The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires."....  ....William A. Ward.

Commentary of the Day - June 12, 2007: The Teacher Crisis.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

I try not to harbor too many pretensions about what I do for a living.  I'm a teacher.  I'm not an educator, and I'm definitely not an educationist, a puffed up professional designation that was briefly popular back in 1970.  Apparently at the time, my professional elders were craving the respect that comes with ist at the end of your occupation.  That fad fortunately passed away, but there are still plenty of teachers out there who prefer educator's two extra syllables.

I'm not one of them.  Partly that's because I don't think teaching is a science.  I think it’s a craft, like carpentry, with a little fancy footwork and hocus pocus thrown in.  It takes knowing what you’re talking about and knowing how to explain it to people who don't know what you’re talking about, while you're simultaneously trying to herd a room full of adolescents who aren't necessarily interested in learning about what you're talking about.

It doesn't require a keen awareness of current events to know that public education is in crisis.  Along with our student achievement crisis, behavior crisis, curriculum crisis, and assessment crisis, we've also got a teacher crisis. F or starters, it seems we're running out of them.  A 2005 National Center for Education Information survey found that "more than forty percent of the nation's teachers say they plan to leave the field within five years."  Partly that's because baby boomers like me are approaching our golden years.  With forty-two percent of teachers age fifty or older, the study attributes "many of the expected departures to retirements in a rapidly aging workforce."

But that's not the only reason teachers are leaving.  The National Education Association estimates that "half of new U.S. teachers are likely to quit within the first five years."  A 2007 California study, where twenty-two percent of teachers quit in four years or less, attributed this "burnout" to "working conditions," including "classroom interruptions, student discipline," student apathy, and "a lack of support" from administrators, school boards, and parents.  Salary typically ranks pretty far down on the list as a reason teachers call it quits.  Apart from retirement, the looming teacher shortage crisis is largely the result of all the other education crises.

Some experts prescribe hiring teachers from outside the conventional teacher training route.  They claim the professional world is teeming with executives, engineers, and journalists who are eager to teach in public schools but can't because they lack the requisite education credits.  In response, nearly every state has established alternative routes to licensure.

Critics have a point when it comes to the value of most education courses.  In 1983 A Nation at Risk condemned teacher training programs as "too weighted in methods courses" and too light in subject area content.  The education world dutifully cooed their agreement and then added even more courses in theory and methods, most of which are based on the speculative notions of experts who wouldn't know a classroom if they tripped into one and evangelized by education professors equally unfamiliar with teaching real children.  The middle school movement distorted the focus on methods and ideology even further.  Ardent middle school devotees actually promote licensing teachers in subject areas in which they have no academic background whatsoever.  They preach that learning math or history isn't nearly as important as "learning how to learn."

But that's another catastrophe for another day.

I learned how to teach in my students' classrooms, not my college classrooms.  My education courses offered little apart from sketchy surveys of education history and child development, and a satchel full of buzzwords.  On the other hand, I only had to take three to qualify for a license, so it's implausible to argue that licensing requirements are keeping hordes of real world professionals from hiring on as public school teachers.

Drop every education school licensing requirement, and public schools still wouldn't be flooded with applications from stockbrokers dying to teach fractions to twelve-year-olds in baggy pants.  Those few you might attract probably wouldn't last long.  The Los Angeles Times profiled a representative Ph.D. chemist who "stalked out of school" because he was "fed up with student insolence."  Twenty-five percent of alternatively licensed recruits in a Florida "New Teacher Project" quit "after less than a semester," compared to a four percent attrition rate for traditionally licensed teachers.  A Texas State Board report concurred that "alternatively certified teachers" are "less likely to stay in the field."

Some experts insist that attracting "career switchers" from other fields is worth it, even if they don’t stick around for long.  This erroneously assumes that practice over years doesn't improve a teacher's skills.  Most of the experts who rave about career-switching, short-term teachers wouldn't choose a career-switching, short term cardiac surgeon for their next bypass.

Teachers need to understand both the content and the students in their classroom.  It makes no sense to pretend you can teach math if you don't know math.  But it's equally foolish to contend that simply knowing math equips you to teach it to someone else, let alone to a troop of adolescents with other things on their minds.

Most of what teachers learn about teaching can't be taught in education school.  We need to streamline for all prospective teachers the education prerequisites for licenses.  On the other hand, you can't decide to teach public school as a lark.  The classroom isn't the place to work out your midlife crisis.  Not long ago a brokerage firm aired a commercial depicting an ex-businessman who'd amassed enough of a stock portfolio to retire and try teaching.  He told his new high school class how thrilled he was to be there and how he planned to make learning fun.  They stopped filming seconds before his students ate him for breakfast.

If we want to attract and retain competent teachers, we need to restore order, civility, and common sense to our public schools.  We need to end the parade of bandwagon reforms and unfounded theories that have plagued public education for decades.  We need to restore content to its rightful place in classrooms and ensure that teachers possess sufficient knowledge to teach it.  We need to end the tyranny of unreasonable parents who extort special treatment for their children at the expense of everybody else's children.

In short, our teachers need the same commonsense remedies that we owe our students.

2007, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  The IP agrees with Poor Elijah's observations, for the most part.  However, there are some "second career" teachers who are reasonably successful, and who "stick with the program."  These often are people who have served in the military for 20 years or more and who have retired as master sergeants or chief petty officers.  These are folks whose military jobs often included working with raw recruits, so the problems they meet in the classroom are not all that different from those they have faced in the past.

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