A Tale of Three Teachers

03/30/2012 01:36 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2012
  • John Merrow Education Correspondent, PBS NewsHour; Author, 'The Influence of Teachers'

The young teacher started right off making a rookie mistake in the opening minutes of his first class, on his very first day. "How many of you know what a liter is?" he asked his high school math class. "Give me a thumbs up if you know, thumbs down if you don't." None of the kids responded, so he entreated, "Come on, I just need to know where you are. Thumbs up if you know, thumbs down if you don't."

An experienced teacher would not have asked students to volunteer their ignorance. An experienced teacher might have held up an empty milk carton and asked someone to identify it. Once someone had said, "that's a quart of milk," the veteran might have pulled out a one-gallon container to be identified. Only then would she have shown them a liter container, explaining that most countries in the world use a different measuring system, et cetera.

But the rookie didn't know any better. He'd graduated from Yale that spring, had a few weeks of training that summer, thanks to Teach for America, and then was given his own classroom.

Another first year teacher made a rookie mistake in the spring. "How many of you dislike poetry," he asked his high school seniors? "How many of you really hate poetry?" When most of the hands went up, he announced, "That's going to change, because I am going to turn you into poetry lovers." With that simple -- and stupid -- declaration, the rookie had made it all about himself, not about the poems. He had challenged his class on personal terms, making it an ego trip for himself, not an educational journey for his students.

Matters never really improved for the first rookie that year, and he was not invited back for a second year. I was the second rookie. I taught for two years and then moved on, but it wasn't until years later that I recognized how counterproductive my approach to that poetry unit was.

So what's the point? Rookies make rookie mistakes? Or is it that teachers need serious training (I had none whatsoever, not even the equivalent of a TFA summer) before taking over classrooms?

This brings me to the third teacher in this short essay, a young woman I observed doing a bang up job of teaching first graders to read. She seemed to have all the moves down, phonemic awareness, chunking, words that must be memorized (like 'the') because they don't follow the rules, and so forth. Her first graders were reading confidently and competently. We made a piece about it, for the NewsHour:

I knew that she had completed a five-year program at a reputable state university, giving her both a bachelor's and a master's in elementary education and a certificate to teach. In short, she had it all.

Or did she? "That's where you learned how to teach reading," I stated as a half-question. "No," she responded emphatically! "They never said a word about phonics in any of my classes. I had to learn all of that here, on the job."

I was dumbfounded and disbelieving, but a search of that education school's course syllabus and a phone call to a now-retired professor there confirmed what she had said. Phonics was barely acknowledged. Apparently the reading wars continue, at least on that campus, with "whole language" still planted firmly in the saddle.

Given a choice between bad training and little or none, what is one to do? And if that's the choice right now, what can we do to change the odds? Let me suggest it's time for a 180-degree turn. We need to make it more difficult to become a teacher, which we could do by raising standards for admission into training programs and then providing one-year apprenticeships before teachers are given their own classrooms.

The first change -- tougher admission standards -- applies to virtually every school and college of education: Raise the bar for getting into the profession. Improve programs by weeding out professors who are still waging old battles. Do much more of the training in real schools and real classrooms.

(Some schools and colleges of education are already going down this road, including Arizona State, Michigan, Berkeley, and Teachers College. All led by women, by the way. Add to that list Stanford, which was, until recently, also led by a woman.)

The second change -- a one-year apprenticeship -- applies to TFA, which already has remarkably high admission standards to its two-year program. But it's the rare individual who can take over a class after a few weeks of summer training and be genuinely effective. Even successful TFA teachers often admit that much of their first year was a wash, at best. What if TFA were a three-year program, with the first year being an apprenticeship? Would that produce better teaching and also help TFA weed out the ambitious ones seeking largely to punch up their resumés?

As I say, I think the country needs to make a U-turn. Because most schools of education have low admission standards, it's far too easy to become a teacher. And because many of our policies and practices are hyper-critical, and even punitive, toward teachers, it's now very difficult to be a teacher.

It will take a concerted effort on the part of governors and university presidents to make it harder to become a teacher. Governors have to be convinced of the economic and political benefits of having their constituents' children taught by skilled professionals. I fear that the leadership at many universities is comfortable with the 'cash cow' aspect of their education programs, which take in more than they spend. What sort of pressure would be required to get them to change?

But making those changes seems like a walk in the park compared to what it would take to do to reverse our current 'blame the teacher' approach. Making it easier for today's teachers to teach won't happen unless and until we come to our senses. Does anyone see that happening soon?