A lot is being said these days about assessing the competence of teachers, especially those just entering the teaching profession. The papers as well as our own professional journals are filled with ways in which the city, state, and federal government plan to go about it. In similar fashion, teacher education institutions, responding to the call for such assessment, are collecting evidence that their recent graduates, generally one to five years out, meet a high level of such competence. While this may sound right, the problem is that those creating the means by which teachers will be judged are generally much older and (hopefully, although not always the case) have acquired a set of skills and knowledge based on years of seasoning. Looking back over their shoulders at new teachers often causes them to lose sight of the years it takes to grow from a novice teacher to an expert professional.
They expect that all teachers will be able to manage classrooms, some as diverse as including children who speak anywhere from two to twenty-five different languages, and whose cultural background has not included exposure to American, or even Western, precepts.
They expect these teachers to know how to stem violence that sometimes erupts in their classrooms (this after two hours of preparation mandated by the state). They expect that teachers will possess a high level of understanding of subject matter content related to their own fields, not to mention a wide knowledge of the sciences, humanities, the arts, and the social sciences, in addition to pedagogy. They assume that teachers are aware of the latest literature pertaining to current issues in education, obtained through the media and the Internet, over and above traditional books and journals.
They assert that teachers should know the difference between "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top," and be aware, at the same time, that educational slogans change every five years or so. They assume that a teacher cannot be without knowledge of the politics both in their schools and their school systems and, in order that they can hope to improve working conditions, be immersed in collective negotiating procedures.
Increasingly, it is a mandate that teachers be familiar with the handling of data to follow the progress of their students and, hopefully, the renewal of their own teaching strategies. It is axiomatic that they also know both state and local standards in each of the disciplines they teach (at the elementary school level, as we know, they are numerous).
From the start they must be adept at working with parents and other stakeholders in their communities. They need to understand how these and other forces evaluate schools. They should understand the school report card, with all its implications not only for teaching but for the value of real estate in their neighborhoods. This is critical to their own survival, even as the report cards themselves have been subject to intense criticism by those who have knowledge of psychometrics and, might I add, also possess a fair amount of common sense.
All of this must precede, or at least be congruent with, knowledge of children (we finally arrive at thinking about the children they teach). Teachers must be expert practitioners dealing with children who have special needs, ranging from cognitive or emotional difficulties to those whose achievement is the product of giftedness or extraordinary talent. Let's not forget, as well, that teachers must navigate among children in classes numbering as high as 30 or more, must be skilled in methods of differentiated instruction (in plain English, must be able to teach children of vastly different abilities, levels of attention, and widely ranging physical needs, especially in middle schools). A deep knowledge of the developmental level of children at each grade level is also imperative, particularly if the children, including those who have just immigrated to this country, are to meet the requirements of the grade to which they have been assigned. It would be nice, as well, if teachers were able to evaluate research impinging on what and how they teach in order to inform their teaching and give them the tools by which they can evaluate, intelligently, both the curriculum and their students' progress.
Naturally, assessment of teachers, based on these criteria, is left to those with wiser and experienced heads (we hope). The problem is that the assessors forget how long it took them to acquire all of the above. Yet they expect that young heads have been able to assimilate all of these skills and competencies, if not more, within even a period as long as five years.
So we are feverishly trying to put old heads on young shoulders. That burden, in a profession which is as much an art as a science, is neither fair nor wise, neither just nor sensible. When I was a beginning teacher I enjoyed the company and the commiserations of those who were my age. I also marveled at the expertise of the older teachers who had continued to grow, but who were fortunate enough to have had the years of experience necessary to meet the challenges of our profession. I've never forgotten those days, those teachers, and those truths. Others have.