Teaching teachers

Dennis Van Roekel often sounds more like a math teacher – which he was for 25 years – than president of the nation’s largest union, the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

In Atlanta twice recently for the NEA’s Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly and the National Conference of State Legislatures, Van Roekel talked to the AJC about trends and challenges in the teaching profession, including the push for expedited routes to certification that bypass traditional courses on classroom management and teaching methods.

“I don’t believe everyone who has a degree in math can do what I do in the classroom. And I can’t do every job in math,” he says.

He believes education needs to build a better recruitment system to attract top candidates to the field. Now, “we wait to see who shows up.”

Better recruitment, improved training and hands-on experience would eliminate laments about bad teachers in the classroom, says Van Roekel. “My position is that they should never be in that room if they are bad. I don’t want to pay bad teachers more than good teachers. I don’t want to pay bad teachers anything.”

Van Roekel recommends that teachers be licensed; he notes that his barber would be shut down if he cut hair without a license. “But you can teach 30 kids without a license.”

He supports reforms to teacher preparation programs and the creation of clear standards that define what teachers should know and be able to do. He cites the National Board Certification as an example of teachers working to the highest standards. Those standards could be used to benchmark and set levels of teacher competency and emphasize experienced-based training.

“You should never become a teacher of record if you never spent any time in a classroom with kids,” he says.

Medical students have residencies to hone their skills. Young lawyers learn as associates in law firms. “In teaching, we say, ‘Here is the key. Good luck.’’’

That lack of preparation for the classroom is why so many teachers flee the field in three years, says Van Roekel.

While he credits Teach for America for its effective recruitment of bright college grads to two-year teaching stints, he says, “I don’t think you build a profession with a revolving door.”

Teachers today have to accept that they will receive ongoing training, and there will be accountability. “I don’t think you have the luxury of closing your door,” he says.

To teachers who yearn for the days when they could shut their doors, Van Roekel asks whether they would continue seeing a doctor who told them, “I know there are now new treatments and new drugs out there, but I want to shut my door and just keep doing what I have always been doing.”

Teachers must be open to change, including the expanding role of technology, he says. As a math teacher, Van Roekel recalled the raging debate over whether students should use calculators. “The question should be, when is it appropriate to use a calculator?”

He shakes his head at the notion — espoused by some Georgia school boards in the wake of budget crunches — that schools can dispense with such basics as textbooks. When he began teaching math, Van Roekel said he thought he could develop his own curriculum and answer all the questions that didn’t seem to be answered in the book.

He ran into reality. “You can’t anticipate all the questions coming up. I could have two classes. One class got it; one class didn’t get it. I had to figure out how it was a student didn’t understand something, and find alternative ways to teach it. If you don’t have textbooks, what resources do you have? Are teachers obligated and responsible for developing all the content?”

Van Roekel believes teachers will be helped by the Common Core State Standards. Van Roekel believes the majority of teachers support Common Core because there are fewer and clearer standards to guide their instruction. “Our folks are excited about it. With the standards, they say, ‘I can visualize what I can do in my classroom.”’

He’s a bit mystified by the growing criticisms and has a few questions for opponents.

“If you don’t want it, what do you want instead?” he says. “And what is in the Common Core Standards that you don’t want a child to know? If you can’t define that, we are handicapping teachers.”

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