Hold the Rigor; Pass the Respect


loonyhiker, Creative Commons

I’m a newcomer to this blogging gig, and I’m getting a quick education about all the good, bad, and ugly when it comes to putting my private musings into public exposés. Some people we want to annoy, and others we desperately need on our side. Recently, a student’s comment in one of my teacher education classes prompted me to write a blog that queried just how long an effective teacher preparation program should be.

2 years?

15 months?

10 weeks?

After my students read the blog, they felt offended that I was implying they didn’t value their college-based education and were instead only interested in getting licensed as quickly as possible. They made it very clear to me that they took their training very seriously and respected the process.

Let me be clear that the students in both my undergraduate and graduated courses are the cream-of-the-crop. In their two years or more of training, they log a minimum of 500 hours in K12 classrooms under the tutelage of the best teachers we can find who volunteer their precious time and expertise. At the college, our teacher candidates reflect upon their classroom experiences as they synthesize education theory and best practice with their own dispositions and life experiences. They challenge us faculty over how to handle real-life situations that arise in their practicums. We agonize over how to engage each and every student that comes through our classroom doors in an era of an increasing number of disenfranchised families. Candidates must also pass a battery of standardized tests that can cost over $1000. The faculty of the college’s School of Education meets constantly to evaluate the program with a constant eye towards improvement. Throughout, there is an understanding that teaching is both a science and an art. We demand of teacher candidates and ourselves a pedagogy that is creative yet pragmatic, and always professional. This is a far cry from my training back in the ‘70s in New York where my “teacher training” consisted of a methods course, a couple psychology classes and student teaching.

It also needs to be understood, that not every candidate who enters our program finishes. There are myriad reasons for this; everything from not feeling “right for the job” to not having the confidence to juggle all the considerations required to plan and execute effective lessons. I have the privilege of working with the survivors who come to my class just before and during their final student teaching semester. These are the best, the brightest, and the most creative who have the highest expectations for themselves and for their future students. And they are very serious. When they come through the door into my classroom it literally only takes them a few seconds to start talking excitedly about their courses and especially about their experiences in their practicum sites. The classes can last as much as three hours and there are rarely weeks when there aren’t students who turn and say “thank you” as they leave. All parents want their children’s teacher to be as nice as they are skilled. To be nice, especially in education, one must try to see through the eyes of others to see what they see and at the same time formulate a plan to move each student forward.

40 years ago, I began my career in an inner-city school that desperately needed a seventh-grade English teacher… one who was far better prepared for the job than I was. Back then, a good day was when no one pulled the fire alarm, no one urinated on the radiator, and no one let the air out of our car tires. Whatever niceties I was able to express in that angry environment I have to credit my parents, not my college training. Enforcing rules was our game plan; punishment and compliance were our sword and shield. We never seemed to be winning the game; it wasn’t even close. It’s important to note that of the 15 candidates in my student teaching class, only 3 of us made a career out of teaching. I have not forgotten that year nor the throw-away kids who came to my class each day wearing the same hand-me-down clothes they had worn the day before and the day before that. Through years of teaching, through an endless string of graduate programs, and through invitations to work with and learn from great people within marginalized communities, I have learned much. But not nearly enough. It’s never enough.

Angry students who resist learning still haunt me and worry my energetic school of education students. In our field, we are always at a critical and contentious time. The difference now is that state legislators, governors, and sometimes even our state departments of education seem to be working against classroom teachers. 40 years ago, there seemed to be a willingness to find the money necessary to keep our schools afloat. Now, politicians try to win votes my calling teachers “Stupid” and suggesting that social studies teachers could be replaced with Ken Burns documentary videos. Many of my current students will gross less in their first year than the sum they need to borrow to become licensed. Some have spent extra money to earn a second license in special education or English as a Second Language on the well-founded hope the money spent will increase their efficacy as a teacher. Meanwhile, veteran teachers who have seen their compensation cut over the past few years, are leaving in droves. Teacher morale is falling to an all-time low. Even as we have a surplus of licensed teachers in my state, district administrators must turn to unlicensed people to fill vacancies. Add to this the fact that there are for-profit companies that would love to run our schools with a compliance-based pedagogy. Their motive is not to empower America’s powerless; their motive is to make a profit off taxpayer money. (If you think I exaggerate, click the links!)

I will continue to post blogs in hopes of adding clarity to this perfect storm and expanding the conversation, which I’m sure will upset more than a few. But, hopefully, not my students. They are our best hope. They don’t need more rigor; they need respect.