By Joshua Benton
I can’t promise you Linda Hosey would be a great history teacher.
I’ve never seen her try to wrangle a classroom of distracted 16-year-olds. I’ve never seen her try to explain the fall of the Bastille or the rise of the New Deal.
But I think it’s fair to say that her inability to coach offensive linemen shouldn’t stop her from getting into a classroom.
You see, a few years ago, Linda decided to go back to college in her 40s. Living in Lubbock at the time, she enrolled at Texas Tech and became an academic star.
She graduated in 2002 with a perfect 4.0 GPA, summa cum laude. She knew she wanted to be a social studies teacher, so she majored in economics and minored in history. She did stints as an apprentice teacher, she took a rigorous course schedule, and she got all her necessary certifications. And having school-age kids, she’d spent years as a PTA mom.
“I wanted to make a difference in young people’s lives,” she says.
Which is why it came as a surprise to her that, when she started applying for teaching jobs at North Texas high schools, she got the cold shoulder.
“Everyone I talked to said their social studies jobs were set aside for coaches,” she says. “If I wasn’t a coach, I didn’t have a chance. I couldn’t even get an interview.”
Linda isn’t alone. “I think it’s extremely common,” said Shannon Pugh, a history teacher at W.T. White High and past president of the Dallas Council for the Social Studies. “There’s been this perception that anybody can teach history.”
Just hand them a textbook and tell them at what year to start reciting facts, I suppose.
I pulled together some data for North Texas high schools to see how many teachers in each major subject received side pay for also coaching UIL athletics. It turns out that more than one out of every three area social studies teachers also coaches.
Proportionally, that’s almost four times as many coaches as you find among English teachers, and about twice as many as you find among math and science teachers.
“We look for teaching ability first,” said Linda Massey, a Dallas teacher and president of the Texas Council for the Social Studies. “But if there happens to be a coaching position that needs to be filled, that’s what they’re going to do.”
Now, I’m not saying coaches can’t be good teachers. They can be great ones. Ms. Pugh says the history-teaching coaches at W.T. White are all wonderful, and I don’t doubt it.
But is it a good thing if the features we look for in teachers – pedagogical ability, strong subject knowledge – somehow rank below ability to decode a 1-3-1 zone defense?
“It’s appalling,” says Peggy Althoff, a school administrator in Colorado Springs and vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “I would hope the top priority is whether they’re good teachers. Otherwise you’re encouraging promising teachers to go do something else.”
Linda went to a teacher job fair last spring and tried to talk to as many local districts as she could. She said about a dozen of them gave her variations on the same theme: Be a coach and we’ll think about hiring you.
Last month, she e-mailed one local principal about a possible vacancy for the fall. “There will probably not be any additional openings in SS [social studies] this year,” the principal wrote back. “The need to have coaches has already filled SS.”
Her daughters started telling Linda that maybe she should give in and learn a sport. Golf can’t be that hard, right?
“But I’m 47 years old and I don’t know anything about sports,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to be a coach to teach history. I shouldn’t have to be a coach to teach economics.”
Some say the situation will improve over time, since Texas schools are now being evaluated for their students’ performance on the social studies TAKS. That creates an incentive for schools to worry about history more than before. But the test has proved so easy to pass that I doubt it’s increased the attention to social studies more than a smidge.
When I started calling administrators for this column, it was remarkable how quickly they said they didn’t want their name in the paper. “I can’t believe they’d say it out loud,” one top local social studies administrator said before insisting on her name being kept quiet. “I know it happens, but I can’t believe they’d say it out loud.”
Will Linda Hosey be a great teacher? History will tell. But we’ll never find out if no one gives her a shot.