Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Dear Colleagues,

Today is an unexpected snow day-- a hole in my professional life I will fill in speaking frankly about teaching.

But first, a story:

My daughter is a Veterinarian.  I am extremely proud of her accomplishments in this field because I know of the dedication and hard work she put in to achieve her dream of working with animals.  I know where the dream began: pony club.  She started riding horses after working on a girl scout badge at age 10.  She loved the horses so much that, even as a teen - those sloths who love to sleep in, especially on a weekend or snow day -- woke up early every Saturday-on her own- just for the privilege of mucking a stall.

Her passion for learning about horses and animals remained unabated through the storms of adolescence and young adulthood.  To my surprise, she worked methodically toward her DVM with little input from her parents other than the support of time and resources.  And now she works to maintain the health of the pets in her community.

What does this have to do with teaching?  Everything.

My daughter works with pets.  I work with children.  Other people's children.  Our preparation couldn't have been more different.

First, she had to have an undergraduate degree before entering formal training for her profession.

To get into Veterinary School she had to document 400 hours of volunteer work with animals.  A hundred of those hours had to be under the supervision of a licensed vet.  This, I assume, would weed out the applicants who want to work with animals because they think they are cute and lovable.  Some of her experiences involved unpleasant activities.  There was a trip to a rendering plant.  Collecting semen.  Sticking pigs.  Putting down a favorite pet.

Working with animals is decidedly unromantic.  Best to get that notion out of the way.

Her final year in Vet school was entirely clinical.  She worked in various parts of the state through rotations that took her onto farms and into animal hospitals, putting down large, expensive animals, rehabbing, treating, caring for large, expensive animals.  All under the watchful care of a top practitioner.

Oh, and there was a test.  Several, in fact.  A national test first and then one each for Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.  All required for a practicing license.  And then the real learning began: a daily practice where hundreds of informed decisions are made on the spot every day.  All augmented by continuing professional development for a field that is always learning.

Contrast that to teaching - where we work with actual human beings and shape their destiny.  On the Great Chain of Being, even children rise above the level of animals in their closeness to God.  But you would never know it in America.  Somehow we find it acceptable to relegate our children's development to chance.

Today, assuming the role of teacher can mean simply changing your mind on the way to someplace else.  We let recent undergrads become short-term teachers after only five weeks of training in Teach for America. The answer to the teacher problem has been to ask for less from the workforce, not more.

The plan du jour is to throw adults -- and now computer software -- at the wall and see what sticks.  Meanwhile, the wall is a group of young people in their developmental years.  We won't get those years back down the road.  In addition, any yahoo walking in off the street with an opinion is allowed to make sweeping changes.

Because we have all been taught at one time or another, we all assume we can teach.  Even teachers sometimes see their work as requiring little skill.

I could not disagree more.  Those who succeed have come to grips with the nature of teaching, and its often very unromantic realities.  (See veterinary corollaries above.  Real kids are not always cute and lovable.)

In creating the document Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning, the commissioners outlined the skills and knowledge teachers need to be effective.  Every teacher candidate should be able to demonstrate (from p. 11-12):

KNOWLEDGE: We believe that for future success, all pre-service teachers need to learn at least the following:
uContent matter appropriate for teaching the subject area(s)

u Child, adolescent, and abnormal psychology

uEnglish language development and second language acquisition strategies
u Instructional methods, strategies, and practices
u Curriculum models and practices
uInstructional technology practices and information technology use
u Standards-based curriculum design
u Content-based reading and writing strategies
uInstructional adaptations to address students’ individual learning styles, readiness to learn, and level of independence
uInstructional accommodations for students’ special learning needs uImpact of socioeconomic background, ethnicity, race, gender, language skills, disability, and
other factors on teaching and learning
u Classroom management strategies
SKILLS: We believe all pre-service teachers must learn to do the following:
u Plan instruction
uGuide students through a variety of learning experiences
u Assess student progress
u Analyze student learning outcomes
uDiagnose special needs, prescribe learning strategies, develop remedial plans, and adjust instruction to suit special needs
u Reflect on practice
u Collaborate with colleagues
uIncorporate 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, into teacher practice
alongside effective teachers. A series of classroom experiences such as the following will allow candidates to apply the content and pedagogical knowledge and skills they acquire:
SCHOOL-BASED EXPERIENCES:  We believe that to be successful in today’s complex learn- ing environment, all pre-service teachers need to spend significant time in schools working

u Observing a variety of effective teachers uAssisting with small and large group instruction uPlanning and conducting small group and whole class instruction uTeaching a diverse range of students for an extended period of time u Conferencing with individual students uConferring with parents and other responsible adults u Collaborating with teams of teachers

Turns out it IS rocket science.

Ok.  I know.  I already hear you complaining, "That's costly."

But the top tier education countries underwrite the tuition and subsequently attract top candidates who succeed in a rewarding, high-status, lifelong careers.  These teacher-led professions are continually examining and improving themselves.  That vision is far less costly in the long run than our current practice of churning teachers.  And are you telling me the 'richest nation in the world' cannot afford to do what's right for kids?

Read and rally around the report.  We cannot wait for someone else to hand us what is clearly necessary.

It must be demanded.


  1. Powerful thoughts! I especially like the term "unromantic" to describe teaching. I find my work in the field of education extremely rewarding, but I honestly don't think I really knew what I was doing until I'd gone to grad school, had a few kids of my own, matured enough to have a better perspective about my role as an educator. Again, interesting commentary :)

  2. Michelle, Now that you are a parent, how do you feel about another adult "trying out" teaching for a year of a child's life--maybe your child? Is that OK? Is that moral? Big Ed Reforms answer is to fire 10% of the bottom performers every year. How is that a plan? It isn"t. It IS a plan to slowly drive teachers out and then just hire short-timers to turn the computers on and off. Guess who profits. Follow the money.

  3. How did I miss this? What a great post! Tweeting, sharing widely.