Yesterday evening as I was making dinner, I found myself reading a Washington Post article about the growing shortage of doctors in the United States. Apparently, by the year 2030, we’re going to be short up to 100,000 physicians. (Oh, perfect, I thought — right around the time I’ll be having to submit to regular prostate exams, I’ll have to drive 100 miles and wait three hours in line just to get one.)
In response to the shortage, the article’s author calls for doctors to — get this — spend less time in medical school. That sounds crazy, except that, as the author notes, most doctors, after finishing college, spend an average of ten years (!!) getting trained!! Perhaps, he asks rather modestly, that could be condensed by a year or two?
Reading this, as a high school teacher, my jaw just about dropped. How different are the levels of preparation doctors get compared to teachers! How different are the levels of training we, as a public, permit. According to the article, the average doctor attends four years of college, four years of medical school, then “three to eight years to specialize in a residency or fellowship.” That’s 7-12 years of training doctors get beyond college.
Many teachers have none. They major in education in college, then start teaching your kids at age 22.
It’s also possible in some places to teach with no educational training whatsoever. I know. I was this teacher. There are plenty of school districts in the United States that are so desperate to fill positions — especially so-called “critical needs” areas (math, science, special education) that they’ll “provisionally” hire teachers who don’t even have teaching licenses yet, provided they’re on their way to getting them. The organization Teach for America routinely sends college graduates into some of the toughest teaching conditions in the country with little more than a month of training.
Why such a difference between the education levels of teachers and doctors? The simple fact is that we, as a society, wouldn’t permit doctors to be any less well trained. Can you imagine walking into a hospital and meeting some twenty-three year-old kid with his stethoscope on backwards.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Jeff! You can call me J-Man. I’ll be handling your gall bladder surgery.”
“Sure. Well, I’m a little nervous. This is actually my first time!”
“Doing this particular surgery?”
“No, in a hospital!”
“But don’t worry,” he’ll add. “I was a bio major! At Princeton.”
It’s funny . . . until you remember that we permit this all the time in our schools.
Here I think about my own teacher training: just a single year of graduate school to attain a Master’s. It was an intense year, surely. I lived in the classroom, completed two semester-long internships, and took scores of grad classes . . . But that’s just ONE TENTH of the training doctors get. It’s no wonder that, applying to jobs that spring, I felt like a fraud. My experience is hardly unique. If anything, others were even LESS prepared than I was. Most of the math teachers in my grad school cohort were already teaching as full-time, salaried employees mid-way through our grad school year — simply because our host schools were so desperate for math teachers that they’d take these completely untutored students on as vested teachers.
Why do we as a society permit this? There are two reasons. First, we think teaching is a noble calling, but we don’t think it’s particularly hard or sophisticated. It’s partly cultural — we Americans have always been ambivalent, deep down, about learning. Our belief in education has always been balanced against our reverence for the drop-out, the self-made, the street-smart, the up-by-your-bootstraps, the office-boy-to-corner-office, and the “I-never-let-my-schooling-get-in-the-way-of-my-education.” We’re Americans. We’re suspicious of the ivory tower (or the Common Core).
We believe, quite rightly in many cases, that the best learning happens in the “real world,” with on-the-job mentors who aren’t necessarily “certified,” in places that are not traditional classrooms. You learn by doing, we think. Put kids out in the community, we think. Set them up with internships, with community mentors. We ourselves, as teachers, often feel this way deep down — because this is what our own training encouraged.
It’s partly historical — teaching is historically women’s work, and degraded as such, like nursing and other traditionally female-dominated professions. Doctors, traditionally male, long ago established themselves as experts in their field, masters of a whole trove of scientific innovations that the lay person couldn’t possibly understand. Meanwhile teachers have historically deferred to professors as the experts in their shared field. Innovations in pedagogy are refined high above, and then teachers are told what to do.
It’s partly because teaching is so familiar. We’ve grown up watching teachers our whole lives. They don’t seem so special. It looks easy. It’s why we have a lot more respect as a society for airline pilots than for bus drivers. Familiarity breeds contempt — or at least the feeling that we could do just as well.
The second reason that we permit such untrained teachers is that we teachers ourselves view teaching as a craft that should be picked up through experience rather than studied scientifically. My whole training told me, “Take a few education courses — but these really aren’t very important. Then go into a classroom, watch and observe for a short time, then start doing it. Then, very quickly, get a job, disappear into your own classroom, and don’t ever get any meaningful feedback ever again. You’ll figure it out!”
We educators are as guilty as anyone of this — we don’t take our profession seriously enough. We see it as something you can just pick up, like riding a bike or throwing a ball, rather than the way doctors see their work: as a science to be studied, taught, and practiced for a long time under supervision before you’re able to go off on your own. When I began teaching, veterans would say to me, “Wait until your third year — then you’ll get it down.” But what they were talking about was pure procedural knowledge: how to keep 25 moody teenagers on track while fielding calls from the office, requests to go to the bathroom, under-the-breath bullying, illicit texting, and kids wandering in fifteen minutes late with no books or pencils. Those veterans weren’t saying that I’d understand how to effectively reach students with disabilities, or that I’d know how to give meaningful feedback, or how to establish a positive classroom climate. They were saying that I’d understand how not to accidentally receive 103 four-page essays at one time, or how to quiet interruptions before they start. They weren’t saying I’d be knowledgeable. They were saying I’d be able to survive.
This summer, I attended the National Writing Project, and I became more and more convinced that the more I can learn about techinique and philosophy — the why, not the how in teaching — the more deliberate I can be in my practice, and the more successful — the more professional — I’m ultimately going to be.
It strikes me that it’s taken me nine years to get to this point . . . the same amount of time that many doctors are trained for.
Maybe they have a point??
Alright, I am not seriously advocating for teachers to need nine years of training. But what I am saying is that if we want good teachers in the United States, we need to train them like professionals. And as I say, I am always struck by how little feedback I get or how little observation I get to do. As teachers, we’re expected to go into our classrooms and figure it out. Even most teaching internships, the meat of teacher ed programs, are famously hit-or-miss. Many of these experiences are so short, it’s almost impossible to either observe or be observed for any meaningful amount of time. This needs to stop. We need to make teachers complete longer, more intensive internships, with more thorough observations, and with more systematic, evidence-based training.
And here’s another paradox: If we want better teachers, we shouldn’t make it easier to become a teacher, as many advocates claim. We should make it harder. Too many people believe that, if we tighten the regulations, that will stop talented candidates from becoming teachers. They believe we should tear down the nets and make it easy for anyone to teach. But that is wrong. If we want to begin to attract the kinds of smart, committed people to teaching who are attracted to medicine, in addition to raising the starting salaries for teachers, we should raise the requirements to even get into educational programs. Too many advocates deride even the most basic test score criteria, claiming that this keeps away good people. It does not. It only makes teaching seem unserious. We need to raise the requirements. Making it harder to become a teacher is the first step toward making it more attractive, I think. It blew my mind to hear a commentator in the article about doctors claim that the AMA limits medical school seats. I’m not saying we should do that, but we should definitely make it harder to get in.
Now I can hear the critics: “If you make it too hard to become a teacher, our teacher shortage will be even worse. We won’t have anyone to fill our schools!”
What would we do??
Hmm, let’s think . . . This is a classic case of supply and demand, isn’t it? I wonder how the market solves these problems? How does a business attract workers when they’re in short supply . . . ?
(I’ll give you a hint: it’s pretty much the opposite of what several of the states with the worst teacher shortages — Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and West Virginia — have been doing for the last decade . . . )
Just a thought . . .
Look, I’m not saying teachers need to go to school for ten years after college. What I am saying is that a shortage should never be an excuse to erode professionalism. What I’m saying is that there’s a huge sweet spot out there — where we have not only more young people who want to teach and who stay in the profession, but also a better prepared, better educated teaching force. These two elements are far from mutually exclusive — in fact, I’m saying that they can go hand-in-hand.
In the end, I think it’s simple: If we’re going to be the champions of education, it’s not a bad idea to have a little bit more of an education ourselves.