Curmudgucation: 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. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.