Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Art and Science of Teaching

Alto 2 wondered in her comment to yesterday's post why the teacher who had the not-so-good lesson during my recent observations didn't "get it" like the others did. I should have mentioned in the post that none of the teachers I visited yesterday knew I was stopping by, so the good lessons had not been planned as the "dog and pony show" teachers often resort to when they know the evaluator is coming to their classroom. I won't lie and say I never planned anything special when I knew I'd be evaluated, but eventually in my teaching career I got to the point where I just said, "Come on by anytime. I'm happy for you to see whatever I'm doing."

All that being said, I do have my theory on why that particular teacher is not as good in the classroom as his peers: he has alternative certification. That means he didn't complete a teacher education program but instead went through a process of testing on his subject matter and then went before a committee to convince them he should be certified to teach. This particular teacher has a master's degree in his subject area and has worked extensively outside the classroom with high school age kids, both in coaching and in church youth groups. I wouldn't have hired him without both the academic qualifications and the experience interacting with teenagers because in my experience teachers who have not had the benefit of a good teacher education program are not as successful in the classroom. By hiring him I was gambling that I'd be able to teach him what he needed to know about methodology once he was in the classroom, and his superior academic credentials and good personality made it a gamble I was willing to take. In his case, I've seen enough positives that I'm convinced that it's a gamble that will pay off in the long run, but he will be the exception rather than the rule.

The thing about alternative certification that gets me is the underlying assumption that anyone can teach. Just be sure that the candidate has a good knowledge of the subject matter and send him on in to the classroom. But that knowledge alone is not enough to guarantee good teaching. Good, and especially great, teaching is both an art and a science. Today's teacher has to balance the needs of all students, including English language learners and special education students, to be sure to differentiate instruction for both the gifted student and the struggling student. She also has to strive to make a difference in the lives of students who often come to school emotionally needy. When a teacher doesn't have training, the easiest thing to do is to revert to what we know...teaching the way we were taught. And that just doesn't cut it today in a world that demands students who will graduate equipped to be productive, well-educated workers and citizens.

So, what will I do in this situation? I will continue to be skeptical about hiring candidates with alternative certification. For those I do decide to hire, I'll be sure that they work closely with a mentor teacher who can share effective teaching strategies and give day-to-day advice. I'll also send them to the excellent professional development sessions offered by our district and by the local technology consortium, and I won't shy away from giving honest feedback in both my informal and formal assessments. And in the end, I'll bank on the fact that working hard to master the science part of the teaching profession tends to create the spark that lets a little bit of the magic that is the art of teaching shine through.

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