Head of the class: Think you can be a teacher?


The teaching profession isn't for slackers.

Pittsfield (Mass.) High School history teacher Therese Allen arrives to her classroom around 6:45 a.m., five days a week, neatly dressed, coffee in hand, and reviews her lesson plans for the day.

With February being Black History Month, she and the seven other members of the social studies department have worked to research and plan lessons that will offer students a wide range of history with tie-ins to current events. "We don't use textbooks" on the subject of black history, Allen said, because the history books "fall embarrassingly short."

So, she and her fellow social studies and history teachers work to change that.

To grab the attention of her students, Allen decorates her classroom door and walls with maps and photographs and posters of Africa and of African-American civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

For their current unit, she and her colleague, Emily Pink, created two-inch-thick binders for each student filled with articles, worksheets, essay prompts and other reference materials to help students complete assignments. Their own binders, which include rubrics and plans to actually teach the materials, are about three-inches thick. The teachers research films and look at news headlines to supplement the information they share with their students, to make it relevant. They also make sure their lessons tie in with curriculum requirements, and that they're taught with the right element of rigor for both their standard and honors classes, of which they teach multiple sections.

"Teaching is extremely complicated, difficult work," said Howard "Jake" Eberwein III, dean of graduate and continuing education at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, historically a teachers' college, located in North Adams, Mass.

Eberwein, a former local teacher and public school superintendent said that when he explains the profession to prospective students or other non-teachers he said, "I often ask them to imagine themselves giving a presentation, to think about how much time they put into it, how they may have lost sleep over it, the anxiety as they prepare to deliver it. Imagine the emotions and energy and thought that goes into that, and now do it every single day, for 180 days, over and over, in front of students who are constantly in motion.

"There's nothing more challenging than being a classroom teacher," said Eberwein. "It's a role that's critically important."

Getting into the teaching profession requires an ongoing amount of training and preparation.

Both Vermont and Massachusetts state laws require public school teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree or successful completion of a state-approved educator preparation program. Candidates must also pass the state teacher licensure exams — the ETS Praxis series in Vermont or the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL).

Typical teacher programs include coursework, relative to "pedagogy," or the theories and methods of teaching; childhood and adolescent development; the sociology of student populations, as well as content courses, meaning English classes if you're going to be an English teacher, or biology and engineering classes if you're planning to teach science.

Once only requiring an associate degree, new state standards and mandates are requiring early childhood educators to have at least a bachelor's degree.

Then, there's field work, which includes dozens upon dozens of hours of classroom observation, learning to plan lessons with actual teachers, and then finally student teaching for an actual classroom.

Ron Stahley, superintendent of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union based in Brattleboro, Vt., said "the professional development is critical ... things have changed in the last 10 to 15 years."

A pedagogical approach known as "social-emotional learning" is now considered a best practice, as is teaching teachers about dealing with student traumas and teaching students who are non-native English speakers.

"The primary focus needs to be how do I work with students to give them what they need to be successful," said Stahley. "A high school teacher's not teaching history, you're teaching kids about history."

In Vermont, a Level I professional educator's license is valid for three years. Then, teachers can pursue a Level II license, renewable every seven years, once a teacher has completed three years of teaching under the Level I license, in addition to creating a professional development plan, and completing three credits of post-baccalaureate coursework.

If a person in Massachusetts with a bachelor's degree is hired to be a teacher, he or she will have to go back to school to get a master's degree within five years, and re-certify every five years through earning professional development points through additional workshops courses and training.

Various other restrictions, requirements or incentives may be involved with teacher licensure. Private school teacher requirements vary by institution. Many schools also offer new teacher orientation programs.

Sometimes, the school district, as an employer, will subsidize the additional credentialing costs, but often, it's out of the teacher's own pocket. In addition to licensure costs, the average public and private school teacher spends an estimated average of $500 each year on classroom and school supplies for their students, 47 percent of which comes from their own pockets, according to a February 2015 report by The NPD Group, a market research firm on consumer spending.

Beyond credentials, teachers must also prepare to manage the ups and downs and ins and outs of the trade.

"I usually spend the first quarter getting to know the students," said Pittsfield High School's Therese Allen. "I need to know, can they take good notes, are they getting the materials?

"I'm a skill builder. I use the content I teach to build their skills. The bottom line is you want them to succeed and need to understand what they need to succeed. Ultimately, you want them to be good citizens," she said.

Teaching is a dynamic profession, where the content and demand is always changing, long after an initial teaching degree is earned. By nature, a good teacher must become a lifelong scholar. To help students best learn in a safe and equitable environment, teachers should be as engaging as a stage performer; as sagacious as judge weighing classroom decisions and situation responses; equally creative and precise as an architect; be prepared to act as quickly as any emergency medical technician; be as organized as an accountant; and as patient and thoughtful as a therapist.

Allen said this year, she's had as many as 28 students in a single class, each walking in with his or her own style of learning, own social and education goals, own attention span. Some teenagers just transferred to the school, some have struggles learning, some are surefire college-bound honors kids. With more than 20 years of classroom teaching experience, Allen has the aptitude to tend to her students, to understand their needs, and predict the challenges they face. She also knows every case is different and that every plan to teach a lesson is subject to change.

Earlier this month, to help her students understand Black history, she planned to show the film, "Cry Freedom," which follows the life and death and legacy of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen "Steve" Bantu Biko.

During the screenings, some students were pulled out of class to review their PSAT scores. A pregnant student has to use the bathroom. A new student furiously takes notes to keep up. Another student is absent. During one class, a "shelter in place" order is called due to a medical emergency. Allen simply shuts and locks her door for safety and continues teaching until an "all clear" announcement is made a few moments later.

And that's just over the course of a couple hours.

"It's a lot of work," Vermont Superintendent Ron Stahley said of the profession, "and the school days doesn't end when the kids go home." There's the grading of homework and exams; staff meetings; after-school programs; parent-teacher meetings. During the school year, and even in the summer, there's more professional development and more lesson planning required, often on top of the teacher taking care of his or her own family.

Stahley knows. He's worked in education since 1976, working both in Massachusetts and Vermont. He's a former classroom teacher whose wife is also a veteran educator, and they have four children of their own, as well as grandchildren.

Despite the demands, Stahley said there's one main reason he and other educators stick with the profession. "You've gotta really care about the kids. That's the most important motivating factor with any teacher. Teaching is not a particularly high-paying job, but the reward with that is you're making a difference in a kid's life."


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions