First Person

Voices: Issuing teacher licenses should connect to good teaching

A member of PACE’s Teacher Licensing Committee, Shawn Bailey, argues that the state should’t lower barriers to entering teaching, but rather focus on making its standards better.

Big Stock - Teacher and studentsThe debate about the future of licensing teachers appears to be split into two groups. The first believes in lowering the hurdles for receiving a license in order to open the profession up to a larger group of teaching candidates. The second believes we should raise the bar and make it more difficult for potential teachers. I think we should do both — make it less complicated on the front end to attract more potential, but more rigorous on the back end to protect our students from low-quality teachers.

I am proud to be a part of the Teacher Licensing Committee for my association, the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE). Our committee is a group of diverse educators that are delving into the details and discussing our various belief systems about the profession. We hope to reach some consensus on recommendations for improving the way that Colorado licenses teachers.

I believe that if we truly want teaching to be a valued and respected profession, then we should raise the bar for entry. However, too often the mandate to “raise the bar” translates into “make the list of requirements longer.” We don’t need more meaningless requirements, we simply need better ones.

I graduated with honors from one of the top teacher colleges in the state of Texas. During my student teaching, my mentor had a reputation for being demanding and often didn’t pass students unless she believed they would be successful. I received high marks on all of my evaluations. I have completed my master’s degree in education, and am currently working on my doctorate.

However, I recently took the licensure exam for Colorado and did not score high enough to become licensed.

I don’t want this article to be viewed as sour grapes. I understand that I have to continue preparing and take the exam again. However, for me it begs the question, “How is this possible?” How is there such a disconnect between my course work, my evaluations in the classroom, and my scores on the Colorado licensing exam?

To meet the goals of creating a system of licensure that is neither complicated nor exclusive, yet is more rigorous, I support:

  1. Creating an apprenticeship or residency at the beginning of one’s teaching career;
  2. Ensuring that our mentor teachers are carefully selected, held to high standards, and given the time necessary to be effective trainers; and
  3. Requiring teachers to prove their effectiveness before they are able to teach on their own.

To attract a large pool of talent, the residency should not require any box-checking or mandatory course work to be accepted. We need to attract the best and brightest from all backgrounds. However, it must require demonstrated and proven success to finish with a professional license in hand. This achieves the goal of being less complicated, less paperwork, and more inclusive initially; yet it adds more rigor before awarding a full license.

I mentioned my student teaching experience was challenging and my mentor was a tough critic. My story is not typical as I have heard stories from other teachers who felt unprepared. Many say their student teaching experience was easy, their mentor teacher viewed it as a break from teaching, and that it didn’t prepare them at all for managing a classroom and teaching students on their own.

Would we go into surgery if we knew the surgeon only had simulated experiences performing the surgery, unless there was a proven surgeon by his or her side? Would we drop our cars off with a mechanic that had limited experience under the hood and no accomplished mentor looking over his or her shoulder?

Mentor teachers should be the most dedicated, proven teachers that we have available. While mentoring others, they should not have other class loads detracting from their duty to train the next generation of great teachers. Furthermore, they should be better compensated to ensure we attract the best to be mentors.

Before awarding licenses we should give new teachers authentic experiences, over prolonged periods of time, and base licensure awards not on box-checking or how well they take an exam, but on their proven abilities in front of students.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.