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Highly Qualified Teachers and Federal Myth Makers

Ohanian Comment: Every highly qualified teacher, forgive the expression, knows the truth of what Rich speaks. Teaching and learning are mysterious. And messy. And secretive. Rod Paige and his crew are so far from knowing what a qualified teacher looks like that it would be laughable if it weren't so pathetic--and damaging to dedicated, hardworking, beat-up-on teachers.

I graduated with my teaching degree in high school English. I knew Dickens, Shakespeare, Hemingway, even Silas Marner. By all the standards, especially those advocated today, I was a highly qualified teacher. But I wasn't.

I have learned many lessons since graduating, and they didn't come from the rigorous curriculum I was teaching. Content counts, of course, but in teaching and learning, it is far from everything.

I was considered a good teacher. I covered the curriculum. What I didn't understand in my early teaching years -- and what was not taught in college -- is what it takes to ensure that what is taught is learned.

Lately, as I read about federal and state mandates for "highly qualified" teachers, I want to jump up to say: "Sure, hire teachers who know English or science or social studies, but also make sure they know some of the lessons I learned." To wit:

Teaching and learning are mysterious. There are some basic principles in subject scope and sequence, but the internals matter so much that they can override the best lesson plan. Internals for teachers include common sense, intelligence and enthusiasm. Internals for students include taking responsibility and making effort.

The education myth that is still strong, despite all that we know now about the intricacies of learning, is that somehow learning is a straight line: a teacher teaches, a student learns. Actually, education is a slow, messy, zigzag process. For example, in math class, students may look as if they are listening and be the proverbial million miles away. Yet, these same students at home may figure out batting averages and even follow the stock market.

The overwhelming majority of learning time is spent outside the school. Students at best go to school half the days of the year and only one quarter of the day. These facts alone ought to be enough to convince school boards, parents and politicians that not everything is taking place in school. Yet, the No Child Left Behind Act and related state legislation continue to support the myth of the all-powerful school without providing support for the learning that takes place at the kitchen sink and while driving in the car.

Teaching well is important but students have to want to learn. No one can do it for them. I relearned this old adage in the classroom: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. The same thing happens in school.

Education is a lot more connected, secretive, and miraculous than we know. The mind, the heart, the brain, the spirit -- all of these play a bigger role than we can now identify. Students, and parents too, need teachers who know not only their subject but also how to encourage, how to motivate and how to respond positively. They must impart real praise based on achievement, not empty, perfunctory words.

And let's remember that teachers also need encouragement. These hard-won lessons, and not content alone, are what constitutes "highly qualified." They make it possible for real learning to take place.

Rich is founder and president of the Home and School Institute in Washington. She can be reached through www.MegaSkillsHSI.org.

— Dorothy Rich
A `highly qualified' teacher who really wasn't
Houston Chronicle


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