It Takes More than a Cape!

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While flying on a Southwest airplane this weekend, I saw an ad in their flight magazine from an organization called “Teach Vegas.” Though clever, I find some of this text concerning:

Calling all superheroes…Have a degree, not in teaching? No problem! Become a hero in lightning speed. After five weeks of training and practice, those who earn their capes are eligible for hire into a full-time position…

This ad promotes the idea that fast-track programs can prepare a person to be a full-time classroom teacher. I argue that five weeks of teacher training cannot possibly make an individual “cape-ready,” and we should not be telling people this is possible.

I think fast-track teacher certification programs are a big concern in education today. There is certainly research that these programs are bad for students. If interested, you can read a well-written synopsis in 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools (Berliner & Glass, 2014). But most of all, I don’t think fast-track teacher certification programs are good for the future-teachers who sign up and audition for the mythical capes.

As an induction coach mentor for early career special education teachers, I have seen my share of teachers from fast-track teacher certification programs. One common fast-track organization is Teach for America (TFA). TFA recruits incredibly talented, intelligent young people and tells them that being a teacher is possible with summer boot camp training and weekly support from TFA meetings. And these smart, young people work like crazy (with a two year commitment) to transform themselves into quality instructors. During that time, TFA teachers are also full-time masters students attending courses at a partner-university. This won’t be a blog post speaking against TFA, but I will refer to them below because I’ve had experience working with teachers from this type of fast-track teacher certification program.

I have met some great individuals through TFA, and some of them actually stay in the profession. For that reason, I am grateful the path existed for these talented teachers who took the superhero test. However, I have mostly watched talented young people struggle and burn out from the stress, workload, and exhaustion that ensue while transforming themselves from Clark Kent into Superman. For these individuals, I ask: Why are we offering capes and throwing them off buildings with meager flight plans?

A few years ago, we had a TFA teacher who spent two years teaching middle school special education students on my campus. During that time, he gained about thirty pounds, stopped showering, and became a withering shell of his former self. When I first met him, he was enthusiastic and full of beautiful ideas. One time, he told me that he “wakes up every day wanting to be the teacher that his students deserve.” He said this with great passion and commitment. By his last day, he seemed defeated by a job he could no longer manage. When I think about him, I get angry. Why are we promoting fast-track teacher certification programs and recruiting talented individuals for life experiences that nearly destroy them?

I don’t think we need this in the profession. People argue that fast-track teacher certification programs are needed because of teacher shortages. I argue that fast-track teacher certification programs are creating more harm than they are worth. First, they potentially create a revolving door of teachers if fast-track teachers leave mid-career. It’s tough out there, and fast-track teachers start with deficits in skills and experience! The revolving door destabilizes schools and creates unpredictability for kids, other staff, and administration. Second, the idea that individuals can transform into teachers after five weeks of training promotes the idea that teaching isn’t hard. And let me tell you, teaching IS hard. Even teachers with four-year teaching degrees experience great difficulty in their first years teaching. Promoting the idea that five weeks of training (and a cape!) prepare a teacher for the classroom de-professionalizes the importance of quality training for teachers today. In my opinion, the super villains in this metaphor are de-stabilized schools and a de-professionalized profession.

I say that individuals in fast track programs need more than a cape to survive. They need a fortress of solitude to recharge after a long day. They need a sidekick to help carry the load, and a trusted advisor to discuss their plans. They need a superhero lair with really fancy tools to get the job done. And they need an alter-ego identity to balance the stress of work with the importance of actually living a life.

But most of all, these individuals need us to declassify the top-secret details of the mission. We should be honest about the perils of the job, clear about the training needed to succeed, and forthcoming in resources when a superhero is needed. Telling people that a cape is going to cut it?—Well, that’s just outright evil.

 

Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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