Why teach?

In the next 10 years, many teachers in the baby-boom generation will retire.

That fact, coupled with the high rate of turnover among teachers, especially beginning teachers employed in poor, urban schools, numerous job openings are expected. The most drastic need will be in areas such as mathematics, science, bilingual education and special education. The shortages in these areas are so acute in most geographic regions that many states have passed alternative certification laws, allowing a simpler and quicker route to teacher licensure.

At the same time, many mid-career Americans have found themselves out of a job due to outsourcing and rightsizing. Others have found themselves disgruntled in careers that once were thought to hold the keys to the American dream. They fear that they are not making an impact on anyone’s life; they are making money and nothing else.

Some of these people are studying to become teachers. “Impact” is the word most often used by students as the reason for choosing to teach. They remember favorite teachers and the impact those people had on their own lives. They tend to be people who liked school themselves and think of returning to a happier, simpler life.

Teaching, however, has changed significantly during the past 10 years. High-stakes testing and accountability measures put new pressure on teachers to draw improvements in student achievement. The number of non-English speaking students has grown dramatically. More than half of all elementary, middle and secondary school teachers belong to unions that bargain with school systems over wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.

Most states require that teachers pass tests of content knowledge and pedagogy before being licensed, in addition to graduating from an approved teacher preparation institution. How, then, does a college or university prepare energetic and enthusiastic candidates to meet the demands put on teachers, yet maintain their optimism and desire to make an impact on someone’s life?

School partnerships

The teacher preparation institution must build strong partnerships with selected schools that use the best practices in the profession. College faculty and K-12 teachers need frequent professional interactions, joint problem-solving sessions and job exchanges.

Faculty should provide professional development opportunities for teachers, and teachers should serve as adjunct faculty or co-instructors in education courses. This allows the college to involve its teacher candidates early on in the life of the school and minimize disconnects between theory and practice.

Year-long apprenticeships

The teacher preparation program should require a year-long apprenticeship in a school with the best mentor teachers.

It is important for teacher candidates to participate fully in the life of the school, not just the classroom, but parent conferences, social events, interactions with community agencies serving families in the school and meetings of the school’s governing groups. It is also important to observe students for an entire school year.

The child who enters kindergarten in the fall changes dramatically by the following May.

High academic and performance standards

The teacher preparation institution must establish and maintain high standards for the knowledge, skills and dispositions that its candidates need upon completing the program. Teachers must know the subject matter they will teach, and they have to know it well enough to correct students’ misconceptions and to make connections between what they are teaching and what the student already knows.

They have to know pedagogy and how children learn, and capitalize on that knowledge. They have to demonstrate genuine caring and concern for their students. This is not an easy job.

Teaching needs the brightest and most empathetic students — the ones who will pursue their dream but know their profession well and who will make a positive impact on the lives of their students.

Kathleen Ware, M.Ed., is the interim chairperson of the education department at the College of Mount St. Joseph. She retired from the Cincinnati Public Schools in 2002 after serving as associate superintendent for 12 years. Reach her at [email protected]u or (513) 244-3263.