How is sociology helpful for a teacher?

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Sociology can be helpful for a teacher by allowing them to think of each student on the individual level and cater the curriculum to what each students' needs are. Many social factors come into play when addressing how a student learns, and by addressing these factors it's possible for teachers to optimize education for their students.

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Although society and patterns of social interaction have always been the subjects of study, the academic study of sociology as a formal discipline began in the late-nineteenth century. The first university department (at the University of Chicago) and the American Journal of Sociology were both founded in the 1890s by Albion Small. The subject then became much more fashionable and widely studied in the 1960s.

This trajectory is almost exactly paralleled by the academic study of educational theory, and there is good reason for this. For most of human history, the skill of a teacher has generally been thought to lie in his/her grasp of the subject taught. The best teacher of geometry was the one who knew the most about geometry, and so forth. Informally, both students and teachers have always known that some teachers are better communicators than others, but this was not formally recognized and incorporated in teacher training.

Throughout the twentieth century, there was a growing recognition that a good teacher needs to know not only the subject but the students. This led to the development of student-centered and then family-centered education. For these types of instruction, sociology is invaluable. The more the teacher knows about the student's background, the more effective his/her teaching will be. The racial and ethnic background, native language, social class, family values and many other aspects of a student's life, as well as his or her individual attributes, will determine how the student in question can be taught most effectively. A knowledge of sociology can also help the student to understand and effectively enter into partnership with the student's family to deliver a more targeted education to the student. Finally, such knowledge can assist the teacher in making the case for extra or more specific resources to create the best possible learning environment.

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Sociology is the study of the social relationships of people and organizations. Teachers and students do not function in a vacuum, but in the social relationships of their milieu. Therefore, sociology is of profound importance to a teacher. First, a good teacher needs to understand how his or her own students' sociological backgrounds have an impact on their educational experience, second, the teacher needs to attend to the sociology of the classroom as an organizational entity, and third, the teacher is empowered by having insight into the sociological environment of the school and the school district. 

Students come from a variety of sociological backgrounds, and in order to connect and engage with each student, the teacher must have some understanding of those backgrounds. This enables the teacher to best tailor learning to meet each student's particular needs.  A student from an impoverished home and a student from a wealthy home are likely to have significant differences, for example. A student from an impoverished home might have some serious learning deficits and need more time and care, while a student from a wealthy home might very well need greater challenges than the regular curriculum. (I realize this sounds off-putting, but the statistics bear it out.) Students who are from different cultures might have a hard time acclimating to the dominant culture in the classroom, and students from different races often have different ways of showing respect, for example, having been taught it is rude to make direct eye contact with those in authority.  A teacher who has no knowledge or insight into sociology is not going to be able to do a very good job of understanding or engaging any student.

In order to create a classroom community, the teacher has to have some understanding of sociology.  How the students coalesce as a group or do not coalesce as a group is to a large degree a function of the classroom as a sociological organism.  The teacher with some awareness can arrange for groups or pairings that will enable students to forge connections. The teacher can inculcate an environment of respect for differences, be they cultural, religious, ethnic, or racial by modeling his or her respect for all differences.  Some understanding of sociology helps the teacher to see what might be going wrong in the classroom, as students do not behave properly or do not get along, for example. 

The teacher is also functioning in a sociological organization, the school and the entire school district. The culture of the school and/or the district has a great bearing upon the teaching environment. The teacher needs to understand the efficacy and the shortcomings of the bureaucracy. The teacher needs to understand where power lies in the organization, in order to navigate through the system effectively. This kind of understanding may prove to be the difference between getting or not getting additional resources for the students.  The teacher needs to understand how the school district fits into the social makeup of the community. Parents may be active participants in school matters or be completely content to leave it all up to the schools.  The culture of the district can thus have a large effect up the everyday life of the teacher and the teacher's effectiveness in the classroom.

On three different levels, the individual, the classroom, and the community, a good working knowledge of sociology makes for a better teacher.  I took sociology as an undergraduate, over 40 years ago, and the principles I learned then I still find valuable, in teaching and in life in general. 


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