Dispatches from the supply side of teacher ed.

It’s advising season–two weeks of spending my non-classroom time dispensing my hard-won wisdom, such as it is, and lighting fires under the butts of students to make sure that they’re meeting their degree requirements, keeping their grades up, and making sure that they have a plan to get them through Baa Ram U. and off to new adventures with an undergraduate degree in History.  Officially, faculty endure advising weeks as a chore, but since the students who bother to make appointments and come see us are the ones pretty much on top of the game, it’s not that much work and in fact it’s kind of fun checking in with our advisees. 

I advise students who are just majoring in History, and those who are majoring in History and at the same time pursuing teacher licensure in social studies (what we call our History-SST track, short for Social Studies teaching).  That track is very demanding–aside from having at least a 3.0 grade point average, students need to take 24 credits of history and 24 credits of social science courses (economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, etc.) as well as all of the teacher training courses in the School of Education.  In the past year, a number–not all to be sure–but a noticable number of the best History-SST majors have sat down in my office and told me that they don’t like the direction of public secondary education, with all of the testing and the beating up on teachers in our public discourse.  Some of them hang it up and switch out of the SST track, while others just express concerns about ever being able to teach history in grades 7-12 with any degree of creativity or control over their course content.  Interestingly, most of the conversations I can recall along these lines in the past year or so have been with male students.    

I want to emphasize that these are not the marginal students–they’re some of the very best History-SST majors, the ones you’d like teaching your children and grandchildren someday.  They’re very aware of how educrat “school reformers” and some of the general public talk about them and their work with such contempt.  These are the wages of making teachers the only people responsible for the failures of K-12 education, friends.  We may be losing the very teachers we need the most.

0 thoughts on “Dispatches from the supply side of teacher ed.

  1. That is really painful to read. I’ve been teaching high school for 16 years and just finishing up my PhD, and the concerns and fears your students are expressing really resonate. It is beyond frustrating to have worked for years, for example, to create ways to use primary sources in my classroom and to write lectures that include an introduction to historiography and argument, only to be told that I need to be giving “common assessments,” otherwise known as lowest common denominator multiple choice tests so that teacher can be compared with teacher. I have said over and over again that I could give worksheets and “lecture” by reviewing what is in our simple, standards based text book and have my students do better on the standardized tests than they do now (assuming I could get them to actually try on those tests, which is a whole other issue…) However, they would not be able to think their way out of a paper bag.

    I am 100% in support of more teacher evaluation. Under the current system I’m evaluated for one hour every 4 years, and I find that absolutely shameful. The problem is, the powers that be are trying to do it on the cheap by quantifying a process that is not easily quantifiable. This whole “standards” and standardized testing regime may raise the level of the worst teachers a bit, but it’s pushing the profession into a mediocre middle.

    I have already had to concede that I have little choice over my content; now they are pushing me to dumb down my methods. As committed as I am to public education, I think more and more about applying to private schools…

    It’s really disheartening to read that some of the best students are seeing this out of the gate and choosing to leave the profession at a time when we need good people pretty desperately, but I can’t say they’re not wise to be reconsidering.


  2. yes, we are in the middle of advising season at Woebegone State University. I haven’t had as many conversations with our SSHT majors, because they are advised as cohort groups by one of my colleagues. But I certainly do have these students in my classes, and I know that there is some anxiety.

    I was talking with my colleague who heads up the SSHT program and he had some good news and bad news about our recent graduates. Our SSHT majors who graduate with a 3.8 or better are finding teaching jobs almost right away. But our students with 3.4 or lower have a much tougher time. They rarely end up with teaching jobs, or if they do, its after several years of searching.

    So our brightest students are finding work in the teaching profession. Unfortunately, hostility towards teachers is at an all time high. So we will see how long they stay in the profession. After having people call you nasty names, and cast doubt on your professional integrity its hard to maintain that enthusiasm.

    Its not like any of these students choose to become teachers for the money. The smart ones chose it because they were inspired by a teacher they respected who had a passion for their subject. The very best SSHT graduates want to pass that on to another generation of students. Lets hope they will have the chance.


  3. I’ve seen this happen, too. Last year, I taught required courses for both elementary and secondary ed folks, and some of my very best students either expressed great frustration or simply dropped out. They were engaged with their content areas and were passionate about teaching, but found the bureaucracy to be overwhelming.


  4. We have mandatory advising now. No release time to do it, of course.

    The number of students in our undergraduate program who already have a degree and are coming back for more us way up and they are trending younger. Post-baccalaureat students like this used to all be folks choosing to make a career change. Now I think many are here as a result of the economy. They are completing courses in order to qualify for our graduate program or looking for some skills that might help in the job market.

    There is a lot of strategic thinking going on about what to tuck in for their resumes. Also a lit of hanging on in a relatively safe space, wrt loans (until the day when they finally do leave).


  5. One of the things that kind of amazed me when I started teaching here–a good number of years after leaving the groves of the undergraduate academy, I should say–was how the role of the “advisor” had morphed into the role of the “scheduling assistant.” Our season goes on for more like four weeks, and is viewed as a chore because it is a chore. The process infantilizes more than a small percentage of students into assuming that you wait until mid-semester then go in and let your s.a. (I mean advisor) pick out course for you for the next semester. In my, arumph, day, the inability to quickly master the concept of a relatively permissive distribution-system curriculum would have gotten you advised out of school. There must have been some signatures required, but I don’t remember using up more than twenty minutes of advisor time in four years, before it was time to go ask what this “graduate school” stuff was all about.

    But the more I looked at it the more I saw that the curricular corn maze that dazes and confuses a lot of our students is really a product of faculty choices. Our students aren’t required to, but essentially the system induces almost all of them to, declare their majors right after they drop off their rented outfits for their senior proms. Each department/discipline learns early on what its cut of the incoming herd is, and that they’ll be with us for four/five years. In that context, it’s practically impossible for faculty to NOT conclude that virtually everything we *can* teach they *should* take. This creates system-wide curricular gridlock, and I think an underexplored cause of the trend toward five and six year college stays is the ramping up of major requirements. If you decide after three semesters that geoscience isn’t for you after all, you’re looking at probably seven or more semesters in whatever you try next, just to satisfy the requirements in economics, or history for that matter. So for the s.a.’s (I mean the faculty), the middle part of each semester is occupied with check-lists, check-offs, graduation eligibility check-outs, and what not.

    On the Social Science Ed. side of the equation, I cringe at the relentless wallpapering of our bulletin boards with notices about “Fingerprinting Opportunities” (for background checks), the need for student teachers to buy into state mandated group liability *malpractice* insurance pools before they set foot in a public school, (I mean, come on, student teacher malpractice?), “mandatory” 8 p.m. cohort meetings, and the customary blizzard of advisories from alphabet soup standards-setting, certificating, and racketeering agencies. They also may take their education courses in the Ed. school at Baa Ram U., but here, a lot of that stuff goes on in the disciplinary “content shops” like ours, where it emphatically doesn’t belong.


  6. I’m somewhat encouraged by the fact that you have so many men on the teaching track, Historiann, even if they are almost heading out of the field. From what I’ve heard, men are sorely lacking in education.

    As for the larger point, I’m somewhere in the middle on this issue. I support the initiatives to be hard on teachers. Bad teachers are out there (I had several) and a year in a bad/ineffective teacher’s class is a year wasted and given that so much of education is cumulative, that year wasted is compounded. Moreover, bad teachers are often clumped together at the worst schools with the students who need the most help and have the least access to outside resources. So on that end, I support Michelle Rhee’s ruthless approach to this. I also had outstanding teachers and the difference is immense.

    On the other hand, there are two aspects that seem to be prominent in education reform these days that I dislike. I think the emphasis on testing in reading and math does everyone a disservice. It hampers the teachers who are trying to teach creatively and develop critical thinking. It dumbs down the curriculum. It wastes class time if you’re in a school district, as I was, where the year-end tests happen almost a full two months before the end of the school year. And it makes irrelevant several subjects that I believe are critical to education: languages, art, music, history, PE (although I do recognize the problems with PE), and even the sciences (which likely suffer due to an intense focus on math testing). As hard as I am on teachers who are wasting children’s time, I don’t think testing is the way to determine this. Not only don’t I think these two subjects are the end-all be-all of education, but bad teachers in rich districts are going to fly under the radar b/c their students had access to all the resources in the world, while good teachers in bad districts are going to be out the door because hungry and/or poor students struggle with reading.

    My second problem is with charter schools. Although there are several who do good work and I support parents trying to get their children into charter schools if the public school they’re districted to is wretched, charter schools simply cannot replace public schools and I think any attempt to reform schools must be focused on fixing public schools rather than sending a select few children to charter schools. I’m not wildly optimistic that’s going to happen, just as I’m not wildly optimistic that teachers are going to get the significant salary raises that I think are necessary to attract the best and brightest into the profession. But hey, I can dream.


  7. Regarding charter schools:

    I had similar concerns as thefrogprincess and then I was hired at one (only job going in a 40 mile radius). It is located in a district where teachers have 35+ students in their classes (only the senior level AP classes have 20-29 students) and where money is grossly mismanaged. At my school, we cap our classes at 25 (as per the charter). This is huge, but still not what makes the biggest difference in my school. The best part of teaching where I do is we run a ‘site based decision model’ which essentially means we all get an equal say on everything (we have two administrators who, like me, have one vote each). We do have some long meetings looking at our budget, line item by line item, but I have to say, taking a 5% pay cut this year felt a lot better when I was informed and had a vote. Every decision we make begins with the question ‘what is best for kids?’ and from there we delve into the various issues we have to face. It was best for kids that we take a 5% pay cut rather than cut out part of our curriculum and/or add 5 kids to each of our classes (it is also best for teachers…which worked out nicely).

    Teachers are treated like professionals in my building and therefore I do not have to teach to a test nor do I have to tailor my curriculum to what some out of touch administrator thinks I should be teaching. I change things up regularly and am able to teach skills (like analyzing primary sources and making arguments with them).

    Charter schools are public schools and as such are first come first serve. You are right however that our students’ parents are more aware and proactive- which already gives them a step up.

    I don’t know what exactly the answer is- however if educrats let teachers do their job, not only would they have a far more empowered group, they’d see massive improvements in kids achievement. More stupid tests aren’t the freakin’ answer.

    I wish there were more schools like mine…I love my job.


  8. I am amazed at the absence of anger and outrage at what is done to teachers. Attacking teachers originated from the same source that supports banks, the grand larceny that the health insurance companies perpetrate, etc.


  9. RE: Indyanna

    For my undergrad, I had about 30 credits dictated by the university in distribution requirements, another 30 decided by my major, and then 60 to do whatever I wanted with (where one course = 3 credits, more or less). I ended up taking a lot of random courses (accounting, formal logic, Turkish) which didn’t have much to do with my major, but were enormously useful. Especially the accounting, understanding the basic principles makes so many things make sense.

    So you can imagine my shock when I found that the school where I got my MA dictates basically 100% of their undergrads courses- each major has a sheet that tells them what they will take each semester for four years. They have a little extra room in there if they want to do a minor, but basically they have no choice about their eduction. The school where I’m doing my PhD is a little better. They dictate about 80% of the courses. This is good for the history department, because every undergrad has to take history 101 and 102, but I can’t imagine it’s good for the students.

    I don’t know. I always thought students were supposed to be primarily responsible for their own educations. It does seem like we’re putting too much on the teachers and the schools at every level and not enough on the students.


  10. My department recently changed our undergraduate curriculum to be more prescribed than it had been in the past. The old view was that students were building a foundation in the first three years leading to a sort of bouquet of more specialized electives in the senior year. This didn’t work so well in the sense that students put off taking some of the challenging third year classes until their fourth year. Part of our move to a more structured curriculum was an attempt to route students in ways that build and use knowledge in a beneficial way. Also, turf wars. Everybody thinks their specialization is the one true thing.


  11. I see a lot of fantastic students drop out of our concurrent B.Ed. (B.A./B.S. in subject & B.Ed in five years) and many seem seriously disillusioned about teaching. I don’t think it’s the classroom experience (though they do start getting that fairly early in the program) so much so as they realize that they’ll be micromanaged and powerless in some school situations.

    That said, right now there are no jobs for our recently graduated teachers unless they have a teachable in math or science or they’re willing to relocate to somewhere in and around the Arctic Circle.


  12. As to the gender issue, high school history teachers are overwhelmingly male. That’s not a surprise.

    As a ten year veteran of the high school social studies trench, I think it’s safe to say the following to your charges:

    “You won’t get paid a lot, you won’t get a lot of respect from society, and standardized tests are here to stay. BUT, if you’re good at what you do, none of that will matter because your students will talk about you positively years after the fact.”

    Even though I singing in the same chorus about everything you complained about in your post, I’ve also found that keeping the quality of my teaching very high gave me a certain amount of latitude with admin, and I leveraged that latitude to enhance my students’ in-class experiences with history.

    Standardized tests will come and go, but a teacher’s classroom is still a place of tremendous flexibility.


  13. Pingback: Saturday's Blogger Works Hard For A Living - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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