There was an interesting op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times titled “Opening Classroom Doors” by Nicholas D. Kristof. He expresses his belief that highly intelligent and talented people who want to become teachers are being discouraged by the barriers to the classroom, namely, having to go through the certification process, which includes student teaching and related coursework. He proposes relaxing the requirements “so people can enter teaching more easily.”
Frankly, I believe that this is the last thing we should be doing. The sad truth, as I’ve witnessed in my ten years as a New York City public school teacher, is that there are enough lazy morons in front of the classroom. Granted, they’ve been the minority, but even one is too many. Making the process of becoming a teacher easier is not the answer.
There is a shortage of teachers; Mr. Kristof is right about that, and the need for teachers will continue to grow. The numbers tell that story. But eliminating or relaxing certification standards isn’t the answer. Mr. Kristof calls the teacher shortage problem “one of the easiest to solve.” I’ve learned that none of the problems that plague education are easy to solve, this one included.
I’m resisting the urge to call former I.B.M. chief Louis Gerstner a corporate hack, since I don’t know the man and I sure his intentions are good. But his so-called “blue-ribbon panel,” the Teaching Commission, cited “confusing and cumbersome procedures to discourage many talented would-be teachers from entering the classroom.” Having jumped through this set of hoops twice, first to get New York State teacher certification, then to get a New York City license, I have to say that while annoying, it wasn’t all that complicated. If a person truly wants to pursue a career as an educator, “confusing and cumbersome procedures,” shouldn’t interfere. And if they can’t figure out the requirements, should they be in the classroom?
I also can’t help but feel a little insulted by this piece. Mr. Kristof gives the impression that he thinks teaching is easy, that any smart person with personality can just do it. For some people, unaware of the depth and breadth of knowledge needed, teaching probably is easy. But I know there are also many others like me, teachers who want to be reflective, who research best practices, who question what they’re doing and why, who have a reason for everything, big and small, that they do in their classrooms. For me, it’s all ongoing, but the process began as a pre-service teacher, before I even set foot in a classroom. Mr. Kristof says there’s no evidence that teacher training courses are of any help, but uses no supporting evidence for that claim.
Admittedly, I am a bit defensive about the choice I made to enter teaching through a conventional route that included a bachelor’s in English, a Master’s in English Education, and a semester of student teaching. But in my first year of teaching, those credentials helped me get through the year. During my toughest times, I took comfort in the fact that the depth and quality of my preparation would help me figure it out. On the worst days, that little scrap of confidence was all I had. Will someone who walks in with a B.A., a piece of chalk and a strong feeling of altruism have that?
Teach for America is lauded here, and in other publications, as an example of an organization that has placed successful teachers in the classroom with minimal training. I worked in a school with a significant number of TFA teachers, and while some of them flourished, almost as many failed, at least initially. Kristof names one study, which cited stronger gains in math when taught by TFA teachers. But that’s one study; I found one study myself which found that students of TFA teachers made 20% less academic growth than students with non-TFA teachers. The last few groups of TFA teachers I worked with were woefully inadequate, with serious classroom management problems. Most of them, however, were better in their second year after having graduate courses under their belts. Their teaching experience taught them a lot as well, but what about their students, who had to spend a year with a teacher who started with little more than a summer-long crash course in teaching? Besides, the majority of them choose not to become career teachers anyway.
I wish I had a workable solution, but I think improving conditions for teachers is critical if we are going to entice more people to become teachers. Today, it only takes a brief spin around the blogosphere to learn the truth about teaching: that classes are overcrowded, parental support is often sorely lacking, many administrators prefer to lead by intimidation, for starters. Why would someone want to become a teacher? How many people have been turned off by those factors? I have never heard someone say that they didn’t want to teach because of the salary; they always cite some combination of the factors I mentioned.
I think the teaching profession needs a major image overhaul. Changes need to be made within the profession to make it more appealing to the right people. And at this time I almost feel like I’m wrong in calling it a “profession.” In NYC we aren’t treated as professionals, and this will not help us attract teachers. Teacher morale in New York City is as low as it’s been since I began in 1996. We have absurd mandates and are expected to adapt the one-size-fits-all approach, or else. We have a Chancellor who looks to every “expert” he can find, experts who largely haven’t taught, to find solutions. But he never thinks to ask those of us in the classrooms, who really know. So why become a teacher, when you can keep your cushy corporate job and still have a chance to make important decisions about education?