as I explained what I had studied, I grew more animated in my explanations of how I study these topics. The principal seemed unimpressed.
Gathering steam, I tried to give a narrative of how I came to this place in my intellectual career: I talked about not seeing myself in the curriculum (or in my classmates) and seeking academic spaces that honored the questions I was asking as legitimate intellectual inquiry. I talked about questioning dominant narratives, and moving back and forth between the various disciplinary cannons and critical theorists and scholars. I talked about my discovery late in life of how thrilling history can be when it is more than a collection of dates and names. I may have shown her the syllabus to my methods courses. I definitely showed her the documentaries and podcasts and blogs that my students have written in my social studies classes.
Eventually, she relented, agreeing that while my training was non-traditional, I clearly knew how to ask questions and get students to do some work (there may have been a tirade about lazy millenials and the ills of technology). She looked about to nod off for a nap again (and I really wanted to ask a snide question about what work she did if she spent so much time napping), so I mustered the courage to ask permission to conduct my research, which she granted. The next thing I knew, the dream had morphed into a murder mystery complete with chupacabras, and instead of conducting research on civic education, I was helping high school students escape some murderous blob-ghost thing, which liked to strike during football games. Also, there were rickshaw rides and a lack of child care for my own children so…definitely an anxiety dream.
School is finally back in full swing here in Milwaukee, and we are hunkering down at Marquette to dig into the meat of our courses. And on the eve of these intellectual journeys, I guess my sub-conscious needed to pause to reflect on what it means to be a scholar of social studies education, especially when one isn’t a traditional social scientist or historian. I talked my own imposter syndrome down in the dream, as evidenced by the principal’s relent, but I woke up aware of that always present feeling of self-doubt. Which, believe it or not, is important for me to hold onto. Not because it’s a valid self-critique but because it reminds me of how my pre-service teachers may feel in my methods courses and in their placements—not quite the real deal. And that self-doubt can be paralyzing. Part of my job as their methods instructor is to help them see the multiple ways that we can become scholars of teaching, and that our most powerful intellectual tools are the questions we ask.
This publication, which we will add to throughout the school year, is a record of their journeys learning to ask good questions. Along the way, they will uncover resources, stories, places, and instruction that just may help you become a better social studies teacher, too—whether this is your first year teaching, or your fortieth.
This is social studies. Not a collection of dates and names, but a way of inquiring about the world. We hope you’ll join us on our journey.