I am lucky enough to work with a student teacher this semester, and we met last week to go over the classes she's teaching, school policies and stuff like that. We also talked some about her experience and goals; she's a Milwaukee Public Schools graduate who loves teaching and, because of her own history, is especially excited to work with MPS' most challenging students.
But, she said very early in the conversation, "I can't stay in Wisconsin if this Scott Walker thing passes."
The "Scott Walker thing" in question is the plan our governor is putting in his budget to allow people with "real-life experience" to become licensed public school teachers, potentially without even a lick of training, student teaching or other assurance that those people know a single thing about teaching.
"I've worked really hard to get where I am," my student teacher said, "and I'm not going to stay in a place that doesn't value that work."
It's easy to guess why Walker is proposing such a thing – I'll get to that in a minute – but let me explain why I agree with my student teacher that it's a terrible idea. And it's not just that it will cultivate across all the state's teachers the kind of indignation she's already feeling.
It's that teaching is not easy, and it requires a very different skill set than anything you get from "real life."
I get it that by now you've heard "teaching is hard" a million times and it's pretty much devolved into cliche. You may be tempted to zone out, skim the next few paragraphs, or even close the browser window. But please bear with me if you can.
If teaching were easy, it wouldn't take programs like Walker's to get people into the classroom. All kinds of people would want a shot at it, and teacher-training programs would be enrolling more and more students instead of fewer and fewer, both here in Wisconsin and across the country.
Also, teaching continues to be a fairly high-turnover career among the professions. The most recent data show that every year about 16 percent of teachers quit, retire or switch schools in search of greener pastures. In high-poverty schools, more than one in five teachers leaves every year, with almost half of those getting out of the profession entirely. This doesn't suggest that teaching is an easy job.
Note that both trends – drops in enrollment in training programs and increases in teachers bailing on the profession – mirror the ratcheting up of ridiculous expectations and threats of penalties against schools and teachers. Teachers started leaving the field in high numbers in the 1990s as "accountability" became the buzzword and state testing regimes hit high gear. And it was post-No Child Left Behind that colleges and universities saw a large drop in teacher-training enrollment.
The microscope over all of us, and the constant threats of micromanagement, make teaching a real challenge. But that's not even the hard part!
I have often written that teaching is much closer to acting than it is to anything other "real-life" job. When I write my book about teaching, I will have a chapter titled (with apologies to Yogi Berra), "Teaching is 99 percent performance, and the other half is preparation." Teaching is like writing, directing and performing a new one-man show every day for 180 days. Or three or five or 40 – with "differentiation" – different one-man shows a day.
There's no indication in the news reports about Walker's plan that his goal is specifically to address shortages in particular teaching fields, like most of the ten "alternative certification" plans already in place in the state. But I have made the suggestion before, even to folks at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, that it would be much easier and much better to fill those positions by hiring acting majors and teaching them science or math (to pick two fields) than to find scientists and mathematicians and teaching them to teach.
Knowing how to engage, read and react to an audience is not something most people learn when getting their "real-life" experience doing almost any other job, and yet that's the single most important skill a good teacher needs.
It's also, I admit, the skill least-taught in teacher preparation programs, perhaps because you can't really learn it anywhere but in the classroom. Even then, statistics, my observations and my own personal experience all suggest, it takes three to five years to get good at that part even if you've student taught and taken years of education classes at your university. Walker's scheme proposes licensing these teachers for only three years – not anywhere enough time to master the job.
Someday when I am your king and I get to revise teacher-training programs, prospective teachers would get years of experiential training before they get their full licenses. Student teaching, under my reign, won't be the eighth-semester capstone of the experience, but, rather, sophomore year, giving students time out of the classroom to reflect on just how horrible it was for them and plan for what to do differently the next time they meet students. Senior year, then, rather than traditional student teaching, would be more like a medical residency, with student teachers working in teams under the strict supervision of experienced mentors, but actually teaching and being paid for it.
That teacher-training programs are currently less than ideal is not the point; if Walker wanted to reform those programs, that would be one thing, and though I bet I would disagree with the specifics of his proposal, the debate would be worthwhile. But fixing teacher training isn't his goal.
Walker's goal is, as it has been since day one of his administration, to weaken the teachers unions.
By flooding schools with temporary teachers – again, licensing people to teach for just three years – who would likely have an even higher than expected rate of quitting and turning over, Walker will significantly cut into the base of career teachers who are most likely to join and support their unions.
As we know from experience fighting Act 10 in 2011, Walker and Republicans targeted the teachers unions (and other public employee unions) because they used to be the single most effective check against conservative anti-labor, anti-worker candidates and legislation. Since Act 10, Wisconsin has been flooded with both of those, including the expected passage of a "right to work" bill this session.
It's bad enough that Walker's plan will do nothing to help children, and will almost certainly hurt. But I can't imagine what Wisconsin will look like if there are no unions left to fight for the rights of all workers in the state.