[Last in the series, I’ve driven myself mad with this topic]
Before I begin complaining again, I want to open with a few administrative points about the barriers to entering teaching as a profession, especially considering the persistent media narrative about an American teacher shortage and that narrative’s relationship with alternative certification programs like my own.
1. The Teacher Shortage, if one exists
To start with, I am skeptical of the common answer that low pay drives the shortage. The median K-12 school teacher makes about 1.5x more than the median American and falls close in line with the typical pay for those with 4-year degrees. Even in Mississippi, one of the lower paying states, the *minimum* teacher salary of around $35,000 outstrips the state’s median per-capita income of about $25,000. The data are clear: teachers make above-average incomes nationwide. Bluntly, I think that talk of low pay has more to do with its partisan political salience than the actual finances. Plenty of lower-income people would take a pay raise to move into teaching if they could, which brings me to the next issue.
I suspect that the larger barrier for new teachers comes from the regulatory restrictions built into the licensing process. Consider what I had to do through the alternative certification program in my own relatively lax state:
Step 1) I paid hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket to take multiple licensure exams provided by an education company which profits off a state-sanctioned monopoly. Yeah, I get the moral hazard problem of free and unlimited test attempts, but why so expensive? I also had pay for additional trainings for emergency health interventions like CPR.
Step 2) I enrolled in a graduate level, 17 credit-hour license acquisition program at a state university that took three semesters and cost thousands of dollars. As I have complained throughout this series and as I will continue to complain down the page, this program was of the lowest academic quality, even at a well-ranked school. I declined to continue through to a master’s degree.
Step 3) I completed a one-semester observation practicum and 10-week student teaching internship at a public high school, concurrent with the university coursework above. The internship functioned like a full-time, unpaid job: my mentor teacher adopted a “throw you into the deep end” mentality and left me alone in the classroom for most of the day, meaning that I completed the “experience” with minimal assistance or oversight.
Step 4) I passed another qualifying assessment, the EdTPA. Clocking in at something like 50 pages of written material supplemented by several class periods of videotaping, the process was onerous. Like most standardized qualitative assessments though, I felt that it had no bearing on my actual knowledge, skills, or interests — I just vomited out embellished nonsense that reflected the requirements in the 15 (!) rubrics to satisfy graders. Along with the already expensive licensing tests, students in some states and programs have to pay another $300 dollars out-of-pocket to submit their assessment.
Step XYZ) I continued to work as a part-time tutor to pay for it all.
That’s a lot. I could only get it done because I was lucky enough to live with my parents and had modest savings from previous jobs. If I didn’t have money, and didn’t have the familial support to forgo *a year* of full-time income, I could never have acquired a license. In other words, the certification process effectively locks the educated poor out of the teaching profession unless they had already pursued an undergraduate degree in education. I imagine that those states which complain of teacher shortage could rapidly increase labor participation simply by relaxing certification requirements: dump the busy-work EdTPA, reduce the cost of licensing exams, shorten or eliminate the university coursework, and (I can only dream) pay student-teaching interns a small stipend.
Of course, I can already hear guildish apparatchiks huffing about my proposal to cut the university out of the certification process. Don’t we need educated teachers? Yes, teachers should at least have a college degree in their content area of instruction. However, that does not necessarily mean that they need an education in education, especially as long as the pedagogical quality of teacher training programs such as my own remains so appalling.
2. Some concluding thoughts on teacher education
As I have complained many times through this series, the scholarly rigor of my certification program was pathetic. Most course “readings” were fact sheets, blog posts, infographics, podcasts, and short videos. Professors would often reference favored theorists like Vygotsky or Freire but assign none of their writings. Beyond the unhelpful textbook on “critical social justice” (discussed in a previous post), the main three-semester course included only one scholarly paper and one book, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, which I suspect the professor selected for its anti-racist cachet following the George Floyd protests rather than its relevance to education (because it has almost none). The supplemental courses in literacy, developmental psychology, educational sociology, and teaching methods relied on minor lectures supplemented with a handful of think-tank policy papers and more short videos or podcasts (The near content-less literacy course was especially awful. Only the sociology course based itself on academic readings).
In terms of my own production, I wrote just one academic essay through the whole program, a short, lazy piece on civics education for the sociology course that nonetheless required me to engage with relevant materials. Other assignments were slapdash-trivial, graded-on-completion wastes of time, such as:
- Quizzes designed for nothing but bureaucratic compliance, with questions like the following (modified for anonymity): “Open the Task 1 Planning section of your edTPA handbook. What must you include in your Central Focus?”
- A project to drive around the town where I student-taught taking pictures, assembled into a slideshow of “community assets.”
- Forced reflection discussions on what “surprised you” from the course materials. However, with such insubstantial and off-topic readings, I could never find much to say.
- Awkward “simulations” in which I recorded myself pretending to teach to a blank computer screen, with subsequent reflections. Awful. Pointless. Nothing to reflect on.
- An Instagram post.
- Not much better, a program-long autobiographical / reflective blogging project which took time away from this more fun blog. I already deleted it, so don’t ask.
- Additional weepy “critical” (as in critical social justice) autobiographical essays of varying lengths, redundantly required for multiple courses.
I learned close to nothing doing any of that but received straight A’s through the program regardless.
At risk of creeping into a culture war dispute, I also feel that I can’t avoid mention of the goofy anti-racist curriculum, which comprised maybe half of the program. Courses covered bizarre, racist-in-its-own-way junk like the below, lifted off a slide from my Teaching Methods course:
Uhhhhhhh… yeah, remember what I wrote about sloppy critical social justice scholarship in part 4? This is what I meant. If you will excuse my white supremacist emphasis on the “written word,” let’s see where this came from. The citation at the bottom of the slide refers to one of a series of activist workbooks used in “Dismantling Racism” trainings (for example, the 2016 book linked here). In its description of the characteristics, the book itself simply states that it is “based on the work of Daniel Buford,” a trainer at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. However, without additional citation to any specific works from Buford, I cannot pursue the reference any further.
Unverifiable sources: bad scholarship.
Let’s turn to Okun’s 2010 dissertation instead because, like Buford, I can find nothing published in Jones’ name. Page 29 includes a list of characteristics almost identical to that in the training book, with the following description of their origin:
“Sometime in the mid 1990s, I [Okun] arrived home after a particularly frustrating consultation with an organization I was working with at the time. In a flurry of exasperation, I sat down at my computer and typed, the words flowing of their own accord into a quick and dirty listing of some of the characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in organizational behavior. The paper I wrote in such a frenzy on that afternoon so many years ago lists 15 behaviors, all of them interconnected and mutually reinforcing.” [The list then follows]
Worse than bad scholarship. Okun made it up on the spot, in “a flurry” and “a frenzy.” An abso-lute-ly stunning admission in something that aspires to analysis, but then again Okun’s methodology section defines such dilute approaches as “engaging in first-person story-telling,” “conducting a kind of world traveling,” and “reflecting the voices of the literally hundreds of workshop participants [from anti-racism trainings].” Individual, unreproducible, undocumented except from memory – everything good research is not. But hey, remember – objectivity is white supremacy. How convenient for a scholar to consider entreaties to rigor immoral!
Anyway, why did this work become a key feature in an accredited teacher training program run by PhD’s and EdD’s at a respected university? My first impulse leaps straight to unreasoned ad hominem — to call them all morons who don’t check their sources. But, like Okun at the time of writing, I’ve been a frustrated, exasperated, frenzied mess this whole past year so you might do best to ignore me.
Back on topic though, what does slide above have to do with teaching methods?
Damn near nothing.
If you can believe it gets worse, I have to mention one last thing: one course included a stupid drawing assignment (similar to the one below) which, before I enrolled in the program, I assumed was some kind of SJW cartoon made up by right-wing provocateurs like Ben Shapiro. Nope, they’re real, the professor really did suggest that we draw it to plan our autobiographical essay, and we used them in ~ graduate school ~
I don’t know what to say other than that doing such an activity with educated adults is unserious. I already know who I am and do not need to draw it on a wheel.
On that topic, my primary criticism of the program relates to the inordinate amount of time devoted to solipsistic self-reflection rather than learning. The autobiographical blog, the reflection discussions, the simulation reflections, the “critical autobiographies,” and the reflection commentary on the final EdTPA assessment comprised the bulk of the program’s content, even in topics unrelated to the diversity trainings. We looked deeper and deeper into ourselves to find insight into education rather than seeking out the knowledge of experienced practitioners or scholars (not that I expect to find much good in the education scholarship, part 3). And what could we even find in ourselves? When asked for the umpteenth time to “reflect on XYZ’s impact on my teaching philosophy” I snapped and argued that, as someone who has yet to become a teacher and has read little educational philosophy (because we were assigned none), on what sturdy basis could I establish my own? The professor scolded my skepticism and stated that teachers must produce a philosophy to orient themselves in their work.
Ok, fine. But I didn’t pay thousands of dollars to look into a mirror.