What does it take to become an elementary school teacher? Not just passion

Are teacher certification programs placing too many requirements on prospective teachers? Santa Catalina School, CC BY-NC

Often, people think that becoming an elementary school teacher can’t be that difficult. Many assume that primary school teachers don’t need to know too much beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I was a Boston public school teacher for 12 years. And today, I am a teacher of teachers. I think about how hard teaching is almost every day.

And I know that becoming an elementary teacher today is difficult – as it should be. After all, the impact a teacher has on a child’s life can be everlasting.

But, the question is, are the requirements we place on prospective teachers the right ones?

The daunting process

For many, there is nothing more satisfying than to watch a child understand something for the first time. To know that you had something to do with it can feel powerful and gratifying all at once.

The passion and influence of teachers have been captured through many a literary work. Even Yeats, one of the most celebrated Irish poets, described teaching as “the lighting of a fire.”

But passion alone is not enough. You also need a bachelor’s degree; you need to complete a teacher preparation program; and you need a state license or national certification to teach in a public school.

And the path to this certification varies from state to state. Forty-four states require candidates to take a test or series of tests as part of their preparation; 25 states require students to have a specific grade point average before entering a teacher preparation program.

The process is often long and expensive.

Here’s how it happens in Massachusetts, one of nine states in the US that earned a B- from the National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ) in 2014 for “delivering well-prepared teachers.”

A bit of context: the NCTQ grades ranged from a B+ (given to Indiana, Rhode Island and Florida) to F (Alaska and Montana), with 11 states earning a D+.

In Massachusetts, students who want to become elementary teachers combine an elementary teaching major with a second major in, for example, math, science, or the humanities. They must also learn how to effectively teach English Language Learners, a growing demographic in this state.

In addition, the state recommends that prospective teachers work in the field as early in their programs as possible. This pre-practicum is integrated into seminar courses that the students take at their college.

Becoming a teacher takes passion. Joanne Johnson, CC BY-NC-ND

This is followed by a 300-hour practicum, when a student works alongside a licensed teacher for a semester. The student teacher passes a practicum by demonstrating that she has met the state’s teaching standards. Her progress is monitored by a college supervisor who formally observes the student three to five times during the semester to document growth and to address challenges.

As the semester continues, the student teacher gradually assumes more responsibility for the operation of the classroom. But this requires that she balance those responsibilities with coursework back on campus.

But wait…there’s more.

The teacher tests

Look at what it takes to get a teaching license or certification.

Again, requirements vary from state to state and are always being refined. But in Massachusetts, prospective elementary teachers are currently required to pass three state exams in order to teach elementary school children.

Combined, these tests consist of answering a total of 288 multiple-choice questions that together take between 16 and 24 hours to complete. But that’s if the candidate takes each test only once.

Pre-service teachers can take them as many times as needed to pass, and they do. Many students report that it took them between one and three tries to pass each test. Colleges offer test preparation courses to help students pass, but they’re in addition to the required courses of study.

These tests also turn out to be quite expensive. The pre-service teacher ends up spending between US$620 and $730 on registration and testing fees, or more if the subtests are taken separately or more than once.

Most students spend about $1,000 or more trying to pass the tests.

In the past, teacher certification was issued for life. Today, teachers must demonstrate that they are continuously learning in order to renew their teaching license.

And this, in many ways, is a good thing.

In Massachusetts, teachers can start teaching with a bachelor’s degree, but they must earn a master’s degree within five years from their date of employment. This will advance their initial license to a professional one.

After working for three years, a teacher may also apply for a national board certification. This is a different process from the state’s certification, which was “created by teachers for teachers.”

There are currently 110,000 teachers in the US with national board certification. Research shows that these teachers have more of an impact on student learning – more so, when it comes to minority and low-income students.

Costs of testing

But here’s the problem with this system.

Most people who choose to become teachers are from middle-class backgrounds who often put themselves through college or work two to three jobs to earn a college degree.

Prospective teachers are unnecessarily burdened by the increasing costs of standardized testing. Santa Catalina School, CC BY-NC

These teachers are unnecessarily burdened by the increasing costs of standardized testing. And this is even before they have an opportunity to enter a field in which the national average salary was $56,383 in 2014.

In any case, the more important thing for a prospective elementary teacher is to develop a deep and sustained knowledge of the disciplines that she will be teaching.

Unlike the middle school or high school teacher, whose expertise is often within a single subject, the elementary teacher is expected to master all of them.

History, math, science and technology, English, reading and the arts all have their own unique structure, tools of inquiry, and ways of producing knowledge that cannot be explored sufficiently through repeated multiple-choice tests.

Understanding a subject or concept well enough to teach it is harder than most people think. Teachers report that they learn more from pursuing their own questions and from each other than from professional development.

Problem with testing

I support the partnership that higher education, the federal and state government, and local communities must have to produce high-quality teachers.

But sometimes in our quest to improve, we create something else entirely – a maze of technocratic processes and procedures that replaces common sense and removes the human element from our work as teachers.

Preparing to become a teacher should not be reduced to a checklist of standardized tests and a mandated program of study with little room for electives. Prospective teachers need the time and space to delve deeply into subjects repeatedly and over time, to develop pedagogical approaches specific to those subjects and to use them effectively and creatively with children.

As Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of Education and History at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, so aptly explains in his provocative 2014 New York Times article, “Why is American Teaching so Bad?”

“Indeed, the biggest insult to the intelligence of American teachers is the idea that their intelligence doesn’t matter.”

Elementary teacher preparation is no longer elementary. It’s been hijacked by the standardization movement.

We want intelligent, creative and enthusiastic teachers teaching our children. This requires allowing our teachers to think for themselves. And that can’t be measured by a standardized test.