Monday, August 15, 2005

Finding good teachers is not easy, then, there's getting them to show up to class.

As an educator, I am interested in issues related to education, and while I am more interested in higher education, that being my line of work, I still keep up with public education since I used to be a secondary school teacher, and my daughter is in school. At any rate, seems that within the last couple of months, there have been some articles on teachers and teacher quality. This is something that I tend to have mixed feelings about. For one, I am not a big fan of unions, but on the other hand I know that without them teachers would probably be much more exploited than they are right now. For all the talk about teacher accountability and better incentives, it often boils down to that: talk. Having said that, I do think unions for teachers should be behaving more like professional organizations, like the AMA, and less like labor unions. Yet, as some readers know from reading this blog, I usually have a greater issue with parents who think that just because they "pay their taxes," that they own the teachers. For one, guess what, the teacher pays their taxes too. Second, it is a matter of respect and dignity. What message does it send your child if you yourself disrespect the persons that you allegedly entrust to educate your child? I have actually written about it here and here. I happen to believe that parenting involves personal responsibility, something that seems sorely missing these days, but I am disgressing. So, on to the articles that caught my eye these last few days:

Critical Mass points to an article from The Indianapolis Star dated August 7th asking where are the teachers at? It is a report on the issue of abseentism of teachers in the classroom and how it affects the students. The Indianapolis Star also features an editiorial discussing Indiana's low graduation rates and how the state "doctors" them to make themselves look better. The piece on abseentism notes that teachers can often take long leaves of absence due to generous policies of rolling their sick days and other nice options. Now, before readers jump on the wagon of cut those days away, I will point out that given the low pay teachers get, those days are likely one of the few perks they actually get. And no, I am not advocating teachers should take off weeks on end. However, teachers do need their little mental health now and then, and they do take the occasional day off to reload the battery. It happens. I am just making a little point for some sympathy. Readers who have not been in a classroom with 40 or so students will probably not understand this. Now, what the Indianapolis newspaper describes about a continued use of substitute teachers who may or not be qualified is both appalling and unacceptable. Yet given the bad conditions in some of those schoools, you have to honestly ask yourself if you can blame the teachers. An interesting point also is the fact that many new teachers may get hired in a place like Indianapolis, hone their skills, get some experience, then flee for the first suburban school district with better conditions that offers them a job. Again, one has to wonder.

As if things were not complicated enough, the Chicago Tribune featured an article on July 20th on reversing the lack of male teachers. The article states that "as a new academic year approaches, school districts, education groups, and universities are exploring ways to get more men into a field long dominated by women. Their goal is to provide more male role models in class and to diversify the labor pool of dedicated teachers." The article goes on to mention that only 21% of teachers in U.S. public schools are men, and for elementary, that figure goes down to 9%. According to Bryan Nelson, founder of MenTeach, a non-profit that recruits men into teaching, "men must often overcome concerns about their salaries, a perception that teaching isn't masculine, and even public fears that they pose a danger to kids." Mr. Nelson is not saying anything new. For one, I discussed such concerns about the lack of male teachers two months ago. Back then, I had mixed feelings about it, and I still do. I was saying I would probably not advice a guy considering teaching to pursue it, and I gave some of my reasons why, which echo Mr. Nelson's. However, for me ,the big concern was the issue of people thinking male teachers, especially in elementary, can be dangerous. I still think the way some of these scandals are handled and the way a reputation is destroyed, especially if a person is proven innocent, are not worth the risk. A pity in my view because I still enjoy teaching very much, and I am glad I still get to practice it in my current career, but it is very unlikely you could get me to step back into a public school classroom. However, I have a little reason to be more optimistic this time around. My daughter has a male science teacher in fourth grade. He will be teaching science and math. We went to meet him on "Meet the teachers" night two days before school started, and he seems like a good enthusiastic fellow. From what little I saw of him interacting with my daughter and other children that came by, the guy has a charm so to speak. He seems sincerely interested in the children and seems able to get along with them well. He does seem knowledgeable as well. I have to admit that I have admiration for the guy to want to teach fourth grade, but the teacher part of me wonders if he ever had some of the concerns articles like the one from the Chicago Tribune describe. If he does, he is at least is not letting those concerns bother him (or at least hides it well). I do hope he does well, and if he does, I hope we do find more like him. Because at the end of the day, children need to have good role models of both genders, and this includes seeing an example of a good man. I do try to be a good role model at home, but I can certainly use all the help I can get, so another good role model is a good thing. They are starting out with astronomy, so sounds like my daughter will be having fun. Do note that the teacher is a science and math teacher, which is a very marketable set of subject areas if someone is planning on going into teaching. I am not saying it to be cynical; I just need a transition to the next article I want to point out, and I did not have something wittier.

The Washington Times for July 25th had a piece about the school systems in Maryland. Over there, they are struggling to get qualified teachers in the classrooms. Actually, this story has also been in other national newspapers. Part of the problem is due to federal acccountability laws that require districts to have "highly qualified teachers." Also, job seekers can now afford to be more savvy when it comes to seeking positions since they know schools are scrambling. Susan Mascaro, head recruiter for Howard County, says about job seekers that "they'll come to your booth and ask about incentives and signing bonuses, unlike three years ago. They ask about new-teacher support and mentoring programs." Things have changed indeed, and now you can add the career changers who often get some kind of emergency credential to go into a classroom, usually if they already have a subject degree. What has not changed is that math, science, special education, and foreign languages make a candidate very marketable. The problem I see here are all those regulations they added along with NCLB to make teachers "more accountable." So, on the one hand, they make it harder for people to become teachers, but on the other hand, districts which are strapped go ahead and hire who they can whether qualified or not. The article about Maryland does not mention the issue of "emergency" credentials, but a good search on the topic will likely yield a few results. What the Maryland article shows is that the requirements are making it harder to find good teachers, and it is not because there are not talented people out there. You look at the concerns that Mr. Nelson cited for men, add bad conditions in many of the poorer districts, and actually NCLB is just an "icing on the cake" of a larger problem. As a new school year starts, I find myself thankful that my child will have good teachers this year; I am also thankful we are in a good school district, much of the reason I commute to work a long distance, so we can live in an area with good schools. That is the parent in me talking. The educator in me is concerned over these trends, which don't seem to get better as long as people who have no clue about education continue to impose "standards" that are more punitive than constructive. As long as some parents through their actions devalue or degrade their teachers, this will not get better. And as long as good teachers are not supported and rewarded as they should, things will not get better. For now, I am trying to keep the faith. But it's not easy. As for what would I say to a student that came to me asking if he or she should become a teacher, I would have to tell them to think it long and hard.

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