Become a Teacher in Six Easy Lessons?

Most of us don’t bother to read the countless spam emails that enter our inboxes.  We view them like we do commercials, hoping to avoid as many as possible on our way to the content we want.  Not Eduflack.  I like commercials because they provide me insight into what key audiences and the public at large are thinking.  And I will check out some of the bulk emails I receive (I’m not foolish enough to click on any of the links, but I’ll look at the email content) to get a sense for where the industry, particularly the education industry, thinks money can be made.

My attention was really captured this weekend by an email with a compelling subject line — “Want More Vacation Days?  Become a School Teacher.”  The subject matter was what you would expect, a company called Eclipse Media Online looking to hook me up with the ideal online degree program to get me in the classroom quickly and racking up those vacation days.  I was promised I could “Get [my] Teaching Degree Online!  In My Spare Time From Home!”
Such claims are nothing new.  We’ve heard them from online institutions and diploma mills on daytime and overnight television for decades now.  What was so disturbing, though, was how the job of K-12 classroom teacher in 2009 was described.  A summary can’t do it justice.  Let me give you the full text:

Teachers play an important role in fostering the intellectual and social development of children during their formative years. The education that teachers impart plays a key role in determining the future prospects of their students. Whether in preschools or high schools or in private or public schools, teachers provide the tools and the environment for their students to develop into responsible adults.

Teachers act as facilitators or coaches, using classroom presentations or individual instruction to help students learn and apply concepts in subjects such as science, mathematics, or English. They plan, evaluate, and assign lessons; prepare, administer, and grade tests; listen to oral presentations; and maintain classroom discipline. Teachers observe and evaluate a student’s performance and potential and increasingly are asked to use new assessment methods. For example, teachers may examine a portfolio of a student’s artwork or writing in order to judge the student’s overall progress. They then can provide additional assistance in areas in which a student needs help. Teachers also grade papers, prepare report cards, and meet with parents and school staff to discuss a student’s academic progress or personal problems.

Many teachers use a “hands-on” approach that uses “props” or “manipulatives”to help children understand abstract concepts, solve problems, and develop critical thought processes. For example, they teach the concepts of numbers or of addition and subtraction by playing board games. As the children get older, teachers use more sophisticated materials, such as science apparatus, cameras, or computers. They also encourage collaboration in solving problems by having students work in groups to discuss and solve problems together. To be prepared for success later in life, students must be able to interact with others, adapt to new technology, and think through problems logically.

Honestly, I don’t know what part of this email I should find most offensive.  Teaching as a gateway to increased vacation days?  Teaching responsibilities defined as playing board games and reviewing artwork portfolios?  Instructional materials described as “props” or “manipulatives,” like teaching is no different than selling a time share to young people?  Or the fact that some people are going to get this email, click through, write their tuition checks, and believe they are on the path to becoming high-paid, highly vacationed, effective teachers, all from the privacy of their bedrooms and the comfort of their well-worn bunny slippers.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  There is are few jobs as difficult as teaching, particularly in today’s high-stakes, high-expectation, high-criticism environment.  As the son of two educators (my mother a retired high school English teacher, my father a political scientist by trade and college president by path), I like to believe there is a little more to the profession than these sorts of emails put forward.  I see nothing about the countless hours my mother put in at night, on weekends, and during the summer grading, preparing, and planning.  I see nothing about the supplies she purchased or the emotional, intellectual, and sometimes financial support she provided her students.  I see nothing about breaking up fights or having to deal with parents who couldn’t accept that their kids simply failed to do the work.  I see nothing about the constantly changing PD expectations, the certification procedures, and the graduate degree requirements.  I see nothing about the notion that you are expected to work for 200 straight days, with no vacation or sick time intended to be taken during the school year.  And I see nothing about the second jobs and seasonal employment so many of my mother’s colleagues had to take to pay the bills or to actually use a few of those well-earned vacation days.
I know, I know, I shouldn’t get so worked up about a spam email that was never really intended for me in the first place.  But I know that teachers — and their training, recruitment, and retention — is a major issue for states and school districts today, and is going to be a major policy concern for the federal government and the U.S. Department of Education in the coming years.  Having worked for an online college of education, I know it isn’t as simple as the marketing campaign makes it seem (no matter what those institutions on the other end of the email want to believe).  And I know if we are really going to focus on student achievement and school improvement, it is all about putting good, well-trained effective educators in front of a classroom, and not merely a warm body who responded to an email campaign at the right time.
Teaching is hard.  Effective teaching is both an art and a science.  It requires the right person, the right motivation, the right training, and the right ongoing development and support.  The AFT and NEA have invested a great deal of intellectual and financial capital into promoting teacher professionalism, the nobility of the profession, the real challenges of good teaching, and the believe that not everyone is cut out to lead a classroom.  If we have individuals choosing teaching as a profession to increase their vacation time, we have far more important issues in public education that we recognize.  What’s truly scary is that folks are getting rich marketing “teaching” as a career path anyone with a computer and an interest in board games can and should pursue.  

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