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What Makes a Teacher a Teacher?

May 13, 2009 By Kaye Peters & Kimberly Colbert, MN2020 Fellows

Part 1 of 2 (read part 2)

What makes a teacher a teacher? That seems to be the question these days. You can take a personality test on Facebook and find out you are a "teacher" personality. Does that make you a teacher? You may be a scientist, writer or engineer, but are you qualified to be a teacher?

As we huddle to write this column in response to recent efforts by state policymakers to reduce the preparation requirements for teachers, we have finished a day where, between the two of us, we careened from discussing literary analysis of poetry and One Hundred Years of Solitude with International Baccalaureate students to keeping our freshmen from sneaking out their MP3 players during a study of Of Mice and Men or Romeo and Juliet. Later this evening, we will fine tune lesson plans for tomorrow, grade papers and ignore the dust kangaroos gathering at the edges of our respective living rooms. There is no time for considering Vygotsky or Piaget or whether we are constructivists or behavioralists. There is work to be done.

Both of us, in very different areas and capacities, were professional writers-the kind of "experts" the system needs according to current thought. Neither of us were in any way prepared to be teachers, as we quickly learned in our first class at the University of St. Thomas through its Master of Arts in Teaching program. The preparation program provided us the opportunity to consider brain research, how students learn, and different theories of instruction. We discussed, planned and debated how to best present our content (English Language Arts) to different types of learners. Our preparation to be teachers and what we discovered about ourselves and our philosophies of teaching are what now anchor us in our classrooms and make us effective teachers.

It is ironic and perhaps even cynical to suggest, as we struggle to help English language learners and entrenched at-risk learners pass graduation tests, that we need less prepared teachers. Legislators offer the alternative teacher preparation programs, where teachers learn to be teachers while teaching, as a means to meet teacher shortages and get more teachers of color into the classrooms. That contains a logical fallacy. Teacher preparation programs are not what stand in the way of talented people entering the profession.

This fallacy is propagated by legislators and policy makers who don't want to address the real issues of teacher shortages and want to get their teachers on the cheap. These are the real issues: teachers remain among the lowest paid professions whose salaries rarely keep abreast of inflation, we receive little support in terms of resources or planning, we face constant vacillations in terms of standards or expectations for our students and are denigrated by rankings of schools as not meeting adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Now, ponder why a student sent to college by a family of recent immigrants or a family that has eeked its way out of poverty would not choose to be a teacher.

In fact, it is unlikely we would face any kind of teacher shortage if teachers who entered the profession had received the support they needed to plan, assess and deal with the myriad needs of an ever-changing student population. Teaching has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession in the country. A study in 2005 by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimated that 1,000 teachers leave the field every school day. The reasons? "Many assume that retirement is the primary reason for teacher attrition, but when the facts are examined closely, it becomes clear that the number of teachers retiring from the profession is not a leading cause. In an analysis of teacher turnover, teachers reported retirement as a reason for leaving less often than because of job dissatisfaction or to pursue another job. Among teachers who transferred schools, lack of planning time (65 percent), too heavy a workload (60 percent), problematic student behavior (53 percent), and a lack of influence over school policy (52 percent) were cited as common sources of dissatisfaction," according to the report. One third of new teachers leave the profession within their first three years.

Now, Minnesota policymakers want to throw teachers who haven't even been prepared or grounded in educational concepts and policy into a classroom and let them learn on the job. How many of those teachers do you suppose will be in the classroom in three years? How many millions of dollars will taxpayers have spent in these lean times in training them? How many mentor teachers will have taken time from preparing for their own students to mentor them?

When we started teaching, more experienced colleagues warned us that a few years in the profession would make us cynical. The recent superficial responses to the real, deep and complex challenges facing public education-many of which were exacerbated by legislation over the last ten years-could make Mary Poppins into W.C. Fields. We cannot help but think that at best the initiative to lessen requirements for new teachers is intended to avoid dealing with harder issues of teacher performance and at worst is an attempt to cut costs and corners either to undercut union wages (because under teacher contracts, less education equates to less pay) or union membership.

You cannot get a world class education on the cheap. That is what the alternative preparation programs seek. So, what is the answer? Education Minnesota, as well as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have many proposals for how to improve teacher performance. There are programs that train and support current teachers (paid by the union) to be teacher leaders who can lead workshops on best practices. Those programs cost little, but need the support of districts and the state to ensure teachers have the time to participate. Other programs study assessment and the needs of our students. It is our profession. Just as doctors want to protect their profession from bad practice that casts doubt on their abilities, so do teachers.

More importantly, teachers care for their students. We carry our concerns to our local unions which advocate in our students' best interests. We know what they need and yet rarely does an administrator, superintendent or legislator ask us. (That is a reason for leaving the profession for 52 percent of exiting teachers surveyed, if you recall from above.) We have seen the effects of high stakes testing. English language learners who are repeatedly pulled from academic classes to again take a writing or reading test become frustrated and embarrassed. Students with learning disabilities become more alienated and defensive as repeated failures on a test they will not have to pass remind them that they are "not getting it." Students in schools that fail to meet NCLB benchmarks apologize to us because they are in the small minority of a subgroup that did not achieve enough growth, therefore triggering sanctions. Every year there is some new requirement or rule students must meet. This is the environment in which students go to public schools.

We have to support ourselves and families, so of course pay is an issue. If everyone is so worried about having talented math and science teachers, then the state has to make teaching economically competitive with the private sector. How many NASA designers will give up a comfortable desk job with flexible hours to be confined to a building for eight hours a day, eat cafeteria food, stand in front of 35 teenagers five times a day and take a pay cut?

We would also be more effective in the classroom with systematic training in best practices, technology and the cultures of our students. The more we understand, the more effective we can be at closing the achievement gap. We also will feel less frustrated, we will be appreciated more and, therefore, will be less likely to leave teaching for the private sector. Studies by "experts" have determined that a teacher becomes effective at five to seven years of experience.

On a final note, we would like to address the numerous studies recently cited that claim there is not a correlation between licensed teachers and student performance. Such claims are specious since public schools, which must educate our most vulnerable populations, all require certification while private schools, where certification is not required, are allowed to cherry pick their students.

According to an article authored by education staff at Peabody College at Vanderbilt, studies are beginning to emerge showing there is a correlation between the amount and quality of teacher preparation and student learning. The review noted, "Quality teaching involves more than commitment and content. Teachers must possess not only solid subject matter knowledge, but also the ability to design learning experiences and organize subject matter in ways that make the content meaningful to diverse groups of learners. They must recognize that students' differing academic, behavioral, cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic histories inform student learning. Quality teachers build on diversity to connect students to subject matter. They search for and recognize typical patterns of student thinking and respond with carefully selected instructional tools to assist students in taking the next steps in learning."

We doubt any of our state policymakers would send their children to an unlicensed doctor. Why do they want to ease the requirements for their children to be practiced upon by an unlicensed teacher? Let's make sure teaching is left to the professionals.

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