Every Teacher a Reader?

In fights over teacher quality, we often ask what makes a good teacher.  NCLB’s HQT provisions called on teachers to have a degree in the subject and be certified. Leaders such as the NCLB Commission have sought to strengthen the provision, adding a measure of teacher effectiveness to the requirements.  Has anyone thought that a classroom teacher should be functionally literate?  Does a teacher need basic reading and writing skills to teach?

If we look at the story out of 10 News in San Diego, apparently not.  They tell the tell of John Corcoran, a now-retired teacher who earned a teaching degree from an accredited four-year college and then went on to teach high school for 17 years.  He did it all while being completely illiterate.  Cheated his way through school.  Taught without ever writing a word on the chalk board.  Now he is an education advocate who runs a foundation and an SES provider out in California.  Check out the full story here — http://www.10news.com/news/15274005/detail.html.

It is an entertaining tale, and just the sort of urban legend we hear now and again.  While most will be moved by the story of a man who finally learned to read at 48 and committed the second stage of his life to literacy advocacy, what message does it say that an illiterate high school teacher led a classroom for almost two decades, and no one ever found out.

I appreciate that he used his classroom to build a learning environment based on the visual and oral.  As you’ve heard Eduflack say again and again, it is important that we use multiple mediums and multiple approaches to reach all students.  But could any of his students really have gained an effective education from an illiterate teacher?  Did students go a full academic year with ever writing a five-paragraph essay or researching and writing a report or even taking a non-multiple choice exam?

I’ll set aside the notion that he had two or three teacher’s assistants helping in his classroom.  That must be some school district.  The bigger question here is what should we expect from our teachers? 

We assume that Mr. Corcoran didn’t have students who complained about his methods or inquired as to why their teacher never seemed to read from the book or write on the board.  And we might even assume that his students did well, using a different learning environment to develop new skills and improve their learning ability for other classes.  He may have been a regular Mr. Holland, who inspired a generation of future teachers, creators, and innovators.

But his revelations speak poorly of the teaching profession as a whole.  We all know that teaching — particularly in a secondary school environment — is one of the toughest jobs out there.  It requires knowledge, skill, patience, and ability.  Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher, and some find that out the hard way.  It is an underappreciated profession, and one where virtually everyone assumes they could do the job if they wanted to. 

And it is that fantasy that Corcoran helps contribute to.  Anyone, even those who can’t read or write a lick, can lead a classroom if they want to.  That’s a dangerous message to send to students, particularly those who are thinking about dropping out because they don’t see the relevance of school.  After all, why learn to read at grade level if your teacher doesn’t have to?

I realize that Corcoran is of an anomaly, and his story is meant to inspire adults who think it is too late to learn to read.  And that would be fine if he were an entrepreneur or a banker or a sales manager or an elected official.  But he was a teacher.  And, like it or not, we expect more from teachers.  They need to be smarter.  They need to be more patient.  They need to be more successful than just about any other profession.

Yes, we want teachers who are highly qualified and effective.  Basic literacy skills should be a non-negotiable.  John Corcoran may be an inspiration to some, but he owes a big apology to the thousands of teachers who take pride in their profession and who lead by example in their classrooms. 

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