While I was writing my novel ReEnchantment: A Schoolboys' Adventure, one of the scenes I struggled with was when the mother, contemplating schooling her own child, has doubts about her ability to do the job. There are a number of motives at work in the character I developed, but unquestionably one of the major worries that besets her and most parents considering home schooling is whether they have the skill. I contend theirs is nothing more than a temporary lack of confidence.
Teaching is not rocket science and there is plenty of good methodology out there for moms and dads to read about and use. What's so surprising is that most of the colleges that train the "real" teachers for our public and private schools don't pay attention to proven methods, and don't ask their undergrad students to explore or learn them.
This was one of the conclusions of Arthur Levine, former President of Columbia University's Teachers College, as he headed out the door to another job last year. Included was his opinion that a "majority of teacher education graduates are prepared in university-based programs that suffer from low admission and graduation standards." Is this what parents are fearful of not being equal to?
One of Levine's suggestions is that all teachers be required to go to college for five, not four years. In my mind that's playing fast and loose with somebody else's money; arbitrarily increasing the cost of a bachelors degree by 25%. In an era of already-too-large student loan balances, it's irresponsible.
When I was editor for a Diocesan department of schools' web site, one of the subjects I looked at was the dilemma Catholic Schools faced in marketing themselves to their public. For years, credentials have been one of the badges public instruction has worn to strengthen the impression that legitimate education can only happen in a classroom lead by a licensed teacher.
Catholic Schools were initially staffed by teaching orders in the persons of nuns and brothers. As the ranks of those orders thinned, these schools looked to lay teachers to fill the gaps. In a number of Catholic and other parochial schools, the lay persons in the classroom were oftentimes chosen because of their beliefs and compatibility with the mission of the school; and the issue of having a credential was often ignored or secondary to the teachers' demonstrated ability.
Eventually parents began asking about "credentials", and school administrators, worried that their staffs would not appear professional to questioning parents, initiated policies that would require even mature and proven instructors to get a certificate. Was it necessary? Because if it wasn't and isn't, then a lot of money and time and frustration has been needlessly wasted.
The issue of whether a teacher need have a credential in order to be effective goes right to the subject of whether a parent can succeed in being the primary educator of his or her children, especially in the context of home schooling.
Frederick Hess has been a high school teacher and member of the faculty at the University of Virginia and Harvard. I've read his contributions to the conversation about education for years. In a published paper that appears under various titles but consistently includes the phrase "Tear Down This Wall", Dr. Hess continues his argument that licensing is irrelevant to the assurance that what happens in a classroom will be any different with a teacher who has a credential, than with a teacher who has not taken the extra courses and paid the fees currently required.
As he states, "Debate rages over what the best pedagogical strategies are, and even proponents of the existing system cannot define a clear set of concrete skills that make for a good teacher. Despite the absence of widely accepted pedagogical standards, aspiring teachers are forced to run an academic gauntlet of courses, requirements, and procedures created by accredited training programs that vary dramatically in quality. The prospect of spending substantial time and money on preparation and courses of study that may bear little relation to what it takes to be a good teacher discourages some talented people from entering the profession."
And that's a major issue with Hess. He's worried that the demand for good teachers, given the retirements of the existing workforce and rising enrollments, isn't going to be met with the system now in place that gives teacher's colleges monopolies on training and certifying. He proposes a new method and criteria for qualifying a teacher and it's beautiful in its simplicity. In order to apply for a job one would have to: a) have a college degree; b) pass an examination of essential skills and content knowledge that would obviously vary by grade level and academic discipline; and c) pass a criminal background check.
Hess' model emphasizes on-the-job training "as is true in other professions where subtle skills and interpersonal dynamics are essential to effective performance." He adds that his plan would allow for teachers to make their own informed decisions about what skills and expertise need development.
Kate Walsh is currently the director of The National Council on Teacher Quality. While a senior analyst with The Abell Foundation, Ms. Walsh wrote in a report titled Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling for Quality that "certification deems substandard all uncertified candidates, no matter what other attributes they possess, including those attributes that research correlates with effective teaching." You may read the entire report as a PDF document from the Spring 2002 issue of Education Next.
Findings like Hess's and Walsh's are "outside the box" of the traditional education school approach to teaching, especially Walsh's determination that two things stand out as characteristic of effective teachers: solid core subject knowledge and good communications skills. That's it! Not advanced degrees. Not classroom size. Not computer labs. Not even the age of the teacher. But experience can matter.
Now, what does effectiveness at teaching mean? It means having and being able to present and explain a body of knowledge to students in a way that resonates with the students, interests them, and is retained in a manner that the students demonstrate by giving proper responses when tested on that knowledge. How are good communications skills of value in this? They are the written and verbal skills necessary to capture the attention of the student and transmit the knowledge in an understandable way.
If you think about it, you can probably recall your favorite teacher or someone from whom you learned a great deal in school, and remember that person as engaging, interesting, verbally ebullient and outgoing, with lots of stories to tell. That could also describe an aunt, grandfather or loving parent.
When I asked Frederick Hess if he had published anything on home schooling, he admitted that he hasn't taken the opportunity to focus on it yet. But what he and Kate Walsh describe as the criteria for being an effective teacher is what many parents demonstrate daily as they prepare themselves for the task of teaching their children at home, and fulfilling their role as the primary educator in those children's lives.
In my book, one of the characters is encouraged by another with the Latin words es fortem. It's a directive to be brave.
Mom and Dad — you can do this.