I graduated from Teachers College, Columbia University (TC) last December and have a few reflections on teacher education and training in general. In the United States, there are many ways to obtain certification to become a teacher, via Teach for America (TFA), an online certification process, non-profits like The New Teacher Project (TNTP), and other organizations that supposedly prepare teachers for the state certification exams. I have friends that are in TFA, who complain that there are not enough support structures. While I commend my TFA friends for wanting to do good and to try teaching, if they are serious about entering this profession, I suggest they participate in an apprenticeship with expert, mentor teachers in a MA-level program. To me collaborating with peers in a reflective, democratic, and critical education is more conducive to shaping stellar teachers than these quick and easy certification programs. A MA-level program that supports its student teachers, helps shape their curriculum developing skills, and integrates their thinking on a range of racial, social, and economic problems facing a heterogeneous student body is what I call a stellar education in education.
Any profession has extraordinary, excellent, good, mediocre, and still developing workers. In education, you will find the same, though I have no idea where in the spectrum of teachers the mode lies. Is the mode, or most frequent reoccurring data set of teachers, in extraordinary teachers or mediocre teachers? We do not know because we do not yet have a universally agreed upon metric for evaluating teachers that is accurate. Since this is the case, let's instead look at what candidates consider when they want to enter the field. What are the assumptions underlying their choices?
Money, time, and quality. Those are the three undeniable factors that go into consideration when choosing any graduate level program and education program. How much money will it cost a person to get their education, how much time will it cost, and how qualified is the program? Those who choose the quick and easy route, I argue, may operate off the assumption that "I don't need to spend my quality time to get a quality education because the knowledge required of me does not really require a MA degree. This route is cheaper and I can probably learn the material very easily because anyone can teach." This route may also just be convenient for the individual at this time. If anyone can teach and the knowledge is so easy, then it makes sense to spend the least amount of money and just get the necessary certifications and licenses to become a teacher. Snap, snap, it's quick and easy. Hence, the existence of such quick and easy programs that allow people to become a teacher with minimal credentials. When people wonder why we have such variety and variance in teacher quality, it is because there is such variety and variance amongst the quality of programs out there that allow individuals to become teachers with only minimal credentials. Despite the variance in programs for teachers, the assumption that anyone can teach is more problematic. Granted, people do teaching all the time (college courses, video presentations, tutoring, etc.), but K-12 public education teaching with a diverse student body 5x a day is an altogether different issue that I will be addressing.
TEACHING IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN THE UNITED STATES
Teaching is not right for everyone. Not everyone has great rapport with students or knows the development of children and youth. Not everyone knows what is appropriate for a particular age group either. Not everyone knows how to manage a class. Not everyone knows how to teach, being receptive to the needs of the student and how the teacher is presenting the material.
Teaching is challenging, exhausting, and incredibly rewarding. It is rewarding because of how challenging it is. When a student learns, you reap much satisfaction from the fruits of your labor. The challenge of helping a student acquire on his or her own a particular concept, to get excited by the acquisition, and to want to acquire more research/information is no easy task. It involves stamina, to keep trying after failing; it involves creativity, to keep thinking of innovative ways to solve a problem; and it involves excellent judgment by the teacher to know when to intervene and guide, and when to stay hands-off. If teaching and learning were so easy, it would not be as rewarding or meaningful as it really is. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.
In other professions, one would want to try to go to the best school possible within their means such that thy could obtain a top-rate education. However, I find time and time again potential teachers questioning whether they should go to the best school within their means, or go to the quickest, cheapest, and easiest route to get teacher certification. I was once asked, "Why do you want to spend so much to go to TC just to become an elementary school teacher?" Again, the assumption that the content and knowledge required to be a K-12 teacher is not worthy of an Ivy-League degree. While the cost of TC is certainly very steep and could be cheaper (or have incentives that appreciate how little teachers earn), there is a prevailing belief in society that teaching is easy, the knowledge is easy, and anyone can do it. Ask them what knowledge is actually required to be a good teacher and I bet they would balk and not give you a straight answer.
A teacher in heterogeneously mixed public schools teaches not just content, but also how to sustain creativity and curiosity to learn. Teachers spark the fire of curiosity in students that help them sustain their curiosity in science, math, social studies, art, music, etc. Teachers facilitate opportunities for individuals to develop their leadership and collaboration skills. Teachers are in it because they are devoted to their students. Teaching in the United States is not easy because the public school classroom is a great equalizer that brings people of many different cultures, races, and classes together. There is bound to be conflict and one hallmark of the many hallmarks of a great teacher is the ability to have conflict resolution skills that promote critical, insightful, and safe discussions about hard issues. Teaching is not easy.
DIFFERENT LIFE PATHS
I understand that individuals come from many different backgrounds and life paths before deciding to become a teacher, but those who spend a decent amount of time to learn how to teach material, who took the time to investigate whether they were knowledgeable in their field and really sought to be the best they can be should be commended. Managing 25-30 children every single day, not being tardy or absent, is already a feat in and of itself. Teaching and subsequently shaping youth to be the next critical thinkers and innovators of our time is a whole different story altogether. What goes into a teacher education program can help support you throughout your career. The quick and easy route may not always be the best route. I believe that those who want to become great teachers will invest the time and energy to become just that.
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and do not reflect those of institutions, organizations, or employers associated with me, past or present.