Educating Teachers – Does Failure Begin Here?

In the June 29 Mpls. Star-Tribune, two extensive editorials debated the notion that many new teachers in our local schools would be sponsored by Teach for America: public schools, charter schools…

The usual routes for teachers trained by Colleges of Education would not be judged by Teach for America, and these new teachers – who primarily have earned very high grades in getting their college or university degrees – would offer much better teaching to our K-12 children. Or they would not – said the other editorial.

What’s going on here? Are our schools failing with the ordinary or usual teachers: how badly or well are they doing – for whom? Who are these new teachers: are they “qualified?” To do what? Will they be better teachers? Or is this so much hype?

Here I’m speaking from the perspective of a Professor at the University of Minnesota, where I have been selected as “Teacher of the Year” in 2001, in the College of Liberal Arts. I also teach a course in Teaching as Dialogue: a book I also wrote. Just this Spring, I’ve been involved in the recently formed “Great Teachers” program.

And during the “money bubble” times we’re currently passing-out-of, there has been a virtual redefinition of students. Like Medicine (capitalized), students and patients have all been “converted” to “Consumers.” There are really no persons in this description which has sold so well during the money-bubble. And so there aren’t really any persons doing the teaching: increasingly removed from teaching…it used to be lectures from “yellowed” ancient lecture notes. But now it is using Power Point: where everyone gets to read the same notes, as the teacher talks – the notes don’t even need to be “memorized,” and the danger is that the teachers can easily memorize themselves as they are more thinking about their research interests and reputations, even as they may seem to “be there” as teachers.

What matters the University? Well, all the teacher/professors who train teachers, got their own degrees in such places. So the nature of the Schools of Education – which seem pretty distant from the rest of the University – ought to be examined. And, so far, at least, it hasn’t much arisen in this discussion. Except that Teach for America is “by-passing” them for their new teachers. (They’ll get “certified” by a program at Hamline University during their first two years of teaching.”) This leaves the question of teacher education: by whom, learning what, toward…? – all silent.

Well…we are in complicated times, swimming in somewhat stormy waves. My analysis is quite general: about the reputation or importance of teachers in these times of success meaning big cars, houses, big money. Teachers do O.K., middle-class salaries. And for many, tenure – a guaranteed job over the long hauls; unions to represent their interests. Not the most popular profession, or very attractive to our best students in higher education: for example, at the University of Minnesota where I work. But also at all other similar places, including the Harvard’s and Yale’s.

Except, these new teachers working for Teach for America are some of our best students: A to A+ grades. They wouldn’t have ever thought to go into teaching – except in the past few years. Several of my best students have only recently worked for Americorps, and find Teach for America very attractive. This is all new ground. Here I’m talking about Liberal Arts and Science students: the cream of our graduates, from here and other first rate universities: especially the most prestigious Ivy Leagues.

Who hasn’t made it in our schools? We want everyone to “do well,” we have repeated over and over. But the drop-out rates for the poor, ethnic, recent immigrants continue to defy our understanding, while the “others” are all doing very well, and on the road to success as we have been defining it.

Except, except, the new teachers-to-be seem to want all their students to do well: and maybe they’ll be able to help make that happen. It’s not just Teach for America, but the times which are bringing our best and brightest to try to live a more inclusive existence.

In a more meaningful world – meaning more than mere success – I think many students find their teachers remaining “in their heads” over the years, available for thought, rethinking, inspiration, and the idea of a growing future. Teachers are too important in everyone’s experience, not to be important in the world!

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