Crossing the Graduation Line

A friend posted a link to an article by Dennis Hong on teaching. It’s from a few years ago, called The Hardest Job Everyone Thinks They Can Do. It’s a lot of stuff I’ve read and agreed with multiple times, but the interesting thing about this particular article is the background of the author, who made the choice to move from molecular biologist to high school biology teacher:

When I decided to make the switch from “doing” science to “teaching” science, I found out that I had to go back to school to get a teaching credential.

“What the f—?!?,” I screamed to any friends willing to put up with my griping. “I have a Ph.D.! Why do I need to go back to get a lousy teaching credential?!?”

I was baffled. How could I, with my advanced degree in biology, not be qualified to teach biology?!

Lest I wind up mischaracterizing the author, he’s describing himself above prior to any interaction with teaching or certification. He quickly points out just how wrong-headed his indignation was. I quote that particular section, though, because it got me thinking.

I’ve always found it odd that there’s a very distinct line in the sand, between high school and college, when all the rules about what qualifies someone to teach become a bit up-ended. Hong’s final observation above would be completely accurate should he have chosen to teach college freshmen instead of high school seniors. As soon as I finished my MFA, I was technically qualified to take on a professor gig at a college (discounting the ridiculous paucity of available positions, of course), but was under-qualified for any secondary education positions in the same field.

And to be fair, the opposite is (sort of) true. Several secondary ed teaching friends that I know have stories about either winding up teaching something they have only passing familiarity with, or about others bypassing them to take jobs for which they have a stronger subject background. Usually these seem to have to do with some of the byzantine rules regarding seniority and transfers within school systems. All the teachers are baseline qualified for whichever subjects they’re teaching, I should add, but their placement isn’t necessarily predicated on the breadth or depth of their subject knowledge, but rather their education pedigree.

This isn’t an attempt to talk down educators at all, regardless of their milieu. I taught to make my way through grad school, and I found it miserable in a lot of ways. I’m not built to handle classrooms, especially not classrooms with people who aren’t particularly interested in learning what I have to teach. That’s a very specific skill, and I’m over the moon in support of people honing that skill into craft and being good teachers, regardless of subject. Likewise, I think educational skills can only be improved when a teacher has a deep knowledge of a given subject, above and beyond what the curriculum would require. In other words: if you teach, you’re already my hero, and this isn’t about saying that some of you aren’t held to proper standards or some other No Child Left Behind nonsense.

I’m not trying to cast aspersions on either requirement structure, but to wonder a little bit at how immediately those structures shift. In the course of a summer, students apparently stop needing people whose background focuses on educational needs and start needing people with an especially rigorous background (and, in most collegiate academia, extensive bibliography) in the subject.

I’m sure part of that has to do with the fact that college is ostensibly a voluntary educational track, though the current job market seems to think otherwise. And, as is sadly true with a lot of things in education, I expect another large part of it has to do with drawing arbitrary lines because those make easier laws. Still, it’s something that’s always sort of itched at the back of my head.

That, or there’s another mosquito in the house.

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