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I'm Unqualified to Teach Your Kids

Or am I? As a private school teacher, I can bypass the state's rules for educators - and it's those rules that now need fixing.

By Alison Lobron

I am an "unqualified" teacher. I have no formal education training, no teaching license, and no passing score on the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure. And yet parents pay more than $30,000 per student per year for me to teach their children.

That's because I teach in a private school, where "highly qualified" is defined differently than the Massachusetts Department of Education regulations that may result next month in the dismissal of up to 7 percent of the state's public teaching force. The teachers whose grade books are on the block either haven't passed the state tests or lack required course work in education. The state's definition of "highly qualified" isn't new, but the federal No Child Left Behind law requires 100 percent adherence to this definition by June 30.

Yet in the private school world, where I've taught for seven years, many - if not most - teachers have resumes that don't jibe with state regulations. At my school, Concord Academy in Concord, where day-student tuition will be $30,580 next year, only about a quarter of the faculty has some form of state certification, largely because the academy demands expertise in our disciplines, but not in the field of education. The rest of us are - you guessed it -- "unqualified."

An expensive school isn't necessarily a good school. But when some of the state's most privileged, success-oriented parents -- including four out of five gubernatorial candidates -- are sending their own children to schools with "unqualified" teachers, we should question the state's definition of qualified. As it now stands, we may lose public school teachers beloved by principals, parents, and students, and we risk driving talented potential teachers into private schools or other careers entirely.

In 2002, when I was looking for a new teaching post after completing a master's degree in English, I explored both the private and public spheres. A public school graduate, I'd always felt troubled by the exclusivity of independent schools -- even as I appreciated the small classes, curricular freedom, and mostly motivated kids. But when I spoke with public school principals, I found that (often to their chagrin) my first three years of teaching, at Phillips Academy in Andover and the Winsor School in Boston, didn't count toward the education course work required for a professional license. At a minimum, I'd need to pass the state tests and then, over a period of five years, spend time and money on a state-approved education program. The choice between Concord Academy, which valued my academic qualifications and teaching experience, and public schools that needed me to jump through a considerable array of hoops wasn't really a choice at all.

At most private schools, department heads and administrators, rather than standardized tests and hours of education credits, determine who is qualified. "I'm fundamentally not that interested in education programs. From my point of view, people learn how to teach by teaching, not by being told how to teach," says Sandy Stott, the dean of faculty who hired me. "Candidates have to show us they know their disciplines and have an equal grounding in and affection for working with 14-to-18-year-olds." Stott says that while virtually all Concord Academy teachers have a bachelor's degree in their fields, and most have a master's or doctorate, there are some who don't -- and he's glad for the discretion to make the occasional exception.

Because private schools control their student populations, they can't offer solutions or models for many of the challenges facing their public counterparts. But when it comes to teacher hiring, the Department of Education would do well to consider how independent schools define qualified. At the very least, the department should expand its definition so applicants who have taught in private schools or universities can substitute work experience for additional education credits. Ideally, the state would create a waiver system so that a series of positive evaluations from parents, students, and supervisors -- typically the method private schools use in deciding whether to retain new hires - could serve in lieu of state tests and education credits.

Unfortunately, there aren't too many academically accomplished people eager to work for a teacher's salary. But for the few who are, we shouldn't make life any harder.

Alison Lobron teaches English at Concord Academy and is a regular contributor to the "Coupling" column. Send e-mail to magazine@globe.com.

— Alison Lobron
Boston Globe


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