A Tale Of Three Teachers


The young teacher started right off making a rookie mistake in the opening minutes of his first class, on his very first day. “How many of you know what a liter is?” he asked his high school math class. “Give me a thumbs up if you know, thumbs down if you don’t.” None of the kids responded, so he entreated, “Come on, I just need to know where you are. Thumbs up if you know, thumbs down if you don’t.”

An experienced teacher would not have asked students to volunteer their ignorance. An experienced teacher might have held up an empty milk carton and asked someone to identify it. Once someone had said, “that’s a quart of milk,” the veteran might have pulled out a one-gallon container to be identified. Only then would she have shown them a liter container, explaining that most countries in the world use a different measuring system, et cetera.

But the rookie didn’t know any better. He’d graduated from Yale that spring, had a few weeks of training that summer, thanks to Teach for America, and then was given his own classroom.

Another first year teacher made a rookie mistake in the spring. “How many of you dislike poetry,” he asked his high school seniors? “How many of you really hate poetry?” When most of the hands went up, he announced, “That’s going to change, because I am going to turn you into poetry lovers.” With that simple — and stupid — declaration, the rookie had made it all about himself, not about the poems. He had challenged his class on personal terms, making it an ego trip for himself, not an educational journey for his students.

Matters never really improved for the first rookie that year, and he was not invited back for a second year. I was the second rookie. I taught for two years and then moved on, but it wasn’t until years later that I recognized how counterproductive my approach to that poetry unit was.

So what’s the point? Rookies make rookie mistakes? Or is it that teachers need serious training (I had none whatsoever, not even the equivalent of a TFA summer) before taking over classrooms?

This brings me to the third teacher in this short essay, a young woman I observed doing a bang up job of teaching first graders to read. She seemed to have all the moves down, phonemic awareness, chunking, words that must be memorized (like ‘the’) because they don’t follow the rules, and so forth. Her first graders were reading confidently and competently. We made a piece about it, for the NewsHour:

I knew that she had completed a five-year program at a reputable state university, giving her both a bachelor’s and a master’s in elementary education and a certificate to teach. In short, she had it all.

Or did she? “That’s where you learned how to teach reading,” I stated as a half-question. “No,” she responded emphatically! “They never said a word about phonics in any of my classes. I had to learn all of that here, on the job.”

I was dumbfounded and disbelieving, but a search of that education school’s course syllabus and a phone call to a now-retired professor there confirmed what she had said. Phonics was barely acknowledged. Apparently the reading wars continue, at least on that campus, with ‘whole language’ still planted firmly in the saddle.

Given a choice between bad training and little or none, what is one to do? And if that’s the choice right now, what can we do to change the odds? Let me suggest it’s time for a 180-degree turn. We need to make it more difficult to become a teacher, which we could do by raising standards for admission into training programs and then providing one-year apprenticeships before teachers are given their own classrooms.

How are we going to raise the bar for entering the teaching profession?

The first change — tougher admission standards — applies to virtually every school and college of education: Raise the bar for getting into the profession. Improve programs by weeding out professors who are still waging old battles. Do much more of the training in real schools and real classrooms.
(Some schools and colleges of education are already going down this road, including Arizona State, Michigan, Berkeley, and Teachers College. All led by women, by the way. Add to that list Stanford, which was, until recently, also led by a woman.)

The second change — a one-year apprenticeship — applies to TFA, which already has remarkably high admission standards to its two-year program. But it’s the rare individual who can take over a class after a few weeks of summer training and be genuinely effective. Even successful TFA teachers often admit that much of their first year was a wash, at best. What if TFA were a three-year program, with the first year being an apprenticeship? Would that produce better teaching and also help TFA weed out the ambitious ones seeking largely to punch up their resumés?

As I say, I think the country needs to make a U-turn. Because most schools of education have low admission standards, it’s far too easy to become a teacher. And because many of our policies and practices are hyper-critical, and even punitive, toward teachers, it’s now very difficult to be a teacher.

It will take a concerted effort on the part of governors and university presidents to make it harder to become a teacher. Governors have to be convinced of the economic and political benefits of having their constituents’ children taught by skilled professionals. I fear that the leadership at many universities is comfortable with the ‘cash cow’ aspect of their education programs, which take in more than they spend. What sort of pressure would be required to get them to change?

But making those changes seems like a walk in the park compared to what it would take to do to reverse our current ‘blame the teacher’ approach. Making it easier for today’s teachers to teach won’t happen unless and until we come to our senses. Does anyone see that happening soon?

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16 thoughts on “A Tale Of Three Teachers

  1. John Well thought out, well constructed and well written piece. This is the key issue in instructional quality.


  2. This is a much needed look at real questions about what we are and should be doing to prepare people to teach today. I thought it interesting that just before I read this, I saw a review if a recent book by Pasi Sahlberg called, Finnish Lessons which examines very closely the teacher preparation system (and it is a system) in Finland that has contributed to their much-heralded success. The author notes not only the tremendous distinctions between American and Finnish teacher preparation, but also the other factors (e.g., lower poverty rates, 98% of Finnish children attend preschool, etc.).

    We’ve gone too far in the direction of seeing how little preparation we can give people before sending them to teach, particularly sending them to teach in our most challenging schools. I’m glad to see some serious discussion of the need to reverse that trend and take preparation for the profession of teaching more seriously, and those ideas are starting to come from a wider spectrum of stakeholders. Some of your suggestions are echoed in recent reports and calls from various groups, such as the Blue Ribbon Commission of NCATE (now CAEP) and most recently from the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. [Disclosure: I served on both]. Support for these ideas is building slowly, but it does exist at national and state levels. I think it will take more parent pressure to get policymakers to put the necessary resources and changes in place, but the good news is–it can be done.


    • I agree with everything except the final sentence about ‘parent pressure’. Somehow we have to get outside that small circle (only 20% of homes have school-age children). I have written about the need to “energize the 80,” meaning the 80% who don’t have school age kids. That group needs to understand the importance of a well-educated populace. Maybe remind them that those kids will be putting $$ into the social security system–or not–depending in large part on what happens to them in school.


  3. As I come to the end of my own teaching career (I have put in for retirement at the end of the school year), I come back again to points I have made time and time again about teaching.

    It is wonderful that TFA has bright kids wanting to serve. But that’s not enough. The only one of student teachers who totally failed was a 4.0 junior Phi Beta Kappa winner who simply could not grasp that the kids he had to deal with did not have the same excitement for his subject that he did – he said it was their fault, whereas it was really his unwillingness to meet them where they are.

    We already have too many institutions certifying teachers on behalf of states. It is possible to become certified without ever having student taught, which is insane.

    We need to recruit better, to be sure. But it is not merely about bright students from good colleges. It is about people who care about and connect with the kids they will have. It does no good to be brilliant on your topic, even excited about it, if you don’t like the age group of your kids or their culture is totally alien to you and you are unwilling to learn from them.

    We need to prepare our teacher better. That includes supervised teaching with the chance to learn from one’s inevitable errors.

    We need to induct and mentor better. We cannot merely hire, give a brief introduction to school, school system, and assigned curriculum then turn the teacher loose in her own classroom.

    We need peer support. We need teachers to have the chance to have other video them so they can see what they are doing, both good and bad.

    We need to provide time to be reflective. I would find it hard to imagine having started in the school where I am ending my career, where at times I have had almost 190 students in my 6 classes. There was literally no time during the day to reflect, to share with other teachers.

    But instead of learning from the experience of teachers we now recognize as good or even excellent, we are imposing practices designed for purposes other than reaching the kids, helping them learn, not merely prepare to do better on tests that serve little educational purpose.

    In the process there are people like me – senior teachers who could still continue – who are being encouraged to leave so our salaries can be divided up among two young teachers. We hear from the man who has done more to harm education than anyone, Bill Gates, that teachers don’t need Masters degrees, that after 3-5 years they effectively don’t improve. He is wrong, but someone his billions lend his words the weight of “authority” they do not deserve, drowning out the voices of those like one superb teacher who has already written on this thread, Renee Moore.

    Thanks for what you are trying to do, John. I fear, however, that like the efforts of many of us who have tried to change the discussion, those driving educational policy will ignore them.


  4. John! I mostly agree!

    Student teaching is crucial, and I believe every new teacher should have to do it. Period. The other stuff is good too, but the experience is the only way to figure out what to do–like all my lawyer friends tell me, and my doctor friends too.

    I also think that teaching is not rocket science, and a potential teacher’s ability to relate to kids is the most important factor in being a successful teacher–especially in the lower grades.

    I can get on board with this post, in the main.


  5. Sometimes it’s better to just be direct in blogs and teaching. It would have saved readers a lot of time and your point would not have been lost on anyone if you had simply said, Teach for America sucks.


    • That’s not what I was saying….Perhaps that what you would like me to say, but that’s not the point here. Sorry…


  6. I am not a teacher.

    As a parent of four, however, I would comment that one should never ask children a question that can be answered with a negative. Who dislikes math, or likes history, will always be a disaster. Do you want to read poetry. duh.

    Teaching probably implies leadership combinined with a lot of training and experience. Parenting seems hard enough. Hats off to teachers.


  7. PS most of us dyslexics couldn’t care less about phonics. Dyslexics aren’t wired for such. See, for example, Shaywitz.

    From our perspective, English is a highly irregular language only worthy of memorization or Whole Language.

    That being said, phonics sounds good for the rest of you.


  8. John, you are too hard on yourself. Those “rookie” mistakes certainly made a boring subject interesting and challenging. The subject matter became likable as the material be ame understNdBlemwhn presented in a different perspective. One of the hallmarks of good teaching (iam a lifelong consumer, first me, then my children, never a practitioner), in my experience is someone who is not afraid to risks in experimenting how to reach children. There is no one size fits all approach that. n work. The human brain and mind are wired in just too many different ways.

    I believe the institutions of higher education need to be held more accountable for preparing teachers. Then the new teachers need to be supported throughout their careers. New teachers can find entering a workplace filled with veteran staffs to be very intimIdating especially when trying to apply some new or different

    Making systemic change is difficult even in an accepting environment. Even more difficult in one where a standard response from parents and practitioners alike is “if it was good enough for me, it is good enough for my kids”

    Hats off to those willing to go with their guts until something better comes along.

    The influence of teachers cannot be understated enough. Just think of high they could read if properly prepared. But then that assumes that teaching can be taught when perhaps they are just born that way. Is there a coach out there now who could make another Michael Jordan? Not likely. But there are coaches who get their teams to do as good as they can and overachieve individually and as a unit.


  9. Take a look at the success of schools that offer teacher induction programs. In Northern Va., the Apple FCU Education Foundation provides financial support to 9 school districts that provide a comprehensive approach to teacher induction.


  10. In concert with raising the admission standards for entry into the teaching field, pressure will need to be applied to raise the compensation on the whole as well. The main reason TFA participants only Teach For Awhile, is that they won’t settle for the salary paid for beginning teachers or the lifetime earnings either. If is kind of a chicken and an egg conundrum here, can increased entrance standards lead to increased pay? Or can increased pay back up the increased standards?


    • It’s a researchable question, isn’t it? Aren’t charter schools now setting their salary schedules, paying teachers in some fields more? While such a study might not meet rigid research criteria, surely some case studies would provide insights.


  11. As someone who is looking to become a teacher, I agree with a lot of what you say here, except for one thing. You say “What if TFA were a three-year program, with the first year being an apprenticeship? Would that produce better teaching and also help TFA weed out the ambitious ones seeking largely to punch up their resumés?”

    That’s not TFA’s goal. They love the kids who are just seeking to punch up their resumes. That’s why it’s only a 2 year program. They have no incentive to weed those applicants out.


  12. Hi John,
    I like your idea about energizing the 80%. I mentioned this concept to my boss who then wanted me to fact check this percentage. I’ve been searching, but haven’t come across much information about this data point. Can you direct me to your source for this fact?

    Percentages aside, this concept has really helped us stretch our thinking about who the educational stakeholders are, how this affects our programming, and how we can “bring more people into the tent.”



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