28 January 2013

Becoming a Good Teacher in a Few Simple Steps

Author's note: this essay started as a three-page assignment I was working on with my class almost three years ago (I try to write all the assignments I make my students write). It got a little carried away. I'm not 100% sure I agree with me-from-the-past about everything, but I'm still teaching and loving it, even though the compensation is, well, insulting. Enjoy!

            As it turns out, a lot of idiots and morons get involved in trying to become teachers. In fact, there is a strong possibility that you had several teachers over the course of your educational career who barely passed their education or content classes in college. There is certainly a cavalcade of reasons for this lack of intelligence among teachers. Iowa, for example, has no G.P.A. requirement for entrance into the education program for their state. It might also be true that stupid people just want to become teachers. One source online claims that “today’s K-12 teachers have the lowest average SAT scores of people in any professional occupation” (Nemko). While I generally consider myself outside the categories of “idiots” and “morons” (there is a subtle difference between the two terms, particularly as they were applied in early psychological diagnoses, and most would agree that knowing this puts me outside of both categories), I actually received a C+ in Calculus II and a D- in my final history thesis seminar during my undergraduate experience. There may be perfectly legitimate explanations for these anomalies in my academic career (how else does one explain my almost-perfect, straight-A educational background, my 4.0 M.A. grade point, or my well-above-average GRE percentile scores?), but I certainly encountered a fair share of, well, dummies while I went through the tortuous process of becoming an educator, and the scene hasn’t changed much now that I teach college writing as an adjunct.
            I bring this up not to lambaste the educational system (though it would be easy to devolve into a tirade about the current, lackluster, nigh-unredeemable state of education in the U.S.), but because the simple fact that there are a fair share of surprisingly uneducated teachers among us always makes me wonder what ultimately sets a good teacher apart from a mediocre teacher. One theory I have is that mediocre students end up becoming mediocre teachers, but there’s definitely more to it than that.
Imagine you are a struggling student, and a kind-hearted physics teacher meets with you after class to help you with your homework. As a result, you become much better at physics and you get to know your teacher a little bit better. You might even realize that he is a human being just like you. You are inspired by this teacher’s life and their commitment to teaching a worthless slacker like yourself who probably never should have gotten involved in physics in the first place. So, what do you do? You get a passable score on the ACT, enroll in the college that gives you the most money, and get started in their education program to become just such a teacher teaching just such a student as yourself. You pass, sometimes just barely, all of the required classes; you pass the laughably simple tests required to get your teaching certificate; and you somehow manage to land a full-time job (probably because you coach football).
            There is nothing inherently wrong with this picture unless, of course, you are looking at it from the point of view of someone who is actually a good teacher. First, idealism is not a strong enough buffer for the realities of educational systems, and an overwhelming amount of research illustrates this simple truth. For example, studies show that teaching has a ridiculously high turnover rate for new employees; one article in Forbes states that “46% of new teachers leave the profession within five years” (Kain). A few major reasons for this, as far as I can tell from my experience, are (1) the major disconnect between the idealism of many people who go into teaching and the reality of lazy, underperforming students who feel a false but remarkably undiminishable sense of entitlement, (2) absurd volumes of bureaucracy that make an individual, regardless of how exemplary they are, feel like a tine-less cog in a run-down machine operated by people who skipped their employee training, and (3) the ever-decreasing compensation for work that never stays in the office, e.g., based on the number of hours I work as an adjunct professor, I am making, at the very absolute most, $7.51 per hour of actual work with  no benefits, and, depending on what I am working on in my classes, at least a third of that work comes home with me at night and over the weekends despite the fact that, at the time I’m writing this, I’m in my office from 9:00 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. four days a week and only teach two classes from 12:20 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on those days (The work to pay ratio only got worse when I taught four classes at separate institutions, and it’s even worse now that I teach five classes). The teacher who gets into teaching because they want to help students like themselves may have a perfectly legitimate and commendable motivation for teaching, but, as far as I’ve seen, no amount of idealism can withstand the constant, grinding ravages of the actual job of teaching.
            Second, someone who decides early on to pursue the profession of teaching has no experience whatsoever with other possibilities, which, essentially, gives them no real choice in the matter of a career. This lack of experience in other areas is further complicated by the fact that the requirements to complete just the education program consume roughly 1.5 times the amount of time and credits as a high-credit major such as English or history, and educators have to fulfill the additional burden of requirements for both a major and a minor in order to become certified in my state. When the difference between a major and minor is only about eight credits, this means that people who want to become teachers basically need to triple major in college to get certified, and even though I finished in four years by taking double the recommended course load for several semesters in college, most teachers take at least five full-time years to finish their undergraduate work. Furthermore, teachers need to take more classes related only to education, their major, or their minor after they graduate in order to remain certified. The result of this preponderance of requirements is that almost all the students going through education programs to become teachers get short-suited. They have no chance to branch out, get experience with other subject areas, explore other career options, or, depending on their dedication, enjoy a social life of any kind. A bit of modification to a clever illustration provides some insight into why most teachers are, well, dummies:

 I, of course, chose only the right option because I wanted to finish my education and certification before my financial aid was cut off at the end of my fourth year of college, and that perhaps explains my cynicism, a term some apply to my grounded, realistic outlook. Despite the humor (read: tragedy) of this, the important, underlying issue still remains: if you know nothing else, how can you say that what you are doing is actually a choice? Those who pursue education without pondering or experiencing other options because they once had a teacher that inspired them may end up teaching for a lifetime because they don’t want to waste all the work (and debt) that went into becoming a certified educator, a perfectly understandable but nonetheless terrible eventuality since we’ve all had at least one teacher who was only there for the paycheck.
            Third, and finally, individuals who are inspired and who make it through the curriculum may still end up being terrible teachers. As illustrated above and from my own personal experience, there are a lot of lackluster individuals, academically speaking, who end up becoming educators. Part of the blame certainly rests on the heavy course load of education classes since they teach you shockingly little about the subject-specific content you are eventually responsible for teaching to your students. They also incinerate the time you have to actually learn because of their workload and attached obligations to spend vast amounts of time in classrooms observing and teaching every semester.
Additionally, the several batteries of tests you are required to take in order to become certified eat up weekend time and are woefully simplistic. The “Basic Skills Test” assesses an individual’s prowess in the areas of reading, math, and writing. I took it at the very beginning of my second semester as a sophomore in college and scored a 292 in reading, a 289 in math, and a 300 in writing. The maximum score you can get is 300, and the minimum score needed to pass is 220. After passing the Basic Skills Test, you have to take your subject area tests. I took mine after my junior year of college and scored a 272 in English even though I had not even fulfilled the requirements for an English minor at that point. Again, you only need a 220 to pass. Putting things a different way, you only need to get 73% (a C-) on the test in order to pass. The most insane thing about all the tests required to become certified is that you can retake them as many times as you need to in order to pass. Think of the sort of people you know who got a C- in classes you took. Is that the sort of person you want to have teaching thirty-two students (or more if higher-ups have their way eliminating classroom size limitations despite research that says smaller class sizes dramatically increase student performance)?
Most education programs require higher grades in all education classes, but that is mostly due to grade inflation and the relative simplicity of education classes. For example, I was still making posters with magic markers during class in an advanced education course in my junior year of college to summarize and present information to the rest of the class even though the reading was on the syllabus and everyone was required to read it. Furthermore, I vividly remember my educational advisor telling our class that basically everyone would get an A in their student teaching “course” because if you don’t get an A, you can’t get a job. While some teachers may excel academically, the fact that it is so easy to pass the certification tests and meet the education course requirements allows for the very real possibility that a complete nitwit can become a fully certified, hired, tenured teacher, especially if they coach football.
This, added on to the increasing demands to prove your prowess in front of the snotty brats in your classroom can lead to some devastating consequences. I recall asking my third grade teacher why old people were smaller than normal people. She laughed condescendingly and promptly responded by telling me that your bones disintegrate as you get older. I held this view of physiology as a fundamental truth until College Preparatory Biology in tenth grade. A famous study revealed that this sort of thing is not unique to me and the thirty-one other students in that third grade class when it discovered that the majority of Harvard graduates couldn’t explain why the seasons exist (hint: the earth is actually farthest away from the sun when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere).
In a world where there are so many possibilities for individuals to become bad teachers, how, then, does one become a good teacher? The first step is to repeatedly deny that teaching is the best option for you. In high school, have your father bring you out on a golf outing with his teacher friends and have each one of them berate you for even considering getting involved in the teaching profession. Make sure every teacher you come in contact with tells you that it is a terrible idea; that it will not make you a successful, rich adult; and that it will ruin your life in almost every way imaginable.
In college, be sure to constantly second guess your decision to take simplistic education classes that, as it turns out, only help you cope with and understand roughly 5% of the reality of teaching (there are no requirements for and, shockingly, no elective options for a classroom management class). Frequently consider dropping everything and starting your pre-med degree from square one, which would take you less than four years to complete. Up until the day you start student teaching in your fifth or sixth year of undergraduate work, be sure to think that enrolling in the education program was a terrible idea and that, if you weren’t already tens of thousands of dollars in debt from student loans, starting college over from the beginning, getting that twenty-credit business major, and graduating with the absolute minimum number of credits possible for your institution would have been a much, much easier, socially beneficial, and lucrative option because, in fact, it would have been.
            Once you get certified and graduate, make sure to keep denying that becoming a teacher was a good choice in any way. If you can, supersaturate your semesters of college by taking eighteen, twenty, or even twenty-two credits in order to finish the education program in four years; scholarships don’t carry over into your fifth year of school, after all. Then, choose to minor in a subject even though you’re only one or two classes away from the major so you can graduate on time and get your teaching certificate because, even in this bleak economic situation, there are pretty good prospects for a full-time job at the high school where you went, where you know and took classes with the people interviewing you for the job, and where your father has worked for over twenty years.
Despite your doubts, keep applying to as many jobs as possible in your economically depressed geographical region. Run yourself ragged trying to fill out the ridiculously time-consuming applications for teaching positions that include unbelievably redundant information entry, essay questions, and extensive personality tests.
Take the last few classes to turn that minor with which you graduated into a major even though those credits won’t count for anything because you already completed your degree, and not one of the seven people from different departments you talked to about it told you they wouldn’t actually transfer.
Keep working for your family’s small business because it is your only source of income and you have become overqualified for almost all of the available jobs in your area. Interview for potential teaching jobs with people who know you such as your principal from high school whose deck you have power-washed at least twice and your A.P. European History teacher who gave you an A, knew you aced the A.P. test, and is fully aware of your overdeveloped work ethic and interest in and knowledge of history. Make sure you lose those jobs to people who went to college with you, who did much worse than you in both education and academic courses, and who coach football. Repeat this process of applying, interviewing, and not getting a job for several years in a row.
            After this, it is important to become frustrated with the system. Get angry at anyone who tries to discuss any topic related to education with you. Blow up in people’s faces when they try to console you after you find out you’re not getting yet another job that you’re “highly qualified” for. Realize that you could do other things to make a living, but substitute teach for less than what you could make working as a barista at a Starbucks because, deep down in your subconscious, you know that teaching is probably the only thing you can do that will actually make your days worth living.
            Once you start to realize things are not going your way in the profession of education, start making deals and promises with yourself. “If I apply to some PhD programs, I’ll teach at a higher level,” you might think. “If I don’t get accepted, I’ll apply to some M.A. programs,” you’ll agree with yourself. “I’ll just substitute for another year, and then I’ll start applying other places,” you might decide when the schools you wanted to go to reject you because you only minored in the subject you want to pursue for your PhD.
            Once you have completed all of these steps, allow yourself to devolve. Develop an unhealthy addiction to video games. Start ignoring your friends’ phone calls and, if you can, sever as many ties with people as possible. Spend lots of time reading, writing, and possibly drinking, alone. This shouldn’t be a problem because the only friends you still have at this point know that you only want Jack Daniels for your birthday.
            During all of this nonsense, remember that you have, probably inadvertently, kept some options open despite the fact that your life, as a teacher, has not quite turned out the way you planned on that day you reluctantly decided to enroll in the education program at the ridiculously overpriced institution of higher learning you attended. Come to grips with the fact that if you decided to be a secretary, salesperson, or barista, you wouldn’t quite feel the same when you get home after a day of teaching. Despite all the empirical, rational, logical evidence, decide and accept that teaching is, in fact, what you would like to do (read: need to do) for the rest of your life.
            As you work your way from teaching job to teaching job, sometimes substitute teaching, perhaps adjuncting, know that it is the only thing that satisfies your obsessive, academic, perfectionist personality. In your spare time, carefully sort out your thoughts on the education system, pedagogy, classroom management, and many other ideas related to teaching. Become the embodiment of those ideas in every classroom you find yourself. Know, rather than believe, that educating people is one of the most important things anyone in any society can do. Cultivate an overdeveloped commitment to doing anything and everything you can to help every single student that sits in your classroom in any way possible. Care.
            The last step to becoming a good teacher is to make sure your students have no idea about any of this. Make sure everything on your syllabus and assignments says you are available to help at nearly all times of the day, but try to remain seemingly distant and unapproachable. Your students will probably desire to impress you because your aloofness unconsciously reminds them of their fathers, but, despite your frostiness, they will certainly ask you for help. Help them, offer advice, and frequently remind them of your open office hours in subtle ways, even if you don’t actually have an office because, to the people you work for, you are perceived as the scum of the educational landscape. Try your best to act offended if students pester you with silly questions, but still answer them thoroughly; try to give a response that is long, detailed, and sarcastic enough that everyone remembers it’s not helpful to ask illogical questions but forgets who exactly asked that particular question to elicit your somewhat acerbic response. Feel free to honestly berate them, as a class, for their languidness whenever possible, all the while teaching them that not being invested in their own education is the epitome of laziness and apathy.
            Some may say that it’s important to be a caring, nurturing, self-esteem boosting educator of the youth of this great nation, but they are almost certainly chugging the Kool-Aid of feel goodery and probably letting their students slip through the system without actually learning anything. The essential problem is that kids, and people in general, quickly learn how to take advantage of any situation; when teachers allow or support students’ incorrect answers or lazy behavior, students learn to do as little work as possible to get the points they need to get the grades they want. The moment students realize that you care about them, that you have an overdeveloped sense of empathy and understanding like no one else they have ever come in contact with, and that you desperately want them to succeed in everything they do, they will start to try to take advantage of you in every conceivable way possible. Arguably, acting distant may actually be the best way to care for your students because the real world is, in fact, relentlessly cold, uncaring, and pernicious. What allows people to navigate that ocean of uncertainty around them is an understanding of the rules that govern the world and the skills they develop as they learn and live by those rules.
In life, a boss fires you and people think less of you when you don’t do what is expected, when you turn things in late, when you underperform, when you slack off, and when you produce a wrong answer when there is, in fact, a right answer. When students don’t do an assignment or turn something in late, they need to understand that actions have real consequences, even if those negative actions are condoned by their peers, parents, and other teachers from the past and present. Not once in my life after high school have I heard the phrase “it’s okay, at least you tried,” and the only lesson that phrase teaches is its actual translation: “you don’t need to try any harder.”
What, then, does it take to be a good teacher? It first requires a realistic mindset and a dedication to instilling that same mindset in students. Allowing students to set unrealistic goals or develop unrealistic expectations only hurts them in the long run. Second, and most importantly, it requires intellectualism. Higher education levels are a major contributing factor in a country’s well-being, economic development, and quality of life. It’s a widely known and well-documented fact that America’s education system is consistently falling lower and lower in its rank among industrialized nations, and some studies have shown the United States to have the lowest average I.Q. of all developed nations. One study even found that one in five Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth (Dean). In a time where debates and discussions of all varieties both in the public and private sphere are dominated by character bashing, factual errors, and rampant logical fallacies, it’s barely surprising that a recent survey proved that watching the news can actually make you less intelligent (Martel). There seems to be a culture of anti-intellectualism that penetrates even to the one place it should be least prevalent and infects the people that should abhor it the most: schools and teachers.
While an important reconsideration of the true purpose of schools and the educational system certainly needs to be accomplished, the people that ultimately end up being responsible for the education of students need to take that duty seriously because, despite what the push-‘em-through, feel-good, try-less system is implicitly telling all of us, an educator still needs to educate, and that is what separates a good educator from a mediocre teacher. A good educator prioritizes the education of their students over politics, over celebrity, over any “program,” and (dare I say it?) over their retirement benefits. Ultimately, good teachers do the most good they can for their students in the little time they have with them despite crowded classrooms, despite budget cuts, despite constantly shifting standards, despite the stupefyingly low pay, and despite the, well, dummies that frequently end up working next to them.
Works Cited

Dean, Cornelia. “Scientific Savvy? In U.S., Not Much.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 30 August 2005. Web. 5 December 2011.
Kain, E.D. “High Teacher Turnover Rates are a Big Problem for America’s Public Schools.” Forbes. 8 March 2011. Web. 27 October 2011.
Martel, Frances. “Left Rejoices as Poll of 612 New Jerseyans Declares Fox News Makes People Stupid.” Mediaite.com. Midiaite, LLC, 21 November 2011. Web. 5 December 2011.
Nemko, Marty. “America the Dumb and how to Smarten it (and You).” Marty Nemko’s Website. Marty Nemko, 2004-2011. Web. 5 December 2011.

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