The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children."... ...Sitting Bull

Commentary of the Day - August 13, 2001: Unfit to Teach - Guest Commentary by Tom Cordle:

In a recent Irascible Professor column, an anonymous Midwestern professor voiced the complaint of a newly certified teacher.  She had been denied a position teaching physics at a local high school in favor of another teacher who had been filling the position for several years under an exemption. According to the article, the "unqualified" physics teacher was retained because he was "popular".  To add to the frustration of the young lady and the professor, this teacher had replaced a "qualified" teacher who was "unpopular".  I freely admit I don't know the "facts" in this case since it came to me at least fourth hand -- the young lady to the midwest professor to The Irascible Professor to me.  If this were baseball, it would be Tinker to Evers to Chance to No Chance.

Since I don't know the "facts", I'll have to make a few reasonable assumptions.  To begin with, the professor and the student were not happy about this situation; perhaps that resentment clouded their judgment of the exempted teacher.  I know this much: physics is a tough subject taken by the best and the brightest looking to prepare themselves for college; it is not the choice of those looking for an easy ride.  Maybe the "unqualified" teacher was "popular" because he could teach physics.  By following the law, the principal would have had to lose a proven commodity and hire a twenty-three year old recent college graduate with no experience to teach mostly seventeen year-old high school seniors instead. If that was the case, is it any wonder he fudged?  (It's also possible that the "unqualified" teacher was "popular" because he was an easy grader.  ....ed.)

I need no assumptions to draw on my personal experience in a similar situation here in Tennessee.  The law is apparently the same in both states: certified teachers must be given preference over those teaching on an exemption.  In my case, I had taught several writing classes at the local high school on a volunteer basis and was warmly received by both students and faculty.  I was asked by the principal if I would consider teaching on an exempted basis since one of the current English teachers would be likely leaving at the end of the school year.  I was excited by the response of the students to my teaching, I was flattered by the interest of the principal, and I was without a job.  Naturally, I said yes.

But it was not to be.  A recently certified teacher applied for the position and was accepted -- it didn't hurt that he had graduated from the same high school four years before.  "One of our own" I recall was the phrase used when I was told the position had been filled.  In these days of mega-mergers and corporate downsizing, loyalty has become a very old-fashioned word -- so God bless ‘em for showing loyalty to "one of our own".

In my case, the principal played by the rules, so I can't complain about any unfairness to me.  And the young man earned the position because he played by the rules, too.  Still, I can't help wondering if the kids at my local high school got the best writing teacher available.  But rules are rules; I guess.

On the other hand, playing by the rules cost the life of Socrates, one of the great teachers of all time. Truth is, arbitrary rules are responsible for at least some of the problems in the teaching profession.  So why does this rule exist?

First and foremost, this rule exists to encourage people to go into teaching.  The rule promotes the interests of teaching programs at state-supported colleges and universities.  It protects administrators in their hiring practices; and at the same time,  prevents them from hiring unqualified friends and family members.  But this rule also has the unintended consequence of putting the careers of teachers ahead of the education of students.

For this rule has nothing to do with whether someone is or will be a good teacher.  Universities can teach a little subject matter, a little psychology, and some organizational skills, but universities cannot make good teachers.  To be a good teacher takes a deeper knowledge of subject matter.  It takes life experience to put knowledge in context.  It takes the ability to impart knowledge and experience in an effective and interesting way.  And above all, it takes a desire to impart knowledge and experience.  Good teachers are made, not born; but they certainly are not made by teaching institutions.  That takes time.

But time no longer favors those in teaching.  Where once teaching was a profession for "lifers", these days teachers are getting out of the business in less than ten years. The principal at my son's junior high tells me seven years is average there.  So a twenty-two or twenty-three year-old likely will be out of the business before he or she is thirty.

Now, you can argue that we need to make teaching more attractive to retain such people.  I'm all for that; America time and again tells our children what is important by paying baseball players millions and teachers peanuts -- but that is another story.  I think it is well past time we considered other options.  I think we ought to allow people with experience to teach our children what they have learned in the real world.  Forgive my immodesty, but I don't believe a twenty-two year-old recent college graduate knows more about writing than I do.  And, I don't believe he can teach someone to write better than I can.

In the end, this argument is not about what is fair to the young lady who was denied a position she felt she had earned by the rules.  Nor is it about my being denied a job I thought I was promised.  This argument is about what is best for our children.

Among my Indian ancestors, the elders held the keys to wisdom.  As America grows older and grayer, a powerful resource stands ready to teach our children, but  arbitrary rules stand in the way.  Isn't it time we rethought this?  Isn't it time we find a way to put this valuable resource to work in the education of our children?

©2001 Tom Cordle

The Irascible Professor has two comments.  First, note that Tom uses the word "certified" in his description of freshly minted teachers.  Here in California the term often used is "certificated".  Perhaps this bit of bureaucratic jargon says it best.  When they receive their initial credential our teachers indeed have received a certificate; however, it doesn't necessarily certify teaching competence.  Second, the notion that some older adults would be good teachers has been around for a long time.  The trick, of course, is how to determine who would be a good teacher and who would not.  A few states have established programs that make it possible for people with substantial experience to gain a teaching credential "on the job".  Has this worked in your state?  Let the IP know.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.