teacher training

Checking Boxes Part III

Regular readers have no doubt noticed my posts haven’t been quite as regular. I’m in the middle of moving and finishing my teaching certification. I should be back to my twice-weekly update schedule next month.

I wonder how many advocates for online education have taken classes on-line. Seriously. My alternative certification program features an online component, and it is one of the most stultifying things I’ve ever had to do. It’s not that the content is bad, but it’s delivered in 3-500 word snippets, sometimes with a video. (Sometimes that video is even related to the content.) You read through a few of these pages, then you take a quiz. If you do not answer all the questions correctly, you take the quiz again with slightly different questions. Then you start on a fresh batch of pages until the next quiz.

The quizzes are there to create accountability. Some platforms will let you skip straight to the quizzes without reading/viewing the material, but not the one my program uses. My problem is not with the quizzes. I just wonder how checking boxes online demonstrates…anything beyond a basic acquaintance with the material. The quizzes pretty closely match the ones I used to use in my college courses to make sure my students did their reading and listening.

After those quizzes, though, there was the rest of the class, the part where we actually discussed and practiced and synthesized information: the part where we learned. There has not been much of that on-line. Theoretically, I know, online courses include some sort of forum or other means for feedback or discussion. (I’ve used online portals for in-classroom classes before.) There isn’t one for my current program. Aside from the quizzes, there’s no output from my end. It’s not much different from just reading a textbook and doing the end-of-chapter activities.

The in-person sessions involve more interaction. There’s plenty of lecture…and PowerPoint…and videos…but we also talk things through in small groups. We stray off-topic. We share our experiences. The people going through an alternative certification program have diverse backgrounds. I’ve sat with former delivery drivers and other former college instructors. Many of us have subbed. Some have taught in private schools. Most of us are on at least our second career; some are in their third and fourth. None of that makes the sessions perfect. I still get bored to the edge of tears on occasion. There’s more learning, though, than just the content. We swap resources for test preparation and the job hunt. There is honest-to-FSM networking.

The qualification tests themselves have more in common with the online portions of the course. They are (mostly) checking boxes (well, ovals) on a screen. Sometimes the questions have a degree of nuance. Most of them are more like playing Jeopardy!—the questions are worded to activate the appropriate background knowledge. Once you learn Texas’s preferred pedagogy jargon, you’re more than halfway to the right answer. (I felt this particularly with the English as a Second Language supplemental exam.) Coupling common sense and rudimentary knowledge with, you know, paying attention is enough to get you through.

It’s hoop-jumping, and I’m a little concerned that becoming a teacher is merely jumping through the right hoops. I remind myself, though, that the tests explicitly check for the knowledge of beginning teachers. I’m okay with having those tests represent only the absolute baseline. I’m even more okay with going through the hoops because there’s a far more legitimate chance at a job than the one that waited for me after my dissertation.

And for now, at least, I won’t even have to teach online.

Knowing is Half the Something Something

G.I. Joe taught me that knowing is half the battle. The Joes were suspiciously silent on what the other half might be…maybe it was “fight enemies with extraordinarily poor depth perception.” Two different events this weekend, though, got me thinking about what I know, what other people know, and what I sometimes expect other people to know.

Saturday: The Known Knowns

Most of the time, I think that signing up for the face-to-face teacher training sessions was a good thing. There’s legitimate networking that happens at the classes, the people are nice, and the air conditioning keeps the conference rooms colder than I can responsibly keep my apartment. (I also can’t put them off as easily as the purely on-line sections of the training.) By the end of Saturday, I was not so sure.

The material, taken out of context, is often interesting. Primary and secondary educators like to dabble in neuroscience, taking bits and pieces of things (like different loci of activity for different kind of learning) and concocting theories to support them (like “learning styles,” which do not actually work the way you might think). There are practical tips about applying for jobs and navigating state mandates once you’ve got one. We spent time addressing the standards that go with the state’s academic achievement exams. We also discussed how to convert those into objectives for one or more lessons.

That’s where things went off the rails. The distinction between items on the state guidelines and objectives for lessons just…escaped…some members of the class. First the instructor, then other members of the class, tried to guide the lost back to clarity. No dice. For forty-five minutes, we circled and circled what was basically a question of semantics.

It reminded me of graduate school.

Actually, it reminded me more keenly of some of my undergraduate classes. Those drove me crazy when we had to go over material more than once. Most of the time, I got it on the first pass and had little sympathy for anybody who needed to repeat it. By the time we hit the third or fourth repetition, I had generally begun writing nasty things directly into my notes or into the doodles that fill the margin. Until this last weekend, I hadn’t thought of those moments for years. As a room full of aspiring teachers tried to restate the information in as many different forms as possible, I found myself writing unkind things in my notes. (In German, even.) Intellectually, I don’t blame them. Asking questions is the responsible thing to do, especially when understanding the answers will affect how you deal with the young people you’ll be responsible for. Emotionally? Man, was I bad at mustering sympathy. That’s one of many things I need to practice.

I wrote a while back about being “the smartest one in the room.” There are some very smart people taking this alternative certification course, but it’s a much truer cross-section of the population than graduate school was. It is taking some time and effort to adjust to that, to sort out what I know because I’ve taught before, what I know because of my general level of education and, most importantly, what I only think I know. That’s the vital part for me, because I, too, am going to be responsible for young people. It doesn’t matter if I already know 75-90% of what we spend any given Saturday plowing through; it matters that I get a grasp on the 10-25% I don’t. In this case, the other half of the battle is biting my tongue and keeping my attention in the right place.

Sunday: The Unknown Knowns

I spent all day Saturday in class. I spent most of Sunday doing other things—first dishes, then a day trip out to  visit some friends. On the way home from that day trip, I caught the tail end of the local folk music show. The guest host was doing a special episode with, of all things, a musicologist. Even better, the show’s focus was on Texas music in the 1970s (particularly the “cosmic cowboy” scene in Austin). My daughter really wanted me to turn it off, but I couldn’t.

The last musicological thing I did was a book review that may never see the light of day; that was back in December. Hearing a musicologist on the radio, one who studied the same historical period I dissertated on, was awesome. I was familiar with some of the broad historical background the musicologist discussed, but the details about the Texas scenes were new to me. The interview was broken up with appropriate music. It was interesting, practice-oriented musicology. I loved every moment of it.

This was what I knew. This was the kind of discussion that I had spent years of my life training to participate in. I could have talked just as fluently about my own work on New York. Even better, it was quality scholarship pitched for an interested but general audience…the kind of thing I’ve always particularly enjoyed.

It would fit the narrative to say that 20 minutes on the radio awakened my old desires, that I’m again wrestling with the loss of the career I abandoned. That might be true, ephemerally. I miss doing scholarship. I miss research and I miss talking to my fellow scholars about their work. I even miss the esoteric stuff. A little. I miss them, though, like I might miss an ex-girlfriend long after the breakup. The times were good, but they’re done. I’m with somebody else now. (Happily!) Might-have-beens will linger. I can, to push the metaphor one step further than it ought to go, be Facebook friends with academia these days.

The other half of this battle? I don’t think there is one. It’s fun to know things, but I know that, for me, this particular battle is over. I’m getting better at embracing the “post” in “postac.”

Checking Boxes, Part I

Last week I took a test. It was one of the boring ones administered by computer, a string of multiple choice questions and a pair of short essays. The thing is, I was extremely nervous in the run-up to the test. More anxious than I had been since my comps. My stomach wasn’t in knots, but my body was taut with stress hormones. I was also chasing my kids around and managing urgent research and paperwork for a project. Focusing on anything for more than a few minutes was challenging. I worked through perhaps half of my planned study, leaving large swathes of the study guide untouched and never managing to complete a practice test.

And yet…and yet when I had driven to College Station, when I sat in the over-cushioned but somehow still uncomfortable chair you only find in waiting rooms…I was smiling. It was a slight smile that showed no teeth, one I wear most often in the run-up to athletic competitions. Sure enough, there was Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” from Symphonie Fantastique playing in my head. “Scotland the Brave” came hot on its heels (the closest thing my alma mater has to a fight song and something my college ultimate team used to sing-shout before games). I knew I was going to be fine.*

The test was a necessary step in becoming “highly qualified” by the standards of the Texas Board of Education. I’ve now officially embarked on becoming a middle school teacher. That’s weird for me to type. A year ago—even six months ago—I wouldn’t have believed it possible. I have a PhD. I was going to find a writing job or a consulting job or a tech job. Becoming a public school teacher wasn’t on the table. I wasn’t going to “settle” for that. I’m overqualified. And seriously…middle schoolers? I hated middle school. Why on earth would I ever want to go back to one?

Because I like teaching. I like waking up in the morning knowing that, if I do my job right, it will mean something to somebody. Teaching is a job I can care about, even if the money’s not great and there are tests and parents and bureaucracy to deal with. Hopefully I can make middle school suck less for some kids along the way.

Saturday I started my alternative certification training. Most of the day was designed to reinforce the feelings I mention in the previous paragraph. The company president and the guides talked up the emotional payoff (and, to a lesser extent, the emotional burden) of teaching. We talked in small groups about our favorite teachers, about their qualities and which ones we hoped we could emulate. We watched feel-good documentary clips about first-year teachers.

Then we talked a lot about how to channel our idealism into the practical concerns of the job hunt. It was an oddly mercenary turn, but one that I can appreciate. The program encourages its teachers-in-training to start their job hunts as soon as possible. For those of us looking to be employed by the time the 2014-2015 school year starts, that’s particularly urgent. The program doesn’t get paid until its graduates are working, so there’s incentive for them, too.

Alternative teacher certification manages to contrast with the dubious passage to professorhood at both the practical and ideological ends of the spectrum. Especially as an adjunct, the emphasis is on getting it over with…teaching prerequisite or general education classes checks boxes for the students and for the university. You get the students through or you fail them out; either way, they’re just passing through. As an adjunct, you’re also just passing through. You want to make a difference, and sometimes you can. It is seldom a goal of the institution, though. The life-changing stuff is for fullprofs with offices for office hours…or for fancy new buildings…or for the smiling ethnically-diverse friend groups that fill recruitment brochures. All the things that will be there next semester when you probably won’t be.

In my graduate programs, at least, there was seldom any practical advice for job hunting. “Have a badass CV and know people” is not much of a directive. Doubtless the lack of practical advice has something to do with the impossible math of hundreds of applicants for every tenure-track job, but I still find the contrast with my teacher training striking. The emphasis there is on understanding high need areas, on what to say and avoid saying in interviews. There’s no illusion that you get jobs solely on merit. You have to know the system, and you have to work the system. It’s possible for even an average applicant to work the system effectively, which is contrast enough with the academic job market.

*I have not actually gotten my scores yet, so I do not know whether that pre-test feeling has any connection to reality, but anyway…