View From the Classroom: Teacher training for law profs

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Law professors have little formal teacher training.  It’s true that some come with a background in teaching; others have sought out training as educators; and yet others seem to have a natural feel for teaching.  But on the whole, legal educators don’t have anything like the kind of training that, say, primary school teachers have.

And worse: law professors have few formal opportunities to get this kind training, or to bone up if they already have it.  Between our day-to-day teaching and service responsibilities, and our writing (which, of course, enjoys a privileged, even sacred, place among our activities), we don’t take the time for formal continuing teacher training.  This just isn’t something that most law schools prioritize.

Sure, there are opportunities.  The Association of American Law Schools, our principal professional organization, offers a regular program for new law teachers and frequent programs for veterans.  The Journal of Legal Education, distributed to all law professors, includes peer-reviewed articles on pedagogy and techniques.  The Institute for Law Teaching and Learning publishes a newsletter and provides resources for continuing teacher education.  And law schools themselves offer programs for their faculty.  These resources, and others, provide invaluable information and training on legal education.

But from a law professor’s perspective, they can seem disconnected and disjointed, not part of a larger course of study about teaching.  We may learn a useful classroom technique here, and good assessment practices there, but there’s no widespread, formal coordination to bring it all together.  As a result, our learning about teaching is too often piece-by-piece and ad hoc, without a formal framework or overarching process.

Many might say that this is no problem—that we don’t need a formal, regimented, or systematic educational training program.  After all, we teach adults, not children.  Our educational methods are tried and true, and we’re evolving with each fresh generation of teachers.  And we’ve all been through our own program; we’ve all experienced our own educational method, first-hand.  In short, we already know what little we need to know about teaching.

This is wrong.  Our law students, advanced to be sure, nevertheless come with their own unique educational needs.  There’s an entire field and burgeoning literature on adult educational theory, and there’s a rich sub-literature on legal educational theory.  There’s also a rich literature on legal educational practice.  We have a lot to learn from what others have thought, studied, and tried in legal education.  And we could do with a formal, systematic way to digest it all.

We spend a good deal of time and effort in creating a formal program for our students to develop into good professionals.  Maybe we should spend some similar time and effort to do the same for ourselves.

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