DEBATE RAGES: IS TEACHER BORN OR MADE?

Burlington County Times, February 12, 2001

So, now that I’ve written a column defending teachers, the New Jersey Department of Education decides to undermine the public’s confidence in the capabilities of their children’s world language teachers. To meet the Core Curriculum Content Standards, students at every grade level will need to study a world language, and districts throughout New Jersey have reported problems with finding enough teachers to fulfill the requirement. The State Department of Education has known about this change for some time now; the description of the Core Curriculum Content Standards on the New Jersey Department of Education’s web site (http://www.state.nj.us/education/) is dated May, 1996. Did the DOE plan ahead and make sure that there would be enough qualified, certified teachers in place next Fall? No, instead they’ve decided to use the “warm body” approach: “Candidates for conditional world languages certificates must hold a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university and have a cumulative grade point average of at least 2.75 when a grade of 4.0 represents an A grade. In addition, candidates must possess linguistic competency as measured by a nationally recognized test of oral proficiency as identified by the Department of Education.” (I’m quoting directly from the DOE’s press release, posted on their web site.) Note that the new teachers only need a college average of C+, which is lower than the requirement for admissions to graduate school. In other words, the basic qualifications needed are to speak a foreign language and be breathing.

In all fairness, the new teachers do have to become certified within five years to continue their employment: “A conditional world languages certificate can be renewable annually for a maximum of five years. In the first year, each candidate must complete college course work in world language methodology and must in subsequent years demonstrate progress toward meeting state requirements for standard teacher certification within five years.” But what happens to their students during those five years? They will have teachers who have no experience, have never student taught under the tutelage of a mentor, know nothing about lesson plans, goals, alternative means of assessment, cooperative learning groups, effective means of classroom management. And in the mean time, five years have already been wasted, years in which a qualified pool of prospective teachers could have been trained and certified.

When I first heard the news, I flashed back to an early episode of “Star Trek: Deep Space 9.” It seems that in the future we will still believe the myth that “anyone can teach.” One of the characters, an exobotonist married to the Space Station’s chief of engineering, complained to the commander that she had nothing to do and was bored. She’d noticed that several of the crew members’ children had been running around unsupervised, and suggested that she start a school for them. “I’ve never taught,” she said. “But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” The commander thought her idea was terrific, gave her a room and some computers, and in the next scene, we see her in front of her class. One of my undergraduate students, when hearing about this scenario, said, “Gee, I’ve never done brain surgery, but I’ve always wanted to. Why doesn’t anybody let me operate?”

Is the ability (and desire) to teach innate or taught? Is a teacher born or made? I used to have my students recall the worst teacher they ever had, and list the reasons why the teacher was so bad. Then I had them recall the best teacher they ever had, and the characteristics which made that teacher so good. (It was always easier for them to remember the bad teachers than the good, although the influence of the good teachers is what led many of the students to decide to go into teaching themselves.) The necessary traits they listed included fairness, humor, and interpersonal skills, which cannot necessarily be taught. Methodology and a good grounding in the subject matter can be. The answer, therefore, seems to be “both” — the innate traits need to be present, but the pedagogical techniques and subject matter can be taught.

Commissioner of Education David Hespe is quoted in the same press release as saying, “Most importantly, students will gain as they will be taught by linguistically competent individuals who have had meaningful experiences interacting in a world language.” By that criterion, I should be able to do my own plumbing, as I’ve had many meaningful experiences interacting with professionals who know how to use a snake without cracking the toilet bowl.

Hiring non-certified teachers who have no training at all in education is not only going to further erode the public’s lack of confidence in teachers, but is going to undermine the credibility of the vast majority of experienced teachers throughout the state who go far beyond what is expected of them. These are not teachers who do the bare minimum to be hired, to gain tenure, and to maintain their certification. These are the teachers I see all the time who spend their weekends and summers earning more than one graduate degree and who take course after course to assure that they – and by extension, their students – get the greatest benefit of all the new technologies and research into the best ways to teach. These new, unqualified teachers, on the other hand, will be spending the next five years playing “catch up.” Don’t the students in New Jersey deserve better?

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