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Another Young Teacher Contemplates Leaving the Classroom; Whose Fault Is That?

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One of the things teacher education programs have been vilified for in recent years—and it's hard to catalogue them all—is not doing a good job of tracking program graduates after they enter the profession. The thinking, of course, is that we can take a look at what teachers are doing now in the classroom (in other words, assess their effectiveness by looking at test scores), trace their (in)-competence back to the programs that prepared them, and then either reward or punish those programs based on how effective their graduates are. So simple, right? Why didn't we think of that?

Probably because this kind of thinking is flawed for at least two reasons. First, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what teacher education is and what it can accomplish. At the risk of sounding defensive, let me just say this: it's exceptionally difficult to prepare a person for specific working conditions when you have no idea what those working conditions will be like. Proponents of the approach I just described, like the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), assume that educational standards, like medical standards, are relatively stable and fixed. They point to the Flexner Report, released in 1910, to support a "reform-at-all-costs" approach to teacher preparation, but the analogy is of limited value. For one thing, there are about a million doctors in the U.S.; there are at least three times as many teachers. More important, the job of the doctor is relatively straightforward: it's to save the patient. To the extent that saving the patient means keeping him alive, the doctor's job is actually much clearer than the teacher's is. So is the body of knowledge the doctor has to master. Establishing standards of practice for doctors, as a result, was somewhat less contentious than establishing standards of practice for teachers has been. And did I mention this happened around 1910? 

The reality in K-12 education, of course, is that academic standards vary from state to state, as do curriculum guidelines, the quality of the resources available to teachers, and community expectations for schools. The best we can hope for, in some sense, is to prepare beginning teachers with the knowledge they need to navigate the complexities of our education system and socialize themselves into the profession while maintaining some sense of sanity in the process. Teacher preparation should quite literally be defined as preparation for teaching: good programs prepare their students for the work they'll do, but recognize that those new teachers will have to largely figure out, with the assistance of their new colleagues, how to teach in their school contexts. If we prepare them to do that well, we've done a lot. Go read this if you think knowing how to teach is something you learn before leaving ed school, or in a five week crash course right before the school year starts. Choice quote: "Only by the end of the fourth or fifth year of teaching do most newcomers become competent and confident in figuring out lessons, knowing the ins-and-outs of classroom management, and taking risks in departing from the routines of daily teaching." That's Larry Cuban talking. He knows a thing or two about teaching.

Teacher education matters, and it matters a lot. But teacher educators don't send teachers out into the world fully formed. And it's not because we don't want to; it's because we can't. We really need to clear that up right now.

The second reason this kind of thinking makes no sense is because it's demonstrably true that not all teacher candidates are created equal, or equally well suited to the job. That doesn't mean most of them cannot become effective teachers. The "blame it on preparation" model suggests that there's a magical formula that good programs use to prepare good teachers, and that all it takes is for potential teachers to be exposed to the formula and then—voila!—a good teacher will come out. Or, if the learning doesn't "take," they'll somehow be pushed out of the program. This notion that education is simply the passing of knowledge from teacher to learner is one I've addressed before. The idea that students can or should be removed from programs by applying "higher standards" also flies in the face of the reality that a wide range of people, with a wide range of personal qualities and abilities, are drawn to teaching. It's not my job to tell students they can't teach. It's my job to help them teach to the best of their abilities. It's also my job to assist them in finding the right match for their particular traits and skills when they enter the job market. There just simply isn't one way to be a good teacher.

Given all this, I was disappointed to receive an email from a student who graduated recently and has already decided to contemplate moving away from the classroom. In spite of everything I just said about the questionable motives of the people who want teacher education programs to track their graduates, I do believe that keeping in touch with program alumni is critical both to their long-term success and to the success of our teacher education program. I may not agree with NCTQ's definition of teacher quality, but I do know that our success is largely dependent on the ability of our graduates to do what we taught them to do. 

By the standards I just described for our program graduates—having the skills needed to adapt to teaching in a new environment, with the ability to grow— this student, Amanda, met all the marks. Not only did she have an outstanding academic record, but she also demonstrated the qualities of character—drive, initiative, determination, grit; whatever you want to call it—that we should expect from our teachers. She developed a whole curriculum as a student teacher, and received exceptionally high marks for her teaching then. She subsequently spent a year teaching in France then landed a job as soon as she returned, but she's thinking about leaving it all behind now. Let me let her explain why. This came in an email:

My first two years of teaching were great but absolutely insane as expected. I came into a program that was completely disorganized and had to rebuild everything in addition to dealing with your everyday first-year teacher obstacles such as what to do when a girl starts painting her nails in class, when there's a lock down but you don't have any keys, running around between four different classrooms, etc.

Pretty typical, right? I mean, we could have done the whole "what to do in a lockdown situation when you don't have keys" routine in her methods class, but what are the chances that her school would have expected her to follow the procedure we taught once she started her job? Did Abraham Flexner address this in his report?

Amanda went on to explain why she's headed back to Pennsylvania, and giving up her job working for the bombastic and famously obtuse governor of New Jersey. She's hoping to pursue a Master's degree with the help of her new employer, something her district in New Jersey wouldn't pay for. And she added this:

I do love teaching, but I have to say that after being in it for two years I don't know if I'll stay. I think it's the most uplifting and depressing career at the same time. I'm interested to see how it is in PA though; the general climate for teachers in NJ is pretty bad. I didn't realize how much useless paperwork, testing, etc. would actually be involved, so I'm actively looking for ways to work with kids/education that aren't in a school setting in addition to teaching jobs.

So there you have it. She's not out of the classroom yet, but Amanda sees the writing on the wall. Paperwork, testing, an unhealthy work climate—these things are cited over and over again by dissatisfied teachers fed up with the everyday challenges of teaching in a world where their work is so undervalued. Who wants to work that way? The pull of teaching and the desire to teach kids (even to teach them unpopular subjects; Amanda teaches French) is strong enough to keep her in the profession for now, but how much longer will it be before she realizes that even this much is too much? 

The better question is: when will we ever learn? I have no idea how Amanda's students would perform if given a standardized test of their fluency in French, and for the most part I don't care. As a teacher, she understands that proficiency in the French language, and familiarity with French culture, are worthwhile goals to establish for her students. Ultimately. But as they progress toward this goal, some will move away; some will never fully engage; some will have other teachers who are less committed to the work than she is. What difference does a test score make in these circumstances? It's time to stop narrowing our definition of success in education and live a little. We might save a few careers in the process.

Like Rosa Nam, the former Teach for America recruit who gave up on life in the classroom because it turned her into someone she didn't like, I think Amanda's making the right choice to start looking at alternatives. I'll be deeply disappointed if she ultimately does decide to leave the classroom, but not surprised. And I certainly wouldn't blame her for it. 

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