Friday, February 25, 2011

There's No Biz Like Ed Biz!

The President recently urged the youth of America to become teachers--a noble request, we can agree. But frankly, why should they? 
We have all talked about the degradation and demoralization that students and teachers suffer. In these entries, I have discussed the causes of this demoralization, in particular the malaise caused by a system that can neither praise nor punish. I have discussed the need for excellent teachers and effective evaluation procedures, and I have discussed myriad reasons the system seems to be failing and myriad ways to make the public schools actually conducive to education. But a topic I have not yet really covered here is teacher preparation, which is one of the reasons, if not the key reason, that school districts like mine 1) decided they have to make standardized testing the barometer for success and 2) decided they have to spend time and money to create stringent rules and scripts for teachers, many of whom they never should have hired in the first place.

Several years ago I was asked to guide a student teacher. While most student- teachers enter the room with shiny, motivational posters, big-giant post-its,  ambitious “fun” games, and other “dazzling” (at least they think so) appurtenances, this teacher was of a different breed altogether. He offered none of the glitz; in fact, he offered nothing at all. He wanted to teach drama and resented the fact that he had to put up with English-teacher training to get the job. He had no interest in reading, in thinking, in answering questions, in grading papers, in instructing or in motivating kids, and he made no bones about saying so. All he wanted was to stage-manage school productions and his motivation was, his words: "to get paid a full salary and have the kids do all the work." All that mundane classroom stuff? Not for him. 

I spent that term sitting quietly in a corner of my classroom, cutting out paper dolls from the manilla folders he asked for but NEVER USED as he stood in front of the room unable to get the attention of the 30 kids in his care. As he would fumble in the front of the room, clear his throat, and stare myopically into the crowd of kids, who were checking phones, talking amongst themselves, or heckling him, I cut away person after person in an 11 inch chain, so I would not cause him physical harm as he wasted my students’, and, of course, my time. 

Now, you might ask, why did I not eject him instantly? Well, truth be told, I am a believer. He has not confessed his cynicism immediately and I thought no one would want to become a teacher without the requisite passion. I also thought that if I could teach, anyone could, so all I had to do was confer with him after each class, and he would start to see the light and improve. Soon, however, the proverbial handwriting was on the wall, or maybe I should say the angry graffiti: HE JUST DOESN”T GIVE A $%&*! 

This fellow knew that once he slipped past this silly student-teacher requirement, he would be given a key, a classroom, a bunch of students who would never complain about learning NOTHING, and best of all, NO ONE would have the time or inclination to observe him. Stay quiet, keep your head down, and health insurance, summers off, and job-security would be his.  
After several weeks of thoroughly reviewing his performance with him and realizing that I would never slice through his apathy, I forwarded my evaluation to the student-teacher’s supervisors and mine. I am sure no one will be surprised to learn that no one counseled him out of the profession or failed him in his student-teaching course before more harm could be done. Instead, my students languished until I hammered enough at the process for the administrators to remove him, at least, from my classroom. 
But, you ask yourselves, was he eventually removed from his “teacher-education” program? Is money green?  He was given another lead teacher and actually "passed" the student-teaching requirement of his education program, though his methods, as he was proud to tell me when he saw me again some time later, remained the same. I guess he showed me!
I was reminded of another equally disheartening incident. Several years ago, a few students from the education school that was part of the university where I was earning my masters degree in English were enrolled in a couple of the graduate English classes I was taking. What these students all had in common was the fact that they never did the reading and never had anything to say in class. Well into the semester, tired of failing, I suppose, many of them simply dropped the courses. Lo and behold, a year later at my graduation, there they were, standing proudly under the GRADUATE SCHOOL OF  EDUCATION banner. I guess they showed me!
What these education students showed everyone is what all parents, teachers, retired lawyers, failed doctors, and empty-nest housewives or husbands all know: ANYONE CAN TEACH. But should they? 


  1. Thanks for this post. It speaks volumes and rings true not only in the field of public education, but also in my private high school. My question: what's your suggestion for a teacher-vetting process? Who should be able to decide who SHOULD teach?

  2. When I was department chair I was usually allowed to sit in on interviews, but often the "powers" hired people expediently (warm bodies) without understanding in the slightest how that would affect the entire balance of the department and the education of 3000 kids.

    Unfortunately, there is just no way to know what you are really hiring, but you have to be sure to observe and evaluate the person OFTEN that first year in order to correct any hiring mistakes before it's too late.

    I am at a new school this year (a private school this time), and I was sure to ask my students to write a thorough and detailed evaluation of my teaching at the midyear mark. I asked detailed questions about the class, the work, the my teaching (using the 7 C's as my guide); and I made sure my bosses came in to observe BY SURPRISE, so they could see exactly what I am doing. I want everyone to be sure I am a good fit for the school because I want no surprises when it comes to rehiring.

    As for the vetting process when I was department chair, I had several criteria (in addition to an administrator's input):
    1. Interview with COLLEAGUES and me
    2. Guest teach a lesson, observed and discussed by COLLEAGUES and me (several sets of eyes see different things).
    3. Candidates were asked on the spot to create "your ideal curriculum for the class you are being hired to teach."
    4. Colleagues and I read the resume with a fine-toothed comb (to see, among other things, whether "teaching" is the choice because another career had been derailed for some reason). Again, several sets of eyes see different things.
    5. Call references.

    I might also ask for recent student evaluations if available, or I would check, if the teacher is coming with experience to see patterns. If I liked the candidate, I would also Google him or her to see what pops up--like whether the person writes or has any other kinds of credits.

    I have earlier entries about appointing AP teachers and teacher evaluations, which might help too. Feel free to read and comment. I have been hoping to open dialogue about all of this! Thanks for reading, Ami!

  3. You should write all of that in the form of an op-ed and send it to the LA Times!