Teaching Profession

‘We’re Looking at Something That America Hasn’t Faced Before’

September 04, 1985 9 min read

Q: Professionalizing the teaching force seems to be a priority for both the N.E.A. and the American Federation of Teachers this year. What needs to be done to accomplish that goal?

A: I think several things need to take place and some of them are already under way. The total upgrading of the profession through better training and better certification has to take place, and we’re working very closely with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, as well as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the new Holmes Group, to try to upgrade the training and the qualifications of those who enter the teaching force.

I also think we have to look very closely at what salaries will be, especially in light of trying to attract new people into the profession, addressing the teacher shortage, and then keeping teachers in. We have to look at the conditions under which teachers work-conditions which today are not such that they encourage people to want to come in, to be involved in the process and to stay in the process.

Here, I am speaking specifically about the fact that teachers are so isolated. We really don’t get a chance to work together. We need to change that, so that we have more of an opportunity to come together and talk about the mission of education, about who comes in and who stays in the profession, about curriculum, textbooks, the way the schools are structured, and about discipline and homework.

We have to look at the whole issue of whether teachers are going to be partners in education or continue to be the people on the sidelines. I don’t think we will accomplish much in the way of professionalizing teaching if we continue along the latter route.

Q: Is there anything the N.E.A. will be doing in the next year that specifically promotes professionalization of the teaching force?

A: Let’s go back and look at what we did in 1982, because we said way back then that we did not believe current teacher-training programs adequately prepared young people to come into the profession. At that time, we put out our report, “Teacher Education: A Plan for Excellence.” But when we came out with that document it got very little coverage. Now, three years later, it is the hottest issue on the education stove.

Beyond that, we are advocating that teachers be paid a professional wage, a starting salary of $24,000, so that we can attract young people into the profession.

There is also the whole concept of restructuring the schools. Part of our new ‘Mastery in Learning Project’ is designed to teach teachers how to be more directly involved in the whole education and decisionmaking process.

And we are trying to make sure that people outside the profession understand what teachers deal with on a day-to-day basis, so that they are more knowledgeable about teachers and what teaching is all about. We’re working with the P.T.A., we’re working with many civic groups, we’re working more closely with business, we’re working with Congress, the politicians, to try to make sure that decisions about teaching are made in an educationally sound way.

I think another effort to upgrade the profession took place this summer when we voted to do two things. First, to support more rigorous certification requirements-that teachers have a high grade-point average, 2.5 or better, have successfully completed a student-teaching experience, and have passed a pedagogical subject-matter test. Second, we said not only should you do all that before becoming a teacher, but having entered the profession, teachers should grow professionally and be evaluated annually. Those evaluations should be used to help teachers maintain the highest level of knowledge in the profession.

All of that was designed to be a comprehensive package to upgrade and maintain the highest standards in the classroom.

Q: How do you reconcile the apparent contradiction between the N.E.A.’s past decade of ‘union’ strategies and this new emphasis on professionalism? Aren’t collective bargaining and political action at odds with professionalism?

A: If I want to change the way teachers are trained in Virginia, I have to use my political skills to lobby the General Assembly. I have to lobby the state board. I have to work with the higher-education council. I have to work with the P.T.A. And I have to work with my own members.

Collective bargaining and professionalism are complementary. Collective bargaining is probably the most viable vehicle that teachers have in influencing the decisionmaking process. As I look back over the years of using collective bargaining in Alexandria, speaking from my own personal experience, we often bargained to improve the quality of education for the children and for the professional growth of the teachers-we negotiated preparation time for elementary teachers, a teacher-evaluation procedure, a district-wide discipline code, and we placed a reading teacher in each school just to work with children who were behind in their reading.

So we’re not going to diminish the emphasis on bargaining and political action. I tell the members that this is the time to see how sophisticated and how good they really are in the bargaining arena and the political arena.

But we do have to keep in front of us why we are doing all that we are doing-and that is to improve education. We’ve also got to make sure that the means are not the ends. The means that we use will be the collective bargaining, it will be the community organizing, and it will be the political action. I don’t see us doing away with any of those strategies, but I see us making sure that our members understand that those are the means to get us where we want to go, to improve education.

Q: Do you think there ought to be national standards, a national certification process? Not something that the federal government runs, but a system that requires all teachers to jump through a number of hoops to get a certificate that would be acceptable in all 50 states?

A: When we talk about national standards from that perspective, yes, we support them. There should be some general guidelines as to what should be expected of the profession. But unless we move from states having primary responsibility for education to a national curriculum or a national training program, each state is going to have to make that decision for its own teachers. So yes, we support the general ‘nationalization,’ I guess that is the word to use, of the standards.

The other issue you raise is that of portability or what we call reciprocity. We have advocated that for at least 25, maybe 30, years. We haven’t gotten very far with it, partly, I assume, because it is something states want to decide. But I think it is a good idea, and I would like to see portability, especially with such a mobile society.

Teachers move around all the time. When you go into my school district, as small as it is, you will have teachers who have taught in California, New Jersey, Georgia, New York, everywhere. And when the administrators go out to recruit, they go everywhere. So why shouldn’t teachers be able to move I from one state to the other and teach without having to leap through a lot of hoops every time they move into a state?

Q: The talk about raising standards comes at the same time demographic data forecast an increasing need for more teachers. Isn’t that going to be a problem?

A: Not if we are very careful. We’re talking about a projected teacher shortage, we say, of one million. And what we’re looking at may be the tip of the iceberg. We are looking at an increase in student population. We are looking at an aging profession, where maybe in 10 years most of us will be going out. We’re looking at not having a monopoly, like we had before, on women and minorities. So we’re looking at something that America maybe hasn’t faced before. You’re not going to be able to walk out the door and say, ‘I’m going to get some teachers.’

But the answer is not to lower the standards. We are moving in the right direction to upgrade the status of the profession by improving the quality of the teachers coming in, but we also have to recruit. We have to go into the high schools and into the colleges, especially in the freshman and sophomore years. We have to tell students they are going to get the training they need to survive and succeed in those classrooms.

And one of the things we must do as we recruit is recruit minorities to become teachers. I resent people saying that poor kids can’t meet the standards. I resent people saying that minorities can’t meet the standards. I resent people saying let’s drop the standards. Don’t do that. Set the standards, then help the people to meet the standards.

We’ve got to give the students we recruit incentives. Maybe we have to provide scholarships and fellowships and grants and student aid. And we’ve got to change the way the schools are structured so that when the young, intelligent, bright people come in they can use their intelligence.

Q: Will the education establishment have to change in order to alleviate the teacher shortage and improve the quality of the teaching force?

A: We always keep the door open and are constantly looking for new ways to change, to upgrade, to enhance the profession. I am a firm believer that one of the strong principles of our educational system is that you are constantly changing, you are constantly looking for ways to improve. If we say the profession should stay as it is, which is the way it has been for maybe the last 25 years, that is to sign a death warrant.

Q: The N.E.A. and A.F.T., and you and Mr. Shanker to some degree, seem to be moving a little closer together on the issue of professionalization. Is that a shift in policy for you?

A: I think we both are just looking at a change in the times. We are looking at the public being more interested in this particular area, being more willing to deal with the issue now than it was three years ago.

Q: Have you and Mr. Shanker ever discussed sitting down and grappling with some of these issues together? Or has that already happened?

A: Believe it or not, we have worked on a lot of these issues together. When I served with the AACTE, A.F.T. was there just like N.E.A. was there. With the Holmes Group, A.F.T. is there and the N.E.A. is there. So it is interesting that a lot of people think we never come together, that we never work in the same forum. We do a lot of times.

Q: The two teacher organizations seem to put a lot of resources into countering each other at times.

A: Let me deal first with what you mean by counter. Do we compete for membership? The answer is yes. Do we deliberately go out to oppose A.F.T. every time they speak? I don’t think so. What we tend to do is promote our ideas. We put them out, we promote them, we try to get people to join in promoting them and advocating the positions. But we try not to spend our time just attacking the A.F.T. Is there a rivalry? Yes, there is a rivalry. Sometimes it’s healthy, sometimes it’s not.

Q: What about a merger?

A: I don’t see that anywhere in the future. We tried it in the 1970’s and it did not work.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1985 edition of Education Week as ‘We’re Looking at Something That America Hasn’t Faced Before’

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