Thursday, December 14, 2006

Could I pursue teacher licensure?

From the spring of 2004 to the end of 2005 I worked as a substitute teacher for two school districts in northern Virginia. I worked around 200 assignments, mostly high school but some middle school, with a wide range of subjects and class ability ranges. It was rewarding. I felt it necessary to resign at the end of 2005 for reasons I will develop here. I might or might not consider full time teaching, but I will lay out the issues here. In September 2005, did take the ETS Praxis II exam in mathematics and passed with a reasonable score. So academically I would be very much in the running in mt “post retirement” life. I “retired” from an I.T. career at the end of 2001 (forced out by a downsizing – next entry) and I am 63 now.

I won’t give details that would violate anyone’s confidentiality, but there has to be some personal candor in this discussion.

One issue on top is how long one should substitute without a license, or without committing to earning one. I discuss that at this link. There is a tendency in some situations to look at subbing as “easy money” when the alternative might be retail or a graveyard shift somewhere. If that’s the reason, one should not be a sub.

Many of the classes were great. Maybe one fifth were honors, AP or IB. These students could take the assigned work for the day and progress with little supervision. There was an honors chemistry (even though I am a math person) for seven days in the spring of 2005. Students often used the Internet in class to research assignments, without ever abusing the rules for computer use. I am told they did well on the SOL’s (Virginia Standards of Learning) and on the final exams, with the notorious multiple choice questions that require explanations for the choice for credit.

Since I took nine years of piano as a boy, I included music in the profile. Many of the music classes had student conductors, and were for groups that performed publicly (like orchestra, modern jazz, or madrigals) and the talent was impressive. The drama and theater was impressive. In AP English classes, students often had themes to write for the class, and they often looked interesting when turned in. In math, often there were chapter tests.

Most of the assignments were high school. I did try middle school in one district. Early in the experience, I mistakenly had two elementary schools on the profile, and then removed these, as I found I could not be effective. I did do some extended day shifts at elementary and middle schools for a couple of weeks, however.

There was, however, a downside. About a third of the substitute jobs offered (they were short-term, with 10 days the longest allowed) involved special education. Some special ed students are mainstreamed into regular classes, and sometimes they are team-taught, with one special education teacher in the room. The substitute was allowed to fill in for either teacher. More interesting were the assistant positions, in which the substitute might work in with or two specific students in a class. Some students tended to demand parental attention or would try to manipulate staff before they would do their work. This was particularly troubling to me; with my social background, I have no dependent-protective “fathering” skills.

Furthermore, I had three assignments in special education settings where the students were severely handicapped. The school districts did not inform the substitute teachers about the nature of these assignments in orientation, at least when I was working. In these, it could have been necessary to do custodial care. In one instance, a regular teacher asked if I could “help in the locker room” and man (at age 60) the deep end of a swimming pool on a field trip. In another, I was one-on-one with a student whom I was supposed to “make respond” to the lesson materials. I can’t “make” people do anything.

In time, I would accumulate a record of some occasional discipline problems, either in middle school settings or, in one case, with low income high school students who did not want to be in school. Guidelines for substitutes assume that many students need attention, and emphasis ideas like maintaining eye contact, and greeting students upon entering a classroom. The guidelines have to be general enough for all environments, but obviously for more mature classes these practices would be gratuitous, awkward and unwelcome. In one case, I had taken a music class in a middle school, and found three of the classes terrific (with student conductors, and able to perform), and two others unruly. Even though I can share knowledge of music from an ear and memory perspective, I have no idea how to conduct students who do not know how to work together in an ensemble. I had taken what was really an inappropriate assignment for my background, and was removed in two days. In another middle school assignment there were after-the-fact discipline complaints after the assignment most of which had gone well, but I had not noticed some inappropriate behavior by very few students in the back of the room.

But the other problem occurred because of my web activity. I sometimes gave teachers (especially government or history) post-class notes (in handwritten comments) from my site to look up on topics that I thought would be of interest, especially COPA before the Supreme Court. This seemed to go over all right, but one day I spoke to a teacher about a newspaper editorial about blogging and the Federal Election Commission controversy, and pointed her to some files on mine that would back up the editorial. A day later I got a called from an assistant principal complaining that she had been “offended” by the site. Some gumshoeing (looking at server logs with IP addresses of searches) eventually showed that someone at the school had already seen a different file on my site that they believed, in their frame of reference, to be “self-incriminating.” This was a prototype short film screenplay (by me) in which a character obviously similar to me is “framed” and convicted of a disturbing crime, and actually dies in prison (with a plot twist). The setting is obviously fictitious, but I understand (while I personally disagree with) the legal argument that it could be viewed as self-defamatory. It is important, however, to understand that search engines can return files with any combination of phrases or words and Boolean logic, and the mere appearance of a file with a person’s name in a “derogatory search” is not itself derogatory. The fact pattern is actually a bit complicated, with some side turns and other possible interpretations. The particular file has been removed.

I resigned in December, and gave some hyperbolic reasons. One was never having raised a family considering the age that I had reached (62), and the other was the bigger one, concerns about free speech. I did work a short term assignment grading SOL mathematics binders in the Spring.

Is it possible that I would go back? I have examined some of the licensure programs in the area. The more comprehensive (and convenient to attend) programs are much more expensive, and require more credit hours but license the individual in MD, DC and VA.
As I explained in the link below, I think that there is a maximum time that may sub ethically without committing to licensure.

Let me cover the two points in the resignation letter. As for the free speech, I do think that, in the age of the Internet, search engines, and social networking sites, school systems need to design much more specific human resources policies for teachers. Substitute teachers, assuming that they do not contribute significantly to the grading of students, may have more freedom than permanent teachers, because the practical risk of a “conflict of interest” or legitimate complaint from parents is much less (whatever happened with me). Were I to become a permanent teacher, or even to accept a long-term substitute assignment (to the point of giving grades) all of my own self-published materials including these blogs would have to be taken down. In this regard, an English teacher in Fairfax county had her students do a “blogging” project last year, to the chagrin of school administrators, who couldn’t wait for it to be over with (given her own stories in DC Examiner).

The parenting issue is a tough one for me. I am not comfortable being expect to “role play” as a male father figure. Philosophically, I do see my "forced" participation in something like this (including special education) as part of the “It takes a village” debate (over raising kids) that I have discussed in other blogs entries and websites. For me to enter the teaching market, there would have to be enough demand at the higher end in mathematics.

Becoming a permanent teacher as a second career would, for me, become a kind of enlistment. It would be a form of national service, where I would be in the same boat as a lot of people and give up a lot of intellectual and didactic independence, to speak for myself. The public school teaching community does seem insular, and overwhelmed by the demands on it, which lead to a certain insistence on solidarity that to me is offputting. Yet, at times the teaching community seems to need the input from the outside, real world, where problems are much more subtle than what can be communicated easily in classrooms.

Link 1: Is there a "don't ask don't tell" policy for teachers?

Link 2: Substitute teacher shortages

Link 3: My detailed substitute teacher discussion

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