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What's So Hard About Teaching 3rd Grade?


This is the third and final installment of coverage from the Teaching & Learning 2014 conference, hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards this past Friday and Saturday. Here's Part I and Part II.

In the way it was organized, the Teaching & Learning 2014 conference offered two very different approaches to improving the teaching profession.

First, the National Board offered panels and lectures about the profession itself, broader overviews of things that affect the teaching profession and implicitly involve teacher leadership. Then it coupled those with more participatory sessions that focused on classroom instruction.

The conference's substantive goal was to create an event "where the profession meets to secure the future of Pre-K-12 education." This is the National Board, after all, looked to as the designator of teaching's best practitioners (at one point, anyway). Not just any credentialing program can claim to be equated to a master's degree.

The conference's spiritual goal, then, seemed to be assuaging the fears of the profession. That tone came across in some of the major speeches, too, especially the ones by two of the people who were arguably the most instrumental in creating some of the major changes now preoccupying teachers in the first place. Bill Gates, for example, vigorously defended the Common Core State Standards that the Gates Foundation has so ardently supported. "I was naïve," he said, while noting opposition to the standards. "I actually thought people who would speak out against the common core would've read the common core."

And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, trying to support teacher leadership, noted that he foresaw "the beginning of the end" for bubble tests, although the common-core-aligned assessments, funded with federal money, don't leave out multiple choice, and the Education Department places a high priority on the testing that consumes so much teacher time.

Teachers' fears about their profession aren't by any means delusional. In one session on building the profession using an international perspective, for instance, an audience member noted she had to constantly defend her occupation. She told an anecdote in which her father (who she said was a sympathetic man ignorant about teaching), asked her, "What's so hard about teaching 3rd grade? All you need is a 4th grade education."

This fatherly observation, as you might imagine, did not go over well with the audience. It certainly did not go over well with panelist Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. After an up-until-then unsurprising 50-minute session, Van Roekel laid down some real talk in a five-minute screed:

We are not considered a profession, and I believe it is our responsibility to change that, not someone else's—I'm not waiting for the angels to come down. We're going to do it ourselves ... The idea that we allow our profession to be de-professionalized is crazy. ...

The idea that a training institution doesn't have to be accredited? You can't be a beautician without going to an accredited school of training. Why do we tolerate that? The idea that you can be assigned to teach poetry when you're a math major, are you kidding me? We have to own and lead our own profession. We have to define our training standards, and we have to say that no one should be allowed to be a teacher of record until they're profession-ready. ...

The best thing we can do is if you and me as professionals do not allow people to talk about our profession the way we do. I take it as a personal insult when someone assumes that anyone with a degree in math can do what I do in a classroom. You think my job is to go to the front of the room and demonstrate, that I already know how to do all the problems in the book, aren't you impressed? Doing the problems is the easy part. [But] every skill you use is a professional skill, and we ought to talk about our profession that way. ...

When you're in the grocery line or the church or the synagogue or wherever you are, you talk about this profession and what it means to do what we do. That will change the public's perception, and then we have to change policy to make it really a profession. We have to make sure there is a quality teacher in every classroom, or you'll never achieve education for all, or uniting for a quality education.

Van Roekel earned a huge round of applause, and seemed to have captured the undercurrent flowing through the conference—that teachers occupy a strange place, professionals without a profession.

According to an NBPTS representative, over 3,000 people attended the conference each day, looking for solutions to issues in their practice and in their profession. A year from now, though, it will be interesting to see what's changed.

What do you think: Do you agree with Van Roekel that teaching is no longer seen as a profession? What defines a profession in the first place? How do you address people you know when they criticize teaching?

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