Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 17, 2012

Heinig: Getting good teachers: Can new licensing work?

Such instructors are going to make a lot of mistakes

By Mark Heinig Jr.
Guest columnist

— The Indiana State Board of Education has spoken! People may now enter our children’s classrooms and try to teach them without completing a fully accredited teacher preparation program. A few may survive the first few years when those who thought they could teach — but discover that they can’t — leave.

Some depart voluntarily. Others go because people like me (school principals) don’t renew their contracts. The principal doesn’t actually have the last word. Both the local school district’s superintendent and its board of school trustees can overrule the principal. The local board always gets the last word, but it rarely needs to take any action beyond accepting the teacher’s letter of resignation. Most teachers facing probable non-renewal resign beforehand, and the public never learns why.

After 40 years in education, I know a lot of teachers, but I don’t know many who approve of the state board’s decision. State Superintendent-elect Glenda Ritz recommended delaying the vote until January. Would that have made a difference? I don’t think so. A poor decision in December has the same effect as a poor decision in January. Either way, it’s a poor decision for everybody except Glenda Ritz!

Although the state board’s decision must have disappointed Ms. Ritz, it may have improved her position in the battle that’s obviously coming. If Indiana’s new teacher licensing procedure fails, as most Indiana educators expect, board members can’t blame Ritz. She gave them her advice, but they chose to disregard it.

They’d better hope they made the right choice, because they must bear the blame alone if they made the wrong one. Parents who think their children are being taught poorly or treated unfairly are not inclined to be understanding or forgiving. They make sure everybody knows how unhappy they are.

How many is everybody? A lot more than it used to be! Long ago I learned that, on average, everybody could influence between 75 and 100 other people. How much more influential they are today, when they have access to the Internet and social media? Ms. Ritz knows the answer to that one. She used electronic communications very well in her campaign.

When new teachers with alternative licenses begin teaching, the veteran teachers would be wise to keep their distance. I’m not suggesting they be rude to the newcomers or try to obstruct them. However, I can’t recommend they help them either. If they do, they may be blamed for the newcomers’ mistakes. Chances are there will be a lot of them.

Many experienced teachers will be reluctant to withhold their assistance, because kids may suffer. I share their concern, but the teachers did not change the certification procedure. The State Board of Education, Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett did.

Why should experienced teachers jeopardize their careers in such a hostile climate? Most of them have families to support just like other Hoosiers. I doubt if many of us in any occupation would voluntarily assume extra responsibilities that threatened the security of our families.

This can be a serious disadvantage to the beginning teachers with alternative licenses. However, there is no reason why veteran teachers shouldn’t help beginners with traditional licenses. There is also nothing requiring local school corporations to hire teachers with alternative licenses.

When I was in a university teacher education program, I learned part of what a good teacher needs to know. Then I got my initial classroom experience as a student teacher. My supervising teacher was a terrific role model — maybe too terrific. He was so effective that I didn’t have much opportunity to make mistakes and solve problems. Mistakes and problems were rare while I was teaching his students.

So I started my first teaching job with too much confidence and enthusiasm. That didn’t last long! I soon realized how much I still needed to learn. I acquired some of that knowledge through the painful process of trial and error, but most of it came from older colleagues — seasoned professionals who had earned the respect of students, parents and community leaders. They guided me through my first years and helped me bridge the gap between theory and practice.

If experienced teachers decide to guide alternatively licensed beginning teachers (as I probably would myself), they need to keep a detailed paper trail. They should assemble a fat file of notes. Nothing protects a teacher better than thorough record keeping. When school administrators are wrong, they like to keep it quiet or shift the blame to someone else.

Don’t be that someone! When I became a principal, my superintendent advised me to approach potential conflicts cautiously: “Pick your battles so you can win them,” he used to say, “Don’t fight if you can’t win!” I followed his advice through the rest of my career, and it served me well. Like many organizations, schools have a bureaucratic structure. The people at the top want to stay there. They don’t want to fight with subordinates who have enough documented evidence to win.

The Kokomo Tribune’s editorial board was correct when it predicted four frustrating years for Glenda Ritz. However, she isn’t completely powerless, because she can’t be silenced. The voters did prefer her to Tony Bennett. No matter how much the Republicans wish to ignore her, she can still present her case to the public. That can have a political impact. Hoosiers still value rule by the people, even if Gov. Daniels and Dr. Bennett don’t like it.  

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a former Indiana high school principal and teacher. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.