liking kids is not enough

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When I am traveling in an unfamiliar city, I know that if I choose a national chain coffee shop I’ll get the same drink there as I would in the shop near my home. That’s because the chain ensures standardization by processing the same raw materials in the same way to ensure the same results. I like that in my coffee. I don’t like it in education.

What works in food service does not work in education.

Students are not raw materials that we can push through a manufacturing process to get uniform products (read: test scores). The industrial model of education ignores the fundamental humanity of the participants. But when cost becomes the most important factor, then manufacturers (or in this case, so-called education reform advocates) opt for standardization over personalization. As Allington (2002) pointed out, “the point of standardization is to ensure a minimum standard at a low cost” (p. 250).

So what does this have to do with teacher education?

I may be committing teacher-educator-heresy here, but I think it should be harder to become a teacher, because being a great teacher requires a commitment to fight against those pressures to standardize instruction. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consistency–how else will students have equitable opportunities to succeed if teachers don’t design curriculum to meet students’ needs? (Oh, wait, silly me… teachers aren’t allowed to design their own curricula! That’s left to the “experts.”) Being a great educator requires a whole lot more than mastery of content, and that’s where I think teacher preparation programs need to change our focus.

Being a great educator requires dedication, passion, vision, dispositions toward to life-long learning, perseverance, and a willingness to commit to potentially difficult relationships with students, parents, communities, and policymakers. True education is about relationships not content delivery. It also requires a willingness to speak up (even if our voices shake) on behalf of those whose voices are almost always ignored: students.

When I ask undergraduates to write mission statements to encapsulate the reason they want to become educators, many of them write about equality, equity, serving their home communities, and creating a better future. Many, however, write about how much they like kids. Others can’t articulate (perhaps because they don’t know?) why they want to be educators. Some can’t think of anything else to do, and think they’ll have summers and weekends off. Others go into teaching as a stop-gap before marriage. And, they like kids.

Liking kids is not enough!

Being a great educator means being willing to work at the top level of Bloom’s taxonomy, not just the bottom (hmmm…we may need to change how we assess prospective teachers’ competencies…). This means that teacher candidates need to actively engage in designing lessons that will facilitate their future students’ learning, not just memorization of content. Teacher candidates need to read, write, think, revise, and otherwise engage in creating knowledge, not just sit passively and accept what others say. They need to resist the transmission model of education. I know there are complications with applying Paolo Freire’s “banking concept” of education in the US. However, the basic premise he describes–education as a deposit made (usually by someone more powerful) into students’ heads–accurately describes how many people still view education. Here’s a bit more heresy: I’m willing to bet that some (let’s hope not many…) of my teacher educator colleagues around the country still teach about constructivist approaches to education through lecture. I know I’ve seen it.

Lack of questioning troubles me. I once facilitated a conversation about banned/challenged books in which I posed the following question: “What will you do if a parent challenges a book you’ve chosen for a particular unit?” One student said she’d give the parents a list of all the books she wanted to use to see if anyone objected to any of them. Once I recovered from my shock, I asked, “Are you going to let the parents decide what math materials you’ll use, too?” A great teacher candidate would have answered the first question by explaining that the lesson plan s/he had written—which would be appropriately mapped to state standards and benchmarks, of course—articulated the rationale for lesson’s materials.

Being a great educator requires a willingness to take the materials and curriculum approved by schools, evaluate the needs of ALL of the students in the room, and facilitate constructive acts of learning. This means that teacher candidates need to be critically engaged in their own learning. That starts with showing up and doing the work. Yes, I know it’s hard to balance work, family, and school responsibilities. And, yes, I understand that emergencies happen. But if students can’t balance those things now, how will they handle them when they’re responsible for the learning of 30 kids (or, if they go into secondary: 150 )? I can’t count how many times undergraduate students have complained that I ask too much of them (I have a reputation–of which I’m quite proud–of being “the mean one” in the building!). These same students are the ones who can’t tell me why they want to take responsibility for educating our nation’s youth. Call me crazy, but I think teacher candidates should have at least a rough idea…

A great teacher scaffolds students’ learning by identifying where students are currently (assessment) and where they and the teacher want to go, and then building a structure which facilitates that growth. Speaking of assessment, a great teacher conducts on-going formative assessment in order to identify areas where students need additional opportunities to move toward ownership of concepts. A great teacher uses formative assessment data to evaluate her/his next steps for instruction. A great teacher communicates with students and parents about assessment data, and involves students in goal setting for future learning. When policy makers talk about assessment, they mean high-stakes summative instruments that do not provide useful information to teachers for reshaping curriculum. In some states, the teachers don’t even get the results back until after the school year finishes. How is that supposed to help those teachers help those kids? Ah, but we’re not really interested in educating kids, are we?

Teaching is a profession, a vocation. It’s not a job.

If you aren’t clear on the differences, see these definitions below (all from http://oxforddictionaries.com/).

profession /prəˈfɛʃ(ə)n/ noun. 1 a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Origin: Middle English (denoting the vow made on entering a religious order): via Old French from Latin professio(n-), from profiteri ‘declare publicly’ (see profess). profession (sense 1) derives from the notion of an occupation that one ‘professes’ to be skilled in (http://bit.ly/eXxmL7).

vocation /vōˈkāSHən, voʊˈkeɪʃən/ noun. 1 a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation; 2 a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as particularly worthy and requiring great dedication; 3 a trade or profession. Origin: late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin vocatio(n-), from vocare ‘to call’ (http://bit.ly/fQBjhN).

job /jäb, ʤɑb/ noun. 1 a paid position of regular employment; 2 a task or piece of work , especially one that is paid (http://bit.ly/hR4Gjz)

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Note: to see the references that were not hotlinked, please click here.

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