This piece was originally posted here on May 5th 2006, in response to a Nicholas Kristof column. Mr Kristof has now written another column ($) suggesting we eliminate teacher certification--apparently anyone can do this job.
I've met many, however, who can't, and shouldn't. While it's true certification does not guarantee a good teacher, I've met many who've repeatedly failed basic competency tests. Many people don't know that Chancellor Joel Klein went to Albany to win the right to retain and hire such candidates.
Perhaps Mr. Kristof would like to have them teach his kids. But I don't want them teaching mine. Or yours.
I agree that tenure should not be automatic, as it's been in this city for the past thirty years. The idea of bonuses for teaching in high-needs schools may be a good one too.
Despite what studies say, I don't believe that teachers fail to improve after two years. I learned long ago to expect nothing of administrators, and I'm always learning better ways to deal with kids. You can't help but do that if you're paying attention. How many parents do a better job with their second child, or their second teenager, than with their first?
Generally, though, my response to Mr. Kristof hasn't changed at all, and here it is:
The Nice Man Cometh
Mr. S. came into our school with a doctorate in mathematics. That's right. A doctorate. I haven't got one, and I'm duly impressed by those things--I kid you not.
He could make the slide rule sing. He could calculate pi to the umpteenth decimal. He understood all that trig and calculus that eluded the likes of me in high school.
Mr. S. walked into his classroom, started writing on the board, and an egg mysteriously appeared on it. Pop! Just like that. Mr. S. turned and asked who threw the egg, but received no response. It was an inauspicious beginning, particularly for someone who'd gone through NYC's most recent response to the 30-year teacher shortage, the Teaching Fellows program.
So why, his AP pondered, couldn't this fellow teach? Perhaps it was that he could not relate to the kids. Perhaps it was that he had no sense of humor. Perhaps it was because he'd never been in front of 34 kids before. Who knows? But after repeated conferences, repeated suggestions, and repeated calls from irate parents, nothing changed.
A student of mine, a Spanish speaker with a nice personality, asked if I would talk to Mr. S. Apparently, she had always been good in math, but was failing his class. I found him in the teacher's cafeteria. He apologized profusely, as though I had some sort of authority over him (I did not, nor was I pretending to).
I tried to ask how we could help this girl, my student, and he looked like he was holding back tears. In fact, I wondered whether he was going to take the fork he had in his hand and suddenly drive it into his heart. Mr. S. looked like the unhappiest human being I'd set eyes on in some time.
I thanked Mr. S., hightailed it out of there, and later discovered that all the students in his class were failing. That's too much to attribute to juvenile delinquency, and I was sure at least one of his students was trying. My efforts to get my kid transferred to another teacher were in vain, unfortunately.
Why am I telling you this? Nick Kristof, op-ed writer for the New York Times, thinks that teacher certification is preventing ($) Colin Powell and Meryl Streep from becoming teachers. While that may be true, the fact is they have not expressed the remotest interest in this pursuit. Kristof is happy that women have other options (so am I), and feels that results in a decline in quality. He's right. But despite impressions to the contrary you may have gleaned from watching Sex in the City, women are not deserting the profession because they hate kids. The only way is to lure better teachers, regardless of sex, is to pay them. It works like a charm in Nassau County.
Furthermore, it's idiotic to suggest we'll draw better teachers by lowering standards. We need to cut the nonsense, rid ourselves of self-absorbed education professors who wouldn't know an urban high school if they worked across the street from it for twenty years, offer practical instruction, and raise standards.
How on earth is lowering standards going to get us better teachers? New York City's been doing precisely that for thirty years, and during that time it's gone from one of the best systems in the world to one of the worst.
We need people who actually know how to reach kids. Without that, all the doctorates in the world won't make a difference.
Lowering standards, unfortunately, does not draw Meryl Streep, or Colin Powell, Jr.
It draws Mr. S.
Do you want him teaching your kid?
Related: See Miss Malarkey's response, and thanks to Schools Matter for reminding me.