Not everyone who wants to be a surgeon has the skills. Nor can anyone who wants to be a classroom teacher become one. An important duty of a profession is to exclude those who cannot perform well.
Sadly, this “gatekeeping” does not always happen. Most of us remember those good teachers who worked with us, who cared, and who moved us ahead in our skills and understanding. But some can also recall a teacher who didn’t care, who “nine-to-fived” the job and was out of there when the last bell rang. These few are a problem, just as an incompetent surgeon is a problem. Students make less progress under their watch. And a public that is asked to support educational costs remembers not only the many good teachers that deserve a competitive wage, but are hesitant to also reward the few who do not.
Gatekeeping should happen in the academic preparation of teachers. That takes time for sustained contact with college professors. Sure there are entrance tests. Most teacher programs in Kansas use a PPST or CAAP test to ensure minimum performance in math, reading and writing. But tests do not detect those student teachers who do not belong in a classroom.
Any principal can tell you that there are many critical teaching skills that never appear on a test. Can you show up day-after-day? Can you keep discipline without tyranny? Do you not only know your discipline but can you translate it into a sequence of lessons appropriate to the age and ability of students? Can you develop a rapport that supports both the class dynamics and the individual child as well? Are you a model of human decency? And, do you really like kids?
These really take four years of face-to-face interaction to detect. In my biology department, before we send a student out to student teach, our faculty must sit together and approve that placement. The criteria are not course grades or state teacher tests, but “Would you want this student teacher teaching your child?”
If they did not attend class regularly, we cannot expect them to be on the job everyday. If they did not complete their coursework on time, how can they plan and deliver lessons on time? If they are not mature and respectful in the college classroom, how can they deserve respect as teachers in the classroom? It is in the day-to-day rich interactions with our teacher candidates that we gain a measure of their honesty, their work ethic, their communication skills, and their fitness to teach the next generation of Kansans. And yes, over the years, we have said “no” to student teacher applicants who have adequate grades but who fail to meet our subjective judgement. And the courts fully recognize and support such gatekeeping in teacher-training and other professions.
It is getting harder to make these judgements as more students attend community colleges (due to cost) and we only have a few semesters of contact, rather than four years, on which to base judgements. In the rare cases where I have to “wash out” a student in the midst of teaching, it is nearly always a case where the student transferred to us too late for us to know them.
This is the major reason that absolutely no online teacher preparation programs should ever be approved in Kansas. Online programs completely eliminate our ability to detect the deficiencies of personal integrity, skills and performances that can only be detected by face-to-face interactions over prolonged time. Online programs assert they will do this in the student teaching experience. They cannot; student teaching is too little and too late.
When gatekeeping fails, it takes a competent administrator to dismiss an incompetent tenured teacher. But until a teacher is tenured, there is no need to give a reason for non-renewal. The dilemma faced by administrators, especially in more remote schools, is finding a good teacher replacement rather than an out-of-field long-term substitute. Teacher-training schools should not be producing incompetent teachers, and public schools should not be keeping them.
As with all professions, it is a small but important problem.