Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Alternative Pathways

You will not find me among the staunch defenders of traditional teacher education programs.

I'm not the product of one myself (you can read more about that here), but I have sent many students into such programs, as well as hosting a bevy of student teachers from such places. There can be no doubt-- some teacher preparation programs should be completely overhauled. Slavish attention to unimportant details, theory too divorced from actual practice, lack of support for fledgling teachers and, nowadays, far too much emphasis on standards-tilted and test-centered education.

And yet, the only alternatives tossed out there in recent years are worse. Teach for America's theory that an ivy league degree and five weeks of "training" are all you need to stand in a classroom? Nope. Shortage-suffering states that lower the bar to "You must have a pulse to ride this teacher desk"? Double nope. And where do we turn for help on the subject-- to the ridiculous National Council on Teacher Quality and their bogus "research"? Nopity nope nope.

I can think of better ways (just waiting for the phone to ring so I can start my lucrative consulting biz), though I think the most basic problem is that unlike doctors, nurses or physical therapists, teachers are not allowed to be in charge of our own profession. If college programs needed the certification of a board of actual working teachers in order to run their programs, we'd see a new world within just a couple of years.

But of all the things about teacher training that need to be fixed, the biggest gap may be the matter of alternative pathways for late bloomers.

Read this story from a guest poster at Dad Gone Wild. This is the tale of Mary Jo Cramb, a teacher who entered the profession later in life, entering through the back door of TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project). TNTP is a quieter sibling of TFA, built on the idea of giving somewhat riper individuals an alternative pathway to the teaching profession. While I have some bones to pick with some of TNTP's emphasis on data and testing and other reformy nonsense, I agree with their basic concept. There should be a pathway for grown-ass men and women who decide they want to leave their old profession and enter teaching.

There are such programs here and there. In PA, we allow "guest teachers" to become substitute teachers, and by "allow" I mean we grab them happily, give them about five minutes of training, and drop them into a classroom. This goes about as well as you might expect. Some are surprised that a whole day of teaching is a lot like work. There are the ex-executives or ex-military who are shocked to discover that they actually can't automatically command a room full of teenagers as easily as a room full of underlings. And there are some who show a real knack for it. But most guest teachers evaporate quickly (sometimes by the end of their first day).

What are adults who want to go into teaching supposed to do?

Going back to college for years of undergraduate work is insanely not doable. And some grown ups who have worked in the Real World are extremely likely to look at the content of college education classes and think (or say) "This is a bunch of baloney."Nor do I think it's useful to look at somebody in her thirties or forties or beyond who really wants to get into teaching and say, "Well, you'll have to just hop in your time machine and go back to change your college major."

Grown up late-entry proto-teachers need different education than the young'uns. A grown adult who has held down a job for years probably won't need the parts of the training that are basically there to help the new proto-teacher look and act like a professional. And while student teaching is just one more semester of school for a college student, for an adult it's fifteen weeks of work without pay, and what person with adult responsibilities can easily manage that? On the other hand, a fresh proto-teacher who only left a classroom behind a few years ago may be less prone to shock and surprise and disorientation than someone who hasn't set foot in school in a decade. But with the exception of some city-based programs, nobody is really looking at how to create an alternative pathway that will actually serve both the aspiring teacher and the school system. And while TNTP may be wrong about what such a program should look like, they are not wrong about the need for that alternative path.

Can such a thing be designed to be both accessible and thorough? It wouldn't be easy-- after all, it's not easy to become a real nurse or real lawyer in your forties. But it is possible (I have friends who have done it-- the lawyer and nurse part). There's no reason it couldn't become possible for teachers as well-- provided it's set up as a way to provide the new teacher with all the professional background and training they need, and not set up as a way for someone to slap a fresh, warm body into a classroom ASAP. As Cramb writes:

TFA is a poor answer to these problems, but progressive education advocates have not yet proposed their own solution either. I wish I’d been able to join the teaching profession without associating with a group steeped in an ideology I now oppose, but I’ll always be grateful they gave me an opportunity that only they were able to provide.

There's a need not being met. We can do better.


  1. I'm one of those late boomers you write about. After earning a BS and an MS in Geology I set out on a twenty year career, working in the oil biz, mining, and finally ending up in an environmental cleanup consulting career.

    Six employers in those 20 years. There were two company bankruptcies, two branch closures, and a few layoffs in that 20, and not a retirement plan or even 401k to be seen.

    NYS on the early 2000's allowed those with a Masters to simply take 18 hours of "Ed" courses, plus do student teaching and viola! you were qualified to apply for certification. Not all SUNY schools would do this, in fact many required you enter a degree program. Luckily SUNY Cortland did not. I was able to take two courses a semester in the evenings without missing any work. I was laid off just before my student teaching was to start, and a few weeks after I finished that I was rehired again. It seems the powers were looking out for me.

    Sadly, in 2004 NYS ended this program. Late bloomers like myself were required to enter a degree program and take many more courses, even (in my case had I not finished already) science courses in our original degree areas.

    As you might imagine, many fewer adults decided to transition into teaching after that, especially those like me in our 40's. My observation is that those of us who become teachers later in life are more likely to stay in the profession. We carry so much more into the classroom than a newly minted 21-yr old teacher. My experiences as a geologist and as a parent have contributed mightily to my success as a teacher.

    I agree that there should be good, solid ways for people like me to make the transition to teaching. It seemed to me NYS had it 15 years ago. It could happen again.

  2. I need an alternative.

    After piddling around in my twenties with a BA in Impractical Stuff, subbing and tutoring, reading PD books and grilling teacher friends over coffee, I left the country to teach. Now I've been in the classroom for three years. I'm rewriting my school's whole English curriculum. I'm directing PD for other English teachers. Teachers at local universities are starting to reach out for expertise (O.O). I *want* more training. But I have no idea where to start looking for a program that would be *useful* for me, and I don't have time for mere resume decoration.

  3. My husband is one of those who would have been a candidate for this kind of program. He actually DID do a fair amount of subbing after college and before he landed his full-time Federal bureaucrat job in his degree field and has taken a bunch of coursework toward an ed degree, but yeah, the student teaching would be a killer. The sticking point was the State insisting he take survey history & economics classes when he'd already done 400- and even graduate-level classes in both for his degree in order to get a social studies certification; it was time & expense he didn't want to spend knowing he'd already have to find a semester without pay for the student teaching, and the path stopped there, about a semester's worth of coursework shy of that mark.

    All that said, even without student teaching, *most* of an education degree's worth of courses, some of which are relatively useful (I found some of my methods classes pointless, some valuable, but I had a good Ed Psych class that gave me some insights into How Learning Works, even in the 80's)would be a ton better than taking a pulse and putting a mirror in front of a prospective teacher's mouth to check for respiration.

    I don't see leaving it to the Ed Reformers who simultaneously bash teacher prep programs and decry Resultant Weak Teachers while praising the 5-week TFA Experience to come up with alternatives, but it would be interesting to see what COULD be put into place. In my husband's case, he was at the time looking at an Alt-Cert program through DC Public Schools since we're in that part of the world anyway, and there were other districts at the time with "internship" programs, if you will... that might be a place to start, especially in conjunction with colleges and State Departments of Education. Given Maryland's recent appointments to that department, though, I hold out little hope that it could happen here. Too late for us here in any case; maybe when hubby retires from Federal service - we'll need the health coverage anyway. :P

    Start a Twitter chat - maybe some of The Reform Crowd WOULD come out of the woodwork with some workable ideas. One good thing about the DeVos appointment is that some of The Reform Crowd has moderated their tune. Crazier things have happened, especially recently.