Who We “Let” Become Teachers

I recently read a blog entry from a columnist in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the problems that Georgia appears to be having with selecting and preparing high quality teacher candidates.

The familiar complaint is that teacher education programs are not selective enough, often requiring only a 2.5 grade point average as minimum requirement for admission. Then after admission, very few candidates are actually weeded out, meaning that most of these “average” people become teachers.

As a teacher educator I have a bit of insight into these problems that may not be evident to others outside the process. First, what the vast majority of these reports on the quality of teacher candidates fail to acknowledge, or perhaps even grasp, is that teacher education programs are not immune from the problems of scarcity. In other words, we can only accept those who apply, and the lines outside our doors aren’t very long. In the past, this could be easily blamed on the relatively low pay for teachers, but in recent years you can also add de-professionalization and broad-based attacks on teachers as a group to the reasons why many very smart people look elsewhere. (As an ironic aside, have you ever noticed how many “smart” people there are who rant about how inadequate our teachers are, but would never actually teach themselves? In other words, I want you to be just as “smart” as I am, but still dumb enough to do the job I don’t want.)

But to blame our problems on scarcity is too simplistic. Despite what many may believe, our recent economic circumstances have placed colleges and universities in the same financial pinch as the rest of the country. We are under pressure to accept more students (and their tuition), teach larger classes, cut programs that are under-enrolled, and slash courses from the schedule with only a handful of students. As a result, those of us in higher education who are politically savvy understand that avoiding the bean counter’s hatchet means maintaining program enrollments high enough to make the university money, or at least avoid losing it. Watching a room full of academics throw around words like “revenue neutral” is a sight to see.

So, if we need 60 pre-service teachers in our program to justify actually having a program on the books, then we need to accept 60 students.  But here’s the rub. You ask 100 rooms full of Education professors about how they determine which applicants will eventually be good teachers and you will get 100 different answers. And let me tell you that none of those answers will be right. We have interview processes, writing samples, admission tests administered by the Educational Testing Service, and grades from a bevy of prerequisite course work in the content area that they must complete, and we still don’t know for sure.

The problem is that there really isn’t any way to know for sure. I’ve had students come to me with vast amounts of historical knowledge, perfect 4.0 GPA’s, and perfect letters of recommendation who were brutally bad teachers. I remember one instance in particular in which one young man some years ago came to me with those credentials. I’ll call him Joey because that’s not his name. Joey was practically a walking history book. I really liked Joey. He called me “sir”. He worked like a fiend. He had a great attitude. And he was a really, really lousy teacher. We worked together for hours on end. We created lesson plans together and I watched him teach many times, but at the end of the day when he was left to his own devices, the only teaching strategy that he could consistently employ was to take his encyclopedic knowledge and write it on the board for students to take notes from. It was painful to watch.

Then there’s Tom. Tom barely made it into my program in social studies education a few years ago. His GPA was a robust 2.5-ish and his test scores were middling at best. On paper, Tom was exactly the sort of candidate that groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality turn their nose up at. Tom made it into the program and in my classes he was a decent lesson planner and student, not top of the class, but not the bottom of it either. He was okay. But then I got the chance to see Tom teach and I knew within the first 15 minutes of his first lesson that he was going to be good with the potential to be great. He turned the teaching of history from a science into an art with his connection between the content and his students. They loved it and they loved him. He could bring long-dead Mesopotamians or Romans alive and help his students understand those aspects of history that were meaningful and timeless. He didn’t just teach content, he taught history. He got it then, and he still gets it today.

Admittedly, students like Joey and Tom are the exception and not the norm. Not everybody with a perfect 4.0 GPA is going to be a cold fish in the classroom, and not everybody with underwhelming credentials is going to have the potential to be a master teacher. But every teacher educator I’ve talked to has a story like this to tell, which is probably the driving force behind why we don’t shut the door on applicants who don’t shine on paper. Who wants to shut out the next Tom in favor of the next Joey?

However, this is where the second half of the criticism of teacher preparation programs mentioned earlier comes into play and is often spot on. As teacher educators we are often too lenient with whom we allow to graduate from our programs and enter the classroom. In other words, too many Joeys make it through.

Once again though, that’s too simplistic. Teacher educators have many, many ways to measure the performance of pre-service teacher candidates, some of which are actually pretty good. Since most of us teach in in accredited programs we have to document the candidates’ performance using fancy rubrics and rating systems designed to dissect different aspects of their ability to plan and teach. The recent push has been to judge teachers based on student test scores, but that is a wildly incomplete measure given that teaching for test scores is relatively easy while teaching for almost every other purpose of owning an education in a democratic society is incredibly complex.

I don’t have an answer for that, but I do take my job as “Education Gatekeeper” very seriously. I know that I am the first and often last line of defense for those thousands of students in the public schools that my future teachers will stand in front of. Over the years I have had many difficult conversations with teacher candidates about futures that were not going to involve teaching. Describing those conversations would make for several posts themselves, but in the end they essentially come down to saying something akin to, “Sorry Joey, you can’t teach”.

This is a conversation I think we should be having more often. Or we could take the easy way out and just say, “Sorry Joey, you’re just too smart to teach.” That makes it sound nice and simple.

Comments

  1. I want to address the second critique – “being too lenient on who we allow to graduate.” This is all too true from my experience. With grade inflation, many preservice teachers breeze through their undergraduate experience with mostly A’s and some with no B’s at all. They become new teachers and then enter our graduate program in education. They are often stunned when they see the grade on their first paper or project. “But I’m an A student” they protest. “I’ve never gotten a B in my life. I CAN’T get a B!” (add increasingly higher pitched voice tone). I tell them with as much grace and gentleness that a B is above average work, an A is excellent work, and a C is average work. Many then apply themselves and do much better on the next project, while others drop the class and wait for an easier grading instructor.

    My point in bringing up this example is that I think that leniency and grade inflation are directly related, and the result is not only ill prepared instructors, but also ill prepared graduate students. We aren’t doing ourselves any favor when we are lenient at any level, and the reality is that students will step up and do the extra work. But what about those who don’t? Well, there are plenty of other professions they can choose. Teaching is hard work that requires great skill, and we desperately need to challenge our students to step up to that level.

    I realize that some will point to increasing pressure at the university and high school level to increase graduate rates as the reason for leniency and grade inflation, and they are probably right. But this is just the result of a larger issue – knee-jerk policies that get passed because of a “groundswell” of emotional support. Our policies need to be based on the results of a different groundswell – that of research based results.

  2. As a former Preschool teacher I’d say one of the biggest problems teachers face is that administration rarely supports or protects teachers. More often than not they try to support their own system of power. The whole system seems to be backwards. Our system should be set up to support teachers, but right now the system is set up to support itself. We need to bring respect back to the teaching profession. It’s crazy hard work and often doesn’t recieve the pay or attention it deserves.