Do Not Operate Unless Trained

The warning on this fire extinguisher is a rule follower’s worst nightmare – “DO NOT OPERATE UNLESS TRAINED.”  (Imagine it: A fire is blazing. I go to grab the fire extinguisher. “NO!!! I can’t use this.  I am not trained!”)

fire extinguisher principleThe warning on this fire extinguisher is a rule follower’s worst nightmare – “DO NOT OPERATE UNLESS TRAINED.”  (Imagine it: A fire is blazing. I go to grab the fire extinguisher. “NO!!! I can’t use this.  I am not trained!”)

Seriously, this is the fire extinguisher outside one of the classrooms where I teach—and that was the scenario I imagined as I snapped a picture of it with my phone.  Absurd, right?

But a couple weeks later, it hit me: When it comes to educating kids, maybe we should pay more attention to the Fire Extinguisher Principle: “Do not operate unless trained.”

In addition to working as a K-12 teacher for 12 years, I have worked for the U.S. Department of Education in both the Bush and Obama administrations. I am now a college professor.  I’ve witnessed a variety of attempts to solve education’s big challenges, and I have some pretty strong evidence that the Fire Extinguisher Principle is worth heeding in our schools.

Exhibit A: Teach for America

Some of the smartest people I know in education entered the field through TFA.  However, we have well-meaning college graduates becoming teachers-of-record in some of our nation’s most challenging schools after a 5-week summer crash course.

The “success” of TFA is nicely summarized here.  However, in math, the statistically significant growth TFA touts is that in TFA classrooms students moved from the 14th percentile to the 17th percentile. In reading, students in those classrooms moved from the 13th to the 14th percentile.  Comparison classrooms remained constant at the 15th percentile in math, and moved from the 14th to the 15th percentile in reading.

The real finding here: we are struggling to educate these children well.

Now the Walton Family Foundation has given $20 million to TFA to place 700 “effective” corp members in Los Angeles public schools.  Interesting that TFA’s co-chief executive officer has determined they are “effective” prior to spending a single day in a classroom.

Wouldn’t more (and better) preparation and support help?

Exhibit B: Charter Schools

Some charter schools are doing amazing things. However, most are no better than their traditional counterparts and many are worse (See the most recent CREDO study). Businesspeople with no experience in education beyond being students might not be the best people to design new schools. Maybe Rand Paul can dismiss research in favor of Waiting for Superman, but can’t we do better?

Exhibit C: Policymakers Driving Education Reforms

I have worked with many smart, well-meaning policymakers and not all of them have to be great teachers. However, how many local, state, and federal policymakers were outstanding teachers?  I don’t have that study, but if you know of one, let me know. We need more great teachers contributing to policy development at all levels.  Policymakers need teachers for their expertise, not for buy-in or as rubber stamps after policies have already been written.

Exhibit D: College Professors

Currently, I work with many bright colleagues. However, very few professors receive any training in how to teach. Their level of content expertise is somehow enough to qualify them to teach. How many of you remember professors who could have used a little preparation in how to teach?

Now, maybe the education world is on fire. Maybe anyone should be able to teach, start a charter school, or make education policy.

Or maybe we need to heed The Fire Extinguisher Principle by welcoming great teachers to transform education with bold ideas grounded in research and practice.


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  • BillIvey

    Four Thumbs Way Up

    I love this post and will be sharing it with others. Exhibit D reminds me of a recent piece by Grant Wiggins brilliantly taking apart a college professor’s rant against high school teachers. Apparently, according to the rant, we (although a middle school dean, I teach kids in grades 7-12) are weakening the curriculum by trying to relate it to students’ interests. According to this professor, sometimes life, inevitably including some college courses, is boring and we need to teach students how to deal with and work through boredom or we are doing them a disservice. Oy.

    • JonEckert


      Thanks, Bill. I love Grant Wiggins’ work. I hope no high school teacher has to prepare a student to navigate boredom in my class. Depressing view of education …

      • BillIvey

        My strong instinct…

        … is there is precious little boredom in your class. Call it a hunch! 🙂

      • Hannes Minkema

        Depressing maybe, but not totally unrealistic

        I teach literature in high school (and other subjects in college). Literature is typically a subject that some students like (much) more than other students. Although I try my very best to be a great teacher for everyone, and reach out to each and every student, I know that I will fail to reach some – just like literature is unable to reach some readers. 

        Now, what are these students to do? They don’t like literature very much (at present, they might later in life) and for some of them, I happen to be not-so-great a teacher. They don’t like the product much, nor the salesman. 

        I guess my colleagues in math class and history class have similar problems with some students. Probably other students than in my case.

        This does not mean that these students are exempt from responsibility. Somewhere down the long line of a child’s education, there will unevitably be moments of subjective boredom. I’d like my students to learn that they can overcome that handicap. By showing some persistence, keep their eyes open for something unexpected showing up, and making the best out of it. 

        Is this ‘a depressing view’ of education? Don’t think so. It’s just one of the many experiences that *also* prepare for college life. Or for the working life. Or for life in general. It might come in quite handy, actually.


        • JonEckert

          Interesting point

          My question for you would be, how do you “teach” your students to deal with boredom? Beyond acknowledging that sometimes a subject or a teacher might not immediately engage them and telling them to show “some persistence, keep their eyes open for something unexpected showing up, and making the best out of it,” how do you teach this? It is depressing to think about how a teacher would teach students to deal with boredom – that is not a class I would enjoy. I agree that successful students have to learn this and that it is an important life skill, but I am sure you do not give up on trying to engage students. I think many college professors believe that they don’t have much if any responsibility for student engagement. I want to err on the side of making my pre-service teachers feeling too much responsibility for hooking students while acknowledging that no teacher will suceed engaging every student every day. Like you, I know I have not.

  • KrisGiere

    Excellent Points, Jon

    As a college professor, I have a limited view point; however, I couldn’t help but agree with all points, A-D.  I was lucky enough to have quality preparation for teaching as a TA when I went to Indiana State University.  I must admit though, much of the best preparation that I recieved came from me asking for guidance from individual instructors, including my assigned mentor.  The dialogue and brainstorming with actively teaching professors that I received had helped me immensely to grow as an instructor, and that sort of discourse still informs my practice to this day.

    Teacher preparation is invaluable.  Even though somethings can never really be learned until after one is fully immersed in the classroom, that is no excuse to forego quality teacher training.

    • JonEckert

      Well said

      Kris, glad to hear that there is good preparation out there for TAs as they go through their doctoral work! I also agree that full immersion in the classroom is where unbelievable amounts of learning occur and that this does not exclude the need for the best preparation that we can provide.

  • ReneeMoore

    Words of Wisdom

    Think about that warning applied to say….aspiring surgeons….


    • JonEckert

      This is true for any profession I can think of …

      Great point, Renee. The surgeon is a particulary disturbing example, but this would be true for any profession that currently comes to mind – architects, engineers, nurses, lawyers, accountants, etc. I certainly don’t want to drive over any bridges or get my taxes done by someone who has not been well prepared. It is no consolation to me that they will be good in a few years …

  • Lorraine Richardson

    Creating Say No 2 Zero Teachers

    School will start soon and thousands of newly minted teachers will enter the classroom for the first time; teachers who maybe scholarly and energetic, but lack the experience, the expertise to handle a variety of attitudes and  behaviors they did not witness in their classrooms. Yet, it will be their decision to refer students for discipline/punishment that can mean students are pushed out of the classroom, the school, and much more likely to be introduced to the suspension process which may land them in the courts. We need to begin to mint SAY NO 2 ZERO TEACHERS. Poor and minority children’s future depends on it.

  • Katie Wiens

    I have some thoughts on this, too…

    I think you are right on, Dr. Eckert, but do we have any evidence that traditional teacher preparation programs granting degrees, those degrees wrought with impossible regulation from the state, make an impact on teacher quality?  Certainly most masters degrees do nothing to make one a master of teaching.  I think there are better ways prepare teachers in ways that do not discourage them from becoming a teacher (e.g. too many courses to graduate, mandatory state-imposed courses that do little to inspire, educate, etc).   Just my thoughts.  But you know me….

    • JonEckert

      Great question

      Love the question, Katie. The bigger issue here is how we determine teacher quality. Today’s NY Times article highlights New York’s effort to do this by issuing preparation program scorecards based on their graduates impact on student test scores. However, there will be issues with reducing teacher quality to impact on test scores, particularly linking this back to a preparation program. That would be one indicator of quality, one that I would love to have in our program, but it is an inherently reductionist approach. The point I am trying to make without going into a long teacher quality rant is that preparation for any profession is needed, and I have yet to see a profession attempting to become stronger be de-coupling itself from preparation or higher education. How all of that is regulated (your point) is another story, as any true profession is regulated by the professionals already in the guild, something that is not currently the case in education.

  • Nancy Gardner

    Teaching and Training

    We have all heard the WB Yeats quote “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  As Jon as so clearly stated, we train people to put out fires, so why wouldn’t we train those who ignite them in the classrooms through inspirational and intentional teaching? 

    • JonEckert

      We need to link pre-service teachers to mentors like you

      Thanks for this point, Nancy. While I have not observed you in the classroom, I have worked with you enought to know you inspire your students. The best way to get pre-service and in-service teachers to realize their potential to inspire is to see others doing it. That is one reason I just bought 41 copies of Teacherpreneurs to share with my student teachers. It will be great fodder for discussion of how teacher leaders inspire.

  • SandyMerz

    Fire Extinguishers and Thermos Cups

    I bought a thermos cup once.  When I opened it up a little slip of paper fell out.  It contained instructions on how to use the cup.  The first instruction was how to open the cup.  I hope that made you laugh, but it’s true.  The next instruction was to wash the cup before using.  Ok.  The next instruction was that the cup was for hot or cold liquids.  They didn’t want the consumer to confuse with it with those thermos cups that are for room temperature liquids. 

    This makes it sound like I’m saying if you can find a classroom you know how to teach.  Absolutely not.  But my teacher prep program provided about as much useful instruction on teaching as the slip of paper did on using a thermos. 

    If it weren’t for informal mentoring from some veteran teachers, I don’t know what kind of teacher I’d have ended up being.  You mention the NYT piece about evaluating programs based on their graduates’ impact on their students’ scores.  Maybe they should be looking at NBCTs, or teachers of demonstrated accomplishment in other measures and see what they say about their prep programs.

    • KrisGiere

      PLNs in teacher prep programs?

      Your point and many of the points above touch on mentoring and/or coaching as excellent tools for teacher prep.  It made me think about the amazing way many of the teachers here use PLNs.  Could guidance on using and building a PLN be a tool worth incorporating into quality teacher prep programs?  Granted this could be putting the cart before the horse, but I find it to be an interesting connection nonetheless.

      • JonEckert

        Another great idea

        Kris, great thought. We are actually trying to tap into CTQ and PLNs in our preparation program. We are going to using Teacherpreneurs in our senior seminar this fall in collaboration with John Holland and Megan Allen’s pre-service teachers. It is a logistical challenge as well as being challenging due to limited experience and time, but we hope to move our students in this direction. We will definitely report on how it goes.

    • JonEckert

      Love the thermos metaphor …

      Your point about bad preparation is well-taken and heard far too often. That is why we have been asking our grads this question for the past three years I have been at my college. You can see their responses here. However, the fact that many teachers experienced poor preparation does not mean that they need less. It just needs to be better. 

      • SandyMerz

        Better, not less

        Exactly.  And I know it’s happening and catching on.  I’ll look forwar to hearing about your work with Megan and John.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Great Discussion!


    You have a great discussion going here around what needs to change in order to elevate quality teaching across all grade levels–post-secondary not excluded. 

    I wanted you to know that I cross-posted this on to promote even more voices to add to this. Link is below. Thanks!

    Do Not Operate…

  • Damon

    To Me, Exhibit D is Especially Alarming

    I know teaching skill is important at all levels, and in all types of classrooms, but am I wrong to be especially disconcerted by Exhibit D: College Professors?

    College ostensibly handles the most complex subject matter, and also is the most competitive, no? I mean, there are more primary teachers in the US than college professors, right?

    Thanks for these insights, Jon.

  • SusanGraham

    Different strokes for different folks

    “Even though somethings can never really be learned until after one is fully immersed in the classroom, that is no excuse to forego quality teacher training.”

    And unfortunately, too many new teachers wind up reverting to a sort of suvival level of dog paddling. Some become dependent on a flotation device of formulatic instruction that inhibits them from ever developing technique or stamina. A lot of them just decided to get out of the water.  And far too many of them drown.

    All the more reason to follow up teacher preparation with quality mentoring, coaching and support. No matter how we prepare teachers, I think we have to remember that there is no such thing as a “finished product.” Novice teachers may have mastery of content and best practices, but interacting with experienced teachers is critical as new teachers refine their practice. And in working with those emergent teachers,those experienced teachers benefit from new techniques and fresh ideas that new teachers bring.



    • KrisGiere


      That is precisely why I made the point that some of my best preparation came from mentoring faculty with whom I worked and still work.  There is no end point to mentoring, collaboration, and learning in the teaching profession or any profession really.  As our society modernizing, our culture evolves, and we as humans strive to progress, there is much to be learned.

      You make a wonderful point, and I just wanted to echo it.