Time To Become A Professional Teacher

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Few people doubt that teaching is a profession that requires certain skills and is useful to society; yet, few teachers feel they are viewed as professionals. To solve this public-image problem, most states have increased the number of requirements an individual must fulfill in order to become a public-school teacher. But, unfortunately, in the mad rush to enhance the professional image of educators, school boards have created a program for first-year teachers that is, paradoxically, both inadequate and overwhelming.

As all new teachers know, in the first year of teaching you receive a two-year, non-renewable provisional certificate. In most states, to obtain certification, you must first take the National Teacher Examinations, enroll in a certain number of education courses, and, at least in Virginia, be evaluated in the classroom by your principal, vice principal, and three outside observers. These observations take place in the first semester of your first year of teaching.

The first requirement I fulfilled was the N.T.E.. I do not believe in standardized testing, but I understand why most educators feel a teacher's exam is essential if teachers are to be treated as professionals. After all, lawyers and doctors have their tests, so why not teachers?

I had to do many things to prepare for this test: set aside two weekends, spend a large sum of money, and travel. I did not have to study, which made me doubtful about the extent to which passing the Core Battery Test would usher me into a profession.

Unfortunately, neither the Virginia Department of Education nor the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., keeps an account of the pass/fail rate on the N.T.E. and each state sets its own minimum score.

In Virginia, according to the 1986-87 N.T.E. Bulletin of Information, the minimum scores for the Core Battery Test are so low that only 10 percent of the test-takers across the country would fail to meet the standard. That's a 90 percent passing rate. For the Virginia bar exam, in contrast, the highest passing rate I could find for any one testing period was 80 percent. The average was 63 percent.

Thus, not only is the N.T.E. expensive and time-consuming for first-year teachers, it also fails to serve its purpose: to establish professional standards in the field of education. If almost everyone makes the grade, then, in truth, there really isn't a grade.

First-year teachers should be required to pass an examination related to their profession before they are allowed to enter the school system, and I feel this requirement does enhance the professional status of educators. However, for the test to serve its purpose, both the community and the teachers themselves must feel that passing the N.T.E. is a real achievement. After all, what is a professional, if not someone who professes to know something most of us do not?

Ironically, the leniency of the N.T.E. is strikingly dissimilar to the rigorous demands of a first-year teacher's schedule. The daily lesson plan is a source of tremendous anxiety. Weekends soon become essential, not for the rest, but for the large clumps of time a teacher needs in order to organize a week's worth of assignments for four separate classes. All public-school teachers have to go through this phase, but now, unfortunately, new teachers must also confront a host of other demands--the most disruptive and illogical of these being teacher evaluations.

Teachers should be evaluated, but not in the first 10 weeks of their first semester of teaching. I can hardly call my adventures during my first two months in front of a high-school class "teaching.'' Yet, during that period, because of Virginia's Beginning Teacher Assistance Program, I was scheduled to be observed five times. That's an average of once every two weeks. Granted, the evaluators wait until October to begin their observations, but in many ways that only makes matters worse. Then the average becomes five observers in five weeks.

Having a stranger come in once a week disrupts a class's learning pattern. While being observed, you tend to exaggerate the teacher-student relationship--giving excessive praise, making exaggerated eye contact, and oversimplifying your lesson plan. For a first-year teacher, who has not yet solidified a consistent relationship with either her class or her teaching materials, this inconsistency can be truly disconcerting--even destructive.

A more positive approach would be for first-year teachers to be observed in their second semester and the results of this observation period used for diagnostic purposes. The official observation could then take place a year later, giving the instructor a chance to establish a teaching pattern that is worth evaluating. As things now stand, first-year teachers must perform like monkeys before the observers: mimicking the actions the observers want to see, instead of learning these actions as skills.

It takes a while to hone good teaching skills, and first-year teachers are not being given the time they need to become the professionals society expects them to become.

All doctors, college professors, and lawyers are given three to six years to establish themselves before they start their own practices, go up for tenure, or are admitted to firms. Public-school teachers have only two years to fulfill testing, observation, and course requirements. Two years to become professionals!

The end result is all show. Our school system now includes all these licensed teachers who are not teachers at all. After two years, they're still "interning.'' Students know that. Fellow teachers know that. As one of those first-year teachers, I know that. So, the present licensing process fails to enhance the professional image of teachers, and creates an unbearable two-year schedule for first-year educators. I say educators, because I know that after 10 months in a classroom I have no right to claim that I am a professional teacher. Perhaps I am on my way to that distinguished position, but I am most certainly not there yet. I need more time.

Vol. 06, Issue 38, Page 24

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