Growing Great Teachers
By Sandra Whitehead

Why aren’t there more great teachers?
As easy as it is to blame an individual teacher for being uninspiring, some education reformers say the fault lies in large part with a system that discourages great teaching.

The teaching profession is built on an out-dated model, according to Katherine
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Advocate for Great Teaching

Boles and Vivian Troen, veteran elementary school teachers and co-authors of Who’s Teaching Your Children?: Why the Teacher Crisis Is Worse Than You Think and What Can Be Done About It. It’s a model that hasn’t been updated since the early 20th century, when public schools were expected to provide only very basic skills and a sense of common citizenship. The rest of a young person’s education – values, job skills and behavior – took place at home or in the community.

Too many teachers are still trained to provide students with a one-size-fits-all set of very basic skills at a time when we expect much more from schooling, reformers say. Today, teachers are expected to play an important role in the personal and intellectual development of individual students, providing them with the know-how to work in and navigate a complex and changing world. To complicate matters, they are expected to reach an ever-widening range of students with differing academic abilities and cultural backgrounds.

Meanwhile, neither the training nor the support for the profession has evolved to attract and keep the best teachers in the classroom, Boles says. In many districts, teachers, much like factory workers, all have the same job status, with no opportunities for advancement unless they leave the classrooms to work in administration. Often, there is no system for rewarding great classroom teaching.

It’s common knowledge that the most academically able college students don’t aspire to be teachers, Boles says. They won’t, she believes, until teachers’ salaries and career opportunities are competitive with other professions.

Those who do enter the profession are often unprepared. The teacher shortage of recent years has reached the point of crisis. The National Education Association estimates that by the year 2009 about 2.4 million new teachers will be needed throughout the nation. In the scramble to recruit more teachers, lowered standards guarantee that more underqualified teachers will fill the positions opened by the experienced teachers who leave, Boles says.

Furthermore, many of the new teachers who are qualified will leave the profession because of poor working conditions, constant budget battles, isolation and low pay. Almost half of incoming teachers will quit during their first five years, according to Boles.

Update and Upgrade

To keep the best teachers in the classroom, the teaching profession needs to be overhauled, reformers say.

• “It’s too easy to become a teacher,” contends Boles. Entrance requirements to graduate schools of education continue to slide as fewer and fewer of the best candidates choose to go into the field. As a nation, Boles says, we must require that entry into the practice of teaching be at least as uncompromising as the bar exam for lawyers or the certification exam for CPAs.

Schools of education should be transformed into schools of modern clinical practice, according to Daniel Fallon, chairman of Carnegie Corporation’s Education Division and architect of a major new initiative called Teachers for a New Era.

The teaching profession should be transformed, many reformers say, in the same way that the medical profession was early in the last century, when medicine was largely unregulated and doctors unlicensed. The comparison with the medical profession is important, reformers say, not only because teaching requires many of the same skills – assessing individuals based on a range of factors and tailoring professional attention to his or her precise needs – but also because it offers a path for change.

In the same way that medical school students practice their skills at teaching hospitals, Fallon proposes clinical residency programs for teachers. His model calls for close cooperation between colleges of education and actual practicing schools to better prepare and support new teachers and to promote teaching methods that could be effective in raising student achievement.

“Learning to teach is a lifetime activity,” says Carnegie Foundation scholar Rose Asera. “Great teachers learn from their experiences – their successes and their failures. And, in a community of learners, they learn from themselves and from others.”

• The teaching profession should offer a real career path
, with rewards and advancement for those who stay in the classroom, says Boles. Like-minded reformers propose making teaching a high-standards profession by:

– identifying a recognized knowledge base,

– demanding rigorous training and certification,

– requiring continuous learning,

– maintaining high standards of practice, and

– allowing teachers to make autonomous decisions guided by an agreed-upon canon of ethics.

The ways to upgrade the profession are obvious, says Bob Kann, a antionally-acclaimed educator. “Pay teachers well. Respect them. Give them the freedom to use their skills and creativity.” Do that and the best and brightest will come to teaching and stay, he says. “Teachers are working with children to help them be better people. The work itself is very gratifying and important.”
See also:

Great Teaching: What It is and How to Get It

How You Can Become an Advocate for Great Teaching

Sandra Whitehead is an award-winning writer and a lecturer at Marquette University. She lives with her husband and three children.

From United Parenting Publications, September 2003.