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Barataria: Is it too hard to become a teacher in Minnesota?

Teaching in Minnesota is set up to be a life-long commitment.  You have to really want to do it.

Should it be easier to become a teacher?  A simplified alternative licensing procedure for Minnesota has been outlined by SF40, a bill introduced to our newly Republican State Senate.  The core of the proposal is that school districts must have in place a system for bringing in anyone who has a four-year degree, make their way through at least 200 hours of intensive training, and can pass a test.  It’s something that caught my attention because I’ve often thought about becoming a High School teacher – but the current system is arduous and very expensive for those of us who want to change mid-career.  Is this a good idea?

The driving force behind this proposal is the chronic shortage of teachers in key subject areas, particularly science and math.  There is also a belief, which I share, that High School students in particular would benefit from “real world” experience brought by teachers who have switched mid-career and know what the students will encounter when they graduate.  Bringing in people from the outside appears to be a big win in many ways.

I have thought about this in the past, but I chose not to go this route.  The current requirements include a degree in teaching which requires at least two years of intensive study that are not exactly cheap.  There is also the opportunity cost of going to school rather than finding more consulting and writing work that would keep my mortgage paid and my kids fed.  At the end of this process I would not even be sure of finding work, the final kicker.

Teaching in Minnesota is set up to be a life-long commitment.  You have to really want to do it.

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Personally, there is a strong driving force behind my considering teaching.  Most people see me as an excellent teacher, a compliment that makes me blush.  I know it’s true, even if I’m not the kind of person that learns sitting in a chair in a classroom.  But that’s part of the point, after all, as I would almost certainly be that enthusiastic kind of teacher that brought active learning to every lesson.  In addition, the best teacher I ever had, Dr. Gary Powers at Carnegie-Mellon, was someone who came to teaching late in life and infused everything he taught us with his experience and deep wisdom.  He loved teaching and it showed.

I could do this. I simply have never been sure that I wanted to make the commitment necessary in the current system, especially without a clear path to work at the end.

There is another consideration behind this bill.  The teacher shortage is, according to many studies, driven by the attrition rate by which teachers leave the field due to dissatisfaction.  This proposed new system would not change that, but by making it easier to become a teacher what is now a one-way door marked “exit” would be replaced by a two-way system where teachers can come and go.  Removing the barrier to entry that is in place would alleviate the shortages in the short term and make it easier to insure we have the very best teachers.  It might even change the nature of teaching in the long term, improving the attrition.

Does this mean that I support SF40 as written?  I see this as an opening proposal in a debate that is very healthy.  The fact that it is more than just a test and includes some time to evaluate candidates in a real teaching environment that is not a classroom is excellent, although 200 hours seems a bit thin.  There is still some coursework that is necessary so that candidates understand how to kids learn, how to organize a lesson, and other things.  Other states apparently allow for alternative programs, some of which are on-line and much cheaper – how has that been working out for them?  It also remains to be seen if there is any money behind this proposal so that those who take advantage of it have at least a part-time job demonstrating that they know what they are doing in some kind of after-school additional instruction and/or tutoring role.

But the debate is what matters right now.  Can we make it easier to become a teacher, bringing in quality talent, while still assuring that the candidates know what they are doing?  That’s why Eric Austin and I are posting on this topic at the same time.  Eric is a teacher in St. Cloud and someone I’ve come to rely on to deliver thoughtful comments on all things outstate and teaching straight-up.  Check out what he has to say and join in the debate on both blogs.

Perhaps we can get something going here – either in support of the proposal, against it, or along the lines of some very important modifications that will make it a good one.  Consider this a test of the power of the internet to influence public policy for the better!

This post was written by Erik Hare and originally published on Barataria. Follow Erik on Twitter: @wabbitoid.