Sunday, March 12, 2017

Certifiable

I just finished a master's degree. If you don't know that: a. we don't talk very often, or 2. you tune me out pretty quickly. I actually already had a master's degree when I started working on this one. A second master's is useless unless you happen to work in a job that specifically pays for such a thing--which I do. In between those two degrees, I got a whole bunch of random credits, because there was no specific incentive for a second master's until I'd just about finished up with the random credit thing. So I started from scratch.

Other than the fact that I like to inform people of my accomplishments (see also: here, here, here, here, here, and here) (oh, and: here), I’m discussing this because I have recent experience with pursuing a degree as compared with choosing your own path, and this experience is germane to this post. I’m not sure I wouldn't be a happier person if there were no degrees or certificates, and I had always been permitted to just follow my own interests. I remember being in eighth grade and being convinced that all of this cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-no-one approach to scheduling was behind me. Then I found out how few truly elective credits I'd be offered. Sure, I could take Latin, German, or Spanish, but actual choices were like one or two a year.

I like learning, and am finding that I'm fairly conflicted about the fact that most of my post-gradate study is over. I still read summer program fliers and see four or five things I’d like to take (i.e. Instrument Repair, Instrument Repair II, String Instrument Repair, String Instrument Repair II…). When I visit my elder daughter’s college, I feel that I wouldn’t mind enrolling in not only Concert Choir, but String Pedagogy and maybe even Advanced Chromatic Harmony. Never mind the fact that when I actually took these classes as an undergraduate our tablets were actual tablets and our laptops were called Trapper Keepers.

But that’s not how degree programs work. With degree programs, you end up taking Research Methods and Choral Literature (again) and Final Project (which isn’t even a class, as much as a chance to write a whole lot and submit it to be enshrined in the vast hole where all similar projects have been banished for eternity). You take things that you’d never choose, and in many cases have no interest in. You take things that other people thought you should know about. In other words, you take Statistics. And French.

Certification and degree programs are constructed to provide a prescribed collection of skills and knowledge required for a trades-person. Plumbers learn about soldering, and slope, and pressure, and never putting their fingers in their mouths at work. Electricians learn about how many connections are permitted in each box, voltage, ground fault interruption, and how to build forearms strong enough to turn screwdrivers all day. Teachers learn about brains and how to get stuff into them and get it to stay in them, how to convert yesterday's Outcomes into today's Standards without actually changing anything, and how to put together appropriate and snappy outfits.

I think. Truth is, I stopped studying education as soon as they let me, and focused more on content area. Despite sometimes delving into it in this blog, I mostly have no patience for educational theory.  Luckily, as a high school teacher, my attraction to my subject area and aversion to the other stuff mostly works out.

Observe:




An aspect of certification you may not like is that it forms a gateway to a profession. You may, in fact, be smarter than your child's fourth grade teacher, but that doesn't make you more qualified to teach the class. Teaching is the sort of thing that half the population believes they could never do, and the other half assumes they could do very easily. Certification is not a guarantee of good teaching, but it does an important job: it filters potential teachers for the characteristic of being willing and able to complete a certification program. One of my favorite lines from Dangerous Liaisons: "Help? He doesn't need help, he needs hindrances. If he has to climb over enough of them he might inadvertently fall on top of [his objective]." Degree programs and certification not only impart necessary skills, they make sure that people in the professions have demonstrated enough wherewithal to survive. I wrote about a similar process here.

Current teacher certification requires pretty much everything I had to do 25 years ago, plus six credits in special education, and three more in ESL. That's probably a good thing, but may be more a testament to the power of the special education and ESL lobby than any real changes in the needs of today’s students. Not coincidentally, I do admit to having next to no knowledge of these topics--I would, but no one ever made me.

All of that said, I'm not categorically opposed to some kind of alternative certification. I believe it should be possible for educated people to get into teaching as a second profession. Taking a few night classes and then student teaching could be sufficient for these folks, in a way that just walking into classrooms from their previous profession would not. 

Whatever the program, degree-based, or teaching credentials-only, certification must include the following elements:
  • Rudimentary educational theory: Not talking about an Ed.D. in the stuff, but knowing about higher order thinking, and learning styles, and formative and summative assessment, and the rest can be useful. Side note: if you notice more educational jargon in this post than is typical, I'm trying to make the case that if you don't know these words you may not be ready to be a teacher (or Secretary of Education). Knowledge and understanding of basic pedagogical concepts can be valuable, even if it’s something to later disregard in the pursuit of a teacher's own philosophies.
  • Basic teaching chops: Programs often provide a pretty good background in educational theory, and assume that this will translate into functional skills in test construction, lecturing, and scope and sequence design. In my experience, this is not generally the case. I call it the Myth of Transfer, which is one of the items you’d learn in my version of Education 101. New teachers need to learn how much space to leave for answers on tests and how to write on blackboards and make coffee in the teachers' lounge. You never really know what you don't know and what you can't do until you try it in front of a room full of kids.
  • Intensive observation: This serves two purposes. First, it is possible to improve teaching skills by watching skilled teachers. It is especially possible if the observation process isn’t passive, but deliberate, intelligent, and even critical. (Note: Being able to recognize bad teaching doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher, but it can be a step in the process.) Second, spending time in classrooms can make a person more certain that they do/don’t want to do this themselves. I didn’t particularly like school before I got to college. It was necessary to look at things from the other side before I could see myself doing it.
  • Practice teaching: Student teaching is, perhaps, the most important element. In fact, the first three items on this list could be done in student teaching, assuming you were willing to let student teaching take place over like six semesters. A probationary, apprentice-style first year or years could accomplish this. Teaching under the guidance of a mentor is simply the best way to learn how to teach, which is why it boggles the mind that PA has gotten away from administrators observing teachers in favor of things like SLOs and standardized testing. A more formalized process for earning a place as a mentor would probably be a good idea, but I would appreciate it if they allowed my contemporaries and me to be grandfathered in (not sure if I love the term “grandfathered,” though).
Providing a surmountable, but not perfunctory, gateway to the teaching profession is necessary and right. Just because you know someone who was a natural at it and who could easily bring their vast knowledge to students doesn’t mean that works in all, or most cases. I do some cooking, some home repairs, and tried to train my dog (see: here). None of that qualifies me to do these things professionally. You may be able to teach your kid’s Sunday School, or coach her little league, but that doesn’t qualify you to join my profession without some more formal credentials. Certification may be a clumsy way of getting people ready to do this, but it's what we've got. Letting people teach without certification is more often about trying to flood the market and put negative pressure on pay than anyone's concept of an actual good idea.

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