As I watch legislators and the general public blame teachers for the way they teach history—or the books they assign—or the aggregate standardized test scores of the groups of students who spend 50 minutes each day in their English or math or social studies class, I find myself reflecting on how people think about what teachers do.
During the COVID pandemic, we have watched an epidemic of blaming teachers—for demanding that they and their students wear masks—for declining test scores as schools went online and students became less connected—for teaching the standard history curriculum which acknowledges that the Civil War was fought to eliminate slavery—for attending sensitively to the needs of students who may be wrestling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. The list goes on and on and on.
There are a lot of teaching positions available right now as we emerge from the pandemic. The shortage has culminated in governors and legislatures blaming professional teachers (as usual) by assuming required training for teachers is relatively worthless and, therefore, reducing the required education for people to qualify for teaching certification. In mid-August, The Tampa Bay Times‘ Ana Ceballos described efforts by Florida’s Ron DeSantis to qualify a surprising number of people to fill the state’s classrooms: “After giving military veterans easier access to temporary teaching certificates, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said he wants state legislators to expand that same option for law enforcement officers and other first responders next year… He said the criteria will be the same as for veterans, who currently need to have a bachelor’s degree or complete at least 60 hours of college credits—the equivalent of an associate’s degree—with a minimum grade-point average of 2.5—and pass a Florida subject area examination and a background check.”
When I really think about it, I am forced to conclude that a lot of people—including powerful people like governors and legislators—imagine what teachers do by thinking about what teachers do for them—the important adults. School teachers keep kids safe and busy—out of the way and out of trouble—while busy adults are at work—work that these adults consider important, in contrast to the work of schoolteachers.
I don’t think it even occurs to many people to imagine what it would be like to manage a classroom, or to help a shy kindergartner relax and become comfortable in a group of 22 children, or to be positive and encouraging to an angry adolescent at the same time that kid is insulting the teacher.
One of the best writers about teaching, the late Mike Rose published my favorite definition of excellent teaching: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”
While in his book Possible Lives, Rose portrays much more of what teachers do to create such classrooms, a problem with Rose’s definition here is that he does not convey the difficulty which is part of the job. Rose depicts the classroom of an excellent teacher almost as though a classroom is a painting—the fixed beautiful and balanced creation of an artist.
For some hints about what is involved in day-to-day teaching, we can turn to David Berliner, who edited a new book from Teacher’s College Press, a book that includes biographies of the contributors including the editor: “David C. Berliner is Regents’ Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Arizona State University. He has also taught at the Universities of Arizona and Massachusetts, at Teachers College and Stanford University… He… was a past president of both the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychological Association…. and has authored or coauthored over 400 articles, chapters, and books.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 319)
Right now, David Berliner is outraged at governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and state legislators who are passing laws to reduce the requirements for teachers to become certified. He grasps the complexity of what teachers must know how to do, and he describes what is necessary in a piece he published in August in Diane Ravitch’s blog. Berliner believes that, like doctors, teachers need college courses on the methodology of practice as well as academic expertise. He also believes prospective teachers need extensive student teaching and mentoring just as medical students need extensive clinical practice:
“In fact, much of the knowledge needed for teaching and for successful medical treatment is clinical knowledge… not easily described and hard to teach to someone else. That’s why physicians have grand rounds and a lengthy apprenticeship. Their prolonged apprenticeship is what gets them started learning what it means to be a practicing physician—not a competent student of biology, chemistry, and pharmacology. Every clinician (psychologists, physicians, social workers, and teachers alike) knows that book learning can only teach a little slice of what it means to be a success in practice. The recognition of this fact is the quite sensible reason behind the requirement that teachers need to take teaching methods courses such as how to teach mathematics, how to teach phonics and comprehension skills, how science is learned and so forth. Course work in mathematics, English literature, and science have no more to say about the teaching of mathematics, literature, and physics than books on organic chemistry prepare a physician for their medical practice. Lengthy residencies are needed in medicine… and extensive student teaching is needed to become a competent teacher… Please—let’s keep untrained but good-hearted people out of classrooms until and unless they get some training in how to do that complex job well.”
Berliner continues, contrasting what a doctor does with what a teacher does: “A physician usually works with one patient at a time, while a teacher serves 25, 30 or in places like Los Angeles and other large cities, they may be serving 35 or more youngsters simultaneously. Many of these students don’t speak English well. Typically anywhere from 5-15% will show emotional and/or cognitive disabilities. Most are poor, and many reside in single parent families… Many patients seek out their physicians, choosing to be in their office. On the other hand, many students seek to be out-of-class, preferring the streets to classrooms that cannot engage them…. I always wonder how physicians would fare if 30 or so kids with the kinds of sociological characteristics I just described showed up for medical treatment all at once, and then left 50 minutes later, healed or not! And suppose this chaotic scene was immediately followed by thirty or more different kids… also in need of personal attention. And they too stayed about 50 minutes…. Imagine waves of these patients hitting a physicians’ office five or six times a day!”
Teachers are expected to be alert to what is happening all day in a series of socially and emotionally complex situations. “(T)eachers have been found to make about .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching. Another researcher estimated that teachers’ decisions numbered about 1,500 per day. Decision fatigue is among the many reasons teachers are tired after what some critics call a short work day, forgetting or ignoring the enormous amount of time needed for preparation, for grading papers and homework, and for filling out bureaucratic forms and attending school meetings. In fact, it takes about 10 years for teachers to hit their maximum ability, to produce the most learning from their students.”
Here is Berliner’s stunning conclusion: “Our society does identify ‘lesser’ humans, mostly the poor and therefore frequently racial minorities, where inexperienced physicians and teachers are allowed to develop their skills… The legislators, accrediting bodies, and chambers-of-commerce that endorse putting untrained or minimally trained teachers before poor children are hurting America, betraying the principles that Jefferson explicated 200 years ago. Jefferson, a slave-holder and not nearly as democratic as we might have wanted one of our founding fathers to be, did help to persuade his fellow founders of the nation that the poor have talent in equal degree as do the rich. Thus, the poor deserved the same education as the rich, in order to cultivate those talents, so they can be used in service of the nation. He believed that the best way to preserve an ever-fragile democracy was a system of free public schooling. Those who would allow unqualified teachers to enter the classrooms of the poor are traitors to Jeffersonian principles… Most advocates for a free market in credentialing would never allow their own children to have an untrained novice, or an inadequately trained teacher, nor would they allow their children to attend schools that rely heavily on such teachers. The hypocrisy and traitorous actions of legislators, business leaders, and policy analysts who advocate allowing anyone to teach in a school that would have them as teachers, ensures that social class social membership will remain as it is—difficult to modify. Moreover, the children most likely to be assigned teachers who have little, or no training, are children of color. So, on top of all my other charges, we might want to raise the issue of racism with the advocates of little or no credentialing for teachers.”