Thursday, July 14, 2011

Teachers in a Bottle

When I first stood in front of a class of students with a planned lesson, it wasn’t high school students.  It was college ones.  It was in a class called “Microteaching” at Oregon State University, in which we got to plan lessons and then teach them to the other future teachers in the room.  They would each pretend to be students, and we would go through our lesson as the teacher.

It helps you get a feel for things, work out the kinks, see how things work in practice rather than just on paper.

How did I do?  I still remember this vividly.  I just stood there silent, unsure of where to begin.  I hadn’t planned it out well enough.  I didn’t have an opening.  Was it stage fright?  In front of eight other people?  Who knows.

Eventually, I worked it out, and with future practice sessions such as this, as well as lots of time observing other teachers and doing my own student teaching, I figured out how to structure and implement a lesson, a sequence, a unit, and a full year of curriculum.  I learned how to do it.

Three Wishes?
Why am I telling you this?

Because there’s a growing movement out there, full of misinformation and fantasy, that thinks we can find new teachers by rubbing bottles.

You’ve heard them say it.  They talk about “all those lousy teachers out there.”  The ones just there for the paycheck (as if no other professions have people like this too...).  The ones who read the newspaper in class. (Yes this is inexcusable, but how many actually do it?)

And then they go on to talk about accountability, about holding teachers to standards, and about eliminating seniority (which I personally don’t disagree with, as a sole factor).  You hear stories about whole schools being fired, or about half the staff being replaced.  This is presented as a good thing, even by President Obama when it happened in Rhode Island last year. (See link:

Somewhere in the midst of all this, you’ll hear about the need for better teachers. Some demand  a “certified teacher” in every classroom.  The school I work at already has this.  So we must be a great school, right?  Nope. We’re just like any other.  Great in some ways, struggling in others.  But mostly just working hard, trying to get our students along and help them learn.

Gail Collins of the New York Times recently wrote a column about this (  She describes how in Texas, the demand for a “certified” teacher in every class spawned a whole industry of various paths to certification.  Some of those paths take as little as a month.  (Now you see why I put “certified” in quotes, because that term, like any other edu-buzzword, is basically meaningless).

A month?

Does an airline pilot learn to fly in a month?  Does a SCUBA instructor take new divers down to the depths of the deep ocean after a month of training?  Does a police officer get his own car and head out on patrol after a month at the academy?  Does a dentist start grinding on teeth after a month in dentist school?
Then who, why, how and where in the world did anyone ever get the bombastically stupid idea that a teacher can “learn” how to teach well in just one month?

Collins quotes one purveyor of these “alternative” paths to certification denouncing the idea of requiring teachers to practice teaching in front of real classes–student teaching, in other words.  So, internships are a bad idea now.  Apprenticeship?  That’s bunk.  You should just know how to teach.  This guy’s rationale was that a teacher shouldn’t practice teaching with real students because the students “aren’t practice learning.”

So, if we’re to take this nut seriously (which I don’t), we’re now to believe that you can’t learn how to do something by practicing doing it.  His solution?  Go on field trips with students, and watch a bunch of videos.  Then, throw you in front of a class of your own.  Wow.  Did this guy go to Harvard too?

Nothing is That Simple
Which brings me back to my opening account.  I needed my education program.  I needed the practice-teaching this guy denigrates.  I needed the time.  It took me months to get used to being in front of a class and delivering a lesson.  To learn all the various kinds of problems that arise.  Teaching is like juggling.  You’ve got students of all different backgrounds and learning styles and personalities.  You have their parents.  Then you have other teachers, the principal, the standards, and the expectations of a community.  You also need to know your subject, right?  To plan your curriculum, create effective lessons, reflect on how things go each day.  And you have to handle all these fronts, and more, at the same time while staying polite, self-controlled, and focused on the most important priority–student learning.

Am I complaining?  Not at all.  This is the job.  This is what we sign up for.  This is what you have to be able to do.

And no one–no one!–can learn to do it well in a month.  With no practice and no mentorship.
Sorry.  But that’s impossible.

Who Ya Gonna Call?
And this has far greater implications that the little Texas looney tune.  When people like Arne Duncan high up in the federal government talk about the need to replace so many thousands of teachers, who of course are the sole reason for all these “failing” schools, if there is such a thing, few ever ask the following question:

Where you gonna get all the new teachers?

Knowing how hard it is to learn to do this job well, and knowing how, even with all that preparation, a large percentage of teachers quit within the first five years, where do Duncan and his ilk expect to find all these thousands of great new teachers every year?

Does he really believe there are enclaves full of people waiting to raise their hands to become teachers, if only there were more job openings?  We have openings at my school that go unfilled the entire school year!

Where are all these “qualified” teachers going to come from?

Are they lurking in the ivy-encrusted halls of Harvard and Yale, just dying to go work in schools but unwilling to because of the supposedly bad pay?  If money alone is the cause of someone not wanting to be a teacher, maybe they wouldn’t be a good one anyway.  Is that possible?  Why do so many leave within five years?  You think if we were paid more this number would decrease?  And just because someone goes to Harvard, does that mean they’ll be a better teacher than someone going to, say, Oregon State?

These are difficult questions, for sure, but how a person answers them reveals a lot about their presuppositions about education.  Being a good teacher has very little to do with what college you attend, or how subject smart you are.  Remember all those balls we have to juggle?  That requires a set of skills far beyond simple subject knowledge.  Subject knowledge is the easy part.  I had that down from my bachelors degree, before I even set foot in front of the intimidating class of eight fellow future teachers.

See, but the public obsesses over subject knowledge.  They think this is all there is to teaching.  They think someone who’s really good at math would be a good math teacher.  That’s why they probably think a four-week certification program might be possible.

It’s not.

And even if it were–where, I ask again, will you find the thousands and thousands of teachers you will need to replace all the terrible ones you think need to be fired?

You can’t just manufacture a hundred thousand great new teachers in five years.  Where are they going to come from?

Real Questions Worth Answering
So, in the continuing quest to help the public understand the truth about education, I hope this sheds some light on the topic of teacher quality, and how difficult that problem is.

I’m not attempting to solve it here, but I am trying to make it clear that this is not a job you can learn by watching videos.  And it’s not a job with people beating down doors to start working it.

If you want to improve education, you’re only going to get so far by trying to improve the teachers.  You’ll get a lot farther if you’ll start asking the much more uncomfortable questions.  Such as:

  1. Why do teachers burn out within five years?  What really causes that?  Maybe we should interview teachers like this, and find out what led to their departures.  I bet the public, and people like Arne Duncan, would be shocked at some of the answers.  It would rock their worldviews.
  2. Why are so many students so unprepared for school?  Even at kindergarten, I’ve been told, a teacher can already tell which students are unlikely to graduate high school.  Even at kindergarten!  When I heard that, I understood it, and realized once again that the problem with education lies not with the teacher. 
  3. Why do the people running the education bureaucracies continue to fixate on teachers?  And if they were right about this problem, why don’t their solutions ever work?  For instance, why don’t the curricula they throw at us work as well as they tell us it should?  Why do students continue to struggle?
  4. Why aren’t teachers ever involved in the solutions to school problems?  It is so rare that we get asked–and if we are, that our answers are taken as the most informed ones–about how to address the various problems that arise.  This applies to curriculum, scheduling, course sequencing, student behavior and discipline, what to teach, what not to teach, and on and on.  So much is dictated to us by people who have never taught, and then we get blamed when it doesn’t work.
So, consider some of these questions.  Because if you keep digging down far enough, maybe you’ll find that underground civilization filled with prospective teachers who’ve been honing their craft for millennia down with the spiders, earthworms, and the ever-shifting mantle.

If not, you might want to look somewhere else for answers.  Because there is no hidden supply of expert teachers waiting at the end of the rainbow.  Most of the best teachers are already known.  And you know what they’re doing?

They’re teaching.

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