How to fix America’s school system: a Humble Offering

I have a whole lot of problems with the high barrier of entry we have for public educators, not the least of which is that many of the qualifications we require of teachers have very little to nothing to do with how great of a teacher she will be.

First, NCLB requires that, in order to obtain a single-subject credential (i.e. middle/high school math, English, history, v. multiple-subject for elementary), one must have majored in that subject.  Therefore, because I studied Political Science, I am theoretically only allowed to teach social studies.  Actually, I’d probably want to, but my university education would be considered inadequate for me to teach Language Arts, as  I obviously spent no time working with language as a social science major.  Similarly, I also would not be allowed to teach even Pre-Algebra, even if I could do basic algebraic equations while sleeping on my head.

Next, I would like to overhaul the entire teacher credentialing process.  It currently varies widely from state to state, but as my only first-hand experience lies with California’s system, my criticism will stem from that.

At the moment, one cannot receive a B.A. and go straight into teaching in California; instead, one must do one’s major’s requirements, in addition to taking courses for a teaching credential, which generally lasts at least 3 semesters.

In my very brief time taking credential classes, I found that they were the biggest waste of time, money, and brain of literally any classes I had taken in my life.  They were easy as hell, often completely self-evident, and the vast majority of my classmates found this to be true, as well.  They were also quite frustrating, as we’d have to spend 4-8 hours a week in credential classes in our first months of teaching (through Oakland Teaching Fellows), during which time all of us were screaming in our heads because we needed that time to plan our actual lessons for the classes we were actually teaching at that time.

Instead of wasting time and money in these formalized credential programs, I propose that we move to a more apprentice-like methodology.  I do think that we should have about a semester’s worth of classes before we step into the classroom, but these should just be classes that are necessary to initial success in the classroom.  Following this first semester-ish, the teacher-to-be should begin teaching one or two periods per day in a classroom, and over the next couple of semesters gradually work up to a full-time plate.  Finally, one of the most important things would be ensuring that, initially, the teacher only be teaching ONE CLASS at a time.  Meaning, maybe she has two periods a day, but they are both US History.  For me, one of the most frustrating parts of teaching at Skyline was the fact that I had to teach my own self-contained special education classes, but US History and OUSD’s own “Sociology” class, as well.  Three curricula on the first day?  Kill me.

First Semester: Classes in lesson planning, classroom management, how to navigate educational/district bureaucracy, an introduction to the community in which you’ll be teaching, and a in-depth look into the curriculum of whatever you’ll be teaching the next semester.  Mind you, I would hope that the next semester’s teaching assignment would be determined prior to beginning your first semester, so that you could actually create plans for your classroom in your lesson planning class.  Lesson planning is a necessary skill, but you might as well practice it with stuff you’ll need to teach!  (I, personally, was frustrated by creating fake lesson plans throughout my summer institute when I could’ve been planning for the coming fall, instead.  It seemed a little frivolous and unnecessary.)

Second Semester: Teach one to two periods in the same subject (for elementary, just one subject and rotate between two teachers’) , and have a couple of classes: one,  a group consisting of all second-semester teachers to create a safe space for venting and coming to practical solutions; and maybe more classroom management and development in your field of expertise.

Third & Fourth Semesters: Progressively more time spent teaching and less time in credential classes.  Perhaps offer electives, such as how to advance your career, how to continue your professional development after cred classes, or how to advise clubs/coach sports teams.

(Note to all: I know I only pulled about four types of cred classes, but fill in these calendars with whatever else could be necessary.)

(Second note to all: Although when I first because a teacher I hated the idea of a pre-created curriculum, the longer I’ve been teaching, the better I find the idea — at least, for first-time teachers.  When the curriculum’s already been created, it takes something off the new teacher’s plate by allowing them to solely focus on, oh wait, EVERYTHING else — the process of teaching, itself; classroom management; getting to know your students; homework and grading; dealing with parents, administrators, and the community; the list could go on and on…

I work with a very strict curriculum as an SAT instructor, but the more I teach the class (probably about 40 times so far), the more I can add my own spin to it and understand its intricacies.  Similarly, a pre-set curriculum must not be strictly adhered to, but can be a great starting point to free up new teachers for everything else, and as the teachers get more comfortable they can just use said curriculum as a starting-off point, instead of the be-all-end-all.)

A less-obvious benefit of this approach is the integration of teaching colleges with their actual communities.  Because this approach would potentially arise in sending all new teachers to poor schools, I’d also propose that all schools must allow at least 5% of their teacher pools to consist of these trainees.  I am saying allow, not mandate; if nobody applies to a teach at a certain high school, the school should be free to hire others.  However, if, for example, Campo had two spots, and three people wanted to work there, it should take at least two.  This approach would allow schools to take more trainees if they needed them, while also allowing parents and the community the autonomy to limit this, if they wished.

All in all, the way we educate teachers now is seriously flawed, and I am a firm believer in limited pre-classoom training and the idea that learning how to teach is an experiential process — you could go to Cal or Columbia and have years and years of education classes, but that is neither necessary nor sufficient to become a great teacher.  One can only become a great teacher by engaging the classroom and having the support and resources to deal with problems and learning experiences as they arise.

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