What It Takes to Be a Good Teacher

Politicians, pundits, parents, teachers, unions — all spend a lot of time talking about what it takes to be a good teacher. Not all of these aspects are required to earn a teacher certification, but many are.

For a long time, people thought that being an effective teacher just meant working hard. To some extent, this is true; it does require more effort than most people realize. Preparing materials, organizing subject matter, and planning presentations are all extremely important to the success of a class. These activities are on the teacher’s own time and therefore the result of the teacher’s own effort.

  • Dedication is also an important quality for teachers to have. Until recently, this dedication was attached primarily to the students themselves. Nowadays, with new incentives and increased salaries making teaching competitive as a profession, teachers can now be dedicated to their jobs rather than to just their students. This may open up the field for a number of people who had never considered it before, including business professionals in mid-career or young people who want to be rewarded for their professional efforts.
  • Good teachers also tend to be charismatic. The fact that people respond to charisma in a teacher reflects a deeper aspect of the profession: Good teaching is not just about the degree of knowledge one has in one’s field but also includes one’s ability to articulate and communicate that knowledge to others. Good teaching is also about leadership; generating excitement with one’s physical presence; and the ability to project a firm, ethical character that students will find compelling and attractive.
  • Good teaching is also about making a ritual of class time. A classroom is a scene of social significance to students. As such, it takes on symbolic value, meaning more than the knowledge that is acquired or the grade that comes out of it. A great class is something students talk about, because it is an event. The teacher fills the position of an actor, in a sense. He or she entertains while communicating knowledge. Great teachers are often extremely cognizant of this fact and can interact with classrooms from a self-referential perspective.
  • Do not worry if you do not possess all of these qualities now. With time and practice, you too can develop into a good, or even great, teacher. Earning a teaching certification is one step in that process.

    Locate Teaching Jobs

    Locating teaching jobs depends on where in the teaching certification process you are. Before you get your teaching certification, the process takes place mainly in your head and, perhaps, in general searches on the Internet. At this point, you’re probably still deciding which state you want to live in, or possibly what district has the kind of programs you would like to teach in. It is probably a good idea to investigate and locate some sample positions before entering a certification program.

    After certification, locating teaching jobs is not always that difficult to do. The program will often do some of the work for you, either by recommending a number of schools that normally receive their graduates, or by advising on what kind of opportunities you should be looking for. Nowadays, in many cases certification programs will automatically place their graduates in a classroom for a year of mentorship. Programs of this type have seen a tremendous amount of success.

    If you are the kind who likes to think a few years ahead, the best way to utilize your time is not to wonder how you will find jobs then, but to take some time now to consider where you want to teach. For instance, many people start by deciding whether they want to pursue private or public education. Some believe that the larger class sizes of public schools offer less effective instruction, reasoning that individual attention to students is the aspect of learning that makes the most difference in educational value.

    Locate Teaching Jobs

    Other professionals, though, disagree, arguing that the quality of the instructor is often more important to student education than class size. Some states, including Arkansas, are choosing quality instructors over small class size. In Arkansas, increasing class size has allowed the state to increase teachers’ salaries by an average of over 40% over the last ten years. The size of the classes you will be teaching is just one more consideration when it comes to figuring out where you want to teach.

    What to Look for in Certification Programs

    Many certification programs do prepare their graduates for the teaching positions they end up taking, but there are some that simply do not make the grade. This makes it absolutely crucial to know how to tell the difference between good programs and bad ones. Teaching is about preparation; if you do not receive adequate preparation in a teaching certification program, you will be more likely to fail as an educator.

    • One of the most important elements of the certification program search is knowing the difference between state-approved and state-accredited programs. The definitions vary by state, but in terms of the quality of instructor education provided and what is assured by the state’s various degrees of support, there are some important differences that every future educator should know about going in.
    • Also crucial to choosing the right certification program will be knowing to what degree the program will oversee you during your first year of teaching. It is important that teachers in their first year receive some amount of support, regardless of the source. Some certification programs provide help and mentorship during the first year. Other programs send graduates to teaching positions with support systems already built in. Others tend to hire professionals who are less likely to need continued help, such as those who have already taught or performed professional services in the educational field.

    District placement is also a concept that is important to understand. A growing number of programs tend to place their graduates in extremely specific locations. At face value, this may seem limiting and therefore undesirable. However, study after study has shown that specific cultural understanding positively impacts the success of teaching. District-specific programs have a rich history in America’s teacher education; in fact, most districts in the U.S. had their own teacher recruitment, education, and placement systems before the middle of the twentieth century. A teacher’s cultural knowledge improves performance, a fact reemphasized by the problems in today’s system.

    The Best Route to Teaching Certification: Traditional vs. Alternative

    One of the largest differentiating factors in teacher certification is the choice between traditional or alternative routes for teaching careers. Prospective teachers should consider the possibilities before entering into an undergraduate program, or at least in the first three years of undergraduate training. After this point, traditional routes begin to close off. The four-to-six year programs are no longer convenient, since candidates will have already finished the majority of their undergraduate training.

    After receiving an undergraduate degree, there is still a choice between attending a master’s program at a university or going with an alternate-route program. As life progresses, however, the importance of shifting career tracks quickly becomes more important, as most people tend to increasingly depend more upon a steady income. Prospective teachers should be aware that a traditional program through a university usually requires more preparation, planning, and farsightedness, due to its length and cost.

    • A traditional route to teaching careers requires a long duration of training, which provides plenty of academic preparation for various subjects. Candidates might also desire a traditional certificate to teach that would be recognized throughout the state. A traditional route offers more flexibility, both in subject and geographical location.
    • On the other hand, alternate routes to teaching careers offer shorter duration of training, faster entry into the classroom, more hands-on learning, and lower cost of education. These characteristics tend to be more attractive to individuals who have been pursuing a career and wish to switch into teaching. Alternate-route programs also tend to attract more diverse candidates.
    The Best Route to Teaching Certification

    Many alternate-route programs also prepare individuals to meet the needs of students in a very specific geographic area, sometimes just one district. While this may seem like a disadvantage to someone who does not know where he or she wants to live, studies conclude that many of these district- level programs can be more successful due to their geographic specificity. Offering teachers a deep cultural knowledge of and experience in a specific location in their training can allow them to exit the program with a better understanding of their students, which in turn, enables them to construct a more compelling instruction plan.

    Traditional routes begin at an academic institution, and alternate routes are governed by organizations that focus on teacher training. As a result, traditional routes tend to be more academically minded, whereas alternate routes are geared more toward practice and performance.

    Some alternate routes prepare professionals in the middle of their careers, as well as recent college graduates, to teach in high-need subject areas. Subjects for these alternate routes vary over time, depending on the supply and demand of teachers in the state, though they generally include mathematics and special education. If considering an alternate route as a possibility, it can be a good idea to communicate directly with a staff member who knows what subjects the program is looking to fill that year. These lists can be updated frequently, so if a considerable amount of time has passed between the first time you call and the time when you are ready to make a decision, be sure to ask again.

    Requirements for these types of programs are general to accommodate fluctuating needs. In addition, competence in math, reading, and writing must be shown, either through test results, college course work, or a master’s degree. Professional references are generally required. There is often an online interview, and, because many course materials are made available online, programs usually require their participants to have access to a computer on a daily basis.

    Program Approval vs. Program Accreditation

    Every teaching certification program whose graduates are certified to teach must have state approval. If a teaching certification program you are looking into does not have state approval, then it should be nixed from your list because it will not count toward your certification.

    Beyond the necessity of state approval, accreditation implies another level of certification of the program. While a teaching certification program does not necessarily need accreditation to ensure that its graduates will receive certification to teach in the state, accreditation does carry some meaning. It implies that the program meets a certain number of specifications and standards, in addition to those of the state.

    There are currently two different types of accreditations available to certification programs in a state. Both of these organizations are nationally recognized, and each determines its own standards.

    • The more widely known and most implemented of these programs is the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).
    • Recently, several states have mandated that all of their programs receive accreditation through NCATE before the state will give its approval.
    • The other type of accreditation is available through the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC). This organization has adapted auditing techniques from around the world to form the basis of its innovative approach. Its main premise is that teaching standards will naturally vary, depending on region, state, and even district. Therefore, TEAC asserts that to set standards for all teacher certification programs across the country would be to impinge on geography-specific necessities that would favor some programs and prevent others from obtaining accreditation.

    TEAC believes accreditation should begin a period of growth for the institution it is granted to, thus representing a program’s amount of, and understanding of how to improve its practices in support of higher objectives. In order to obtain a TEAC accreditation, candidate programs perform a self-assessment that forces each program to look deeply into the results of its practices, in terms of teacher education, habits of mind, moral virtues, knowledge, and skills. It then uses these results as the foundation for a set of principles for continued improvement.

    Whereas the TEAC does not require any normative assessments such as tests, the NCATE is currently adjusting its program to do so. The NCATE receives its power from the federal oversight panel of the U.S. Department of Education, which voted to force the NCATE to use test results as a primary factor in the accreditation process. This mandate resulted in the NCATE’s ruling that, in order to gain accreditation, 80% of the program’s teacher candidates must pass content examinations other than those required for state certification. Though the particular test has yet to be chosen, the PRAXIS examination is currently being considered as an option for assessment.

    Accreditation, or lack thereof, does not necessarily set one teaching certification program apart from another. Additionally, TEAC accreditation is not necessarily better or worse than NCATE certification. The type of accreditation reflects on the character of the program, its leadership, and its goals. By knowing what each type of accreditation actually means in terms of self-reflection or standardized test results, you can decide what kind of weight to place on each standard of excellence.

    Teaching: Natural Ability or Learned?

    On the path to your teaching certification you will encounter many differing opinions regarding the way people become great teachers. Some policymakers believe in “natural teaching”: Either you have the skills for it or you don’t. Another approach is referred to as “professionalization.” Advocates of this approach believe that teaching is an extremely complex activity and, as such, demands a large amount of academic preparation. The two approaches vary widely in their resultant policies. It is important for those considering teaching to know where they stand on the issue, which can mean the difference between choosing one program over another.

    Natural teaching advocates believe that great teachers are born with an innate ability, which will come out with practice, regardless of academic preparation. For anyone subscribing to the natural teacher argument, teacher recruiting and candidate assessment becomes an all-important issue. If academic preparation does not matter as much, then the focus shifts from academic work to the choice of the individuals who will become great teachers. Programs leaning to this belief emphasize interviews with candidates, assessing their characteristics as potential teachers. However, criteria of some programs may also include academic performance, while other programs may place more value on natural charisma. It is all very subjective, depending on each program.

    • The natural teaching approach has been taken up in the last thirty years by a number of alternate-route programs across the country that aim to prepare individuals academically within a short period of time before giving them real teaching experience. These programs do not generally emphasize pre-service preparation.
    • Teaching: Natural Ability or Learned?
    • On the other hand, those favoring professionalization counter with the argument that some great teachers may have had personal attributes that were hidden until after they had been taught. Certainly, the argument goes, we may be able to isolate some characteristics that will help teachers’ performance. While charisma is important, it is not sufficient for becoming a great teacher. Moreover, charisma itself can be learned.

    This professionalization viewpoint favors programs (most considered traditional) with a considerable amount of pre-service preparation. These traditional-route programs are supported by universities and consist of an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, or a combination of both. (There are also some alternate routes that have a longer, or extremely intensive, pre-service preparation component.) Policymakers who support the professionalization perspective tend to believe that nationalization of teacher education standards is important.

    Between the two opposites lies a third, less idealistic stance that takes elements from both views. It posits that teaching may be taught and that intense pre-service preparation is necessary for teaching programs. It also suggests that national standards will only do damage to the system, because local control is important for program success.

    Components of Teacher Certification Programs

    No matter what kind of teacher certification program you choose, whether an alternate or traditional route into the classroom, it is important to have a basis for comparison between teacher certification programs. When each program calls its teacher-education components by a different name, researching can become quite confusing. The following are some of the basic teacher-education components, which will help you decide which program is best for your needs.

    • Pre-Service Preparation

    Pre-service preparation refers to the education that teachers receive in their own classroom, without any children present. It is usually the first component of teacher preparation that candidates undergo. For traditional programs, this phase can take years. For some alternate routes, it can take place over a single summer.

    There are a number of approaches to pre-service preparation. General instructional strategies focus on the act of teaching. Regardless of subject, there are some fundamental skills that new teachers require, such as classroom management, effective communication strategies, and so on.

    Some students find that the general instruction principles taught in pre-service preparation are merely common knowledge. Others report learning a lot about teaching during this component. Ask administrative officials for syllabi or for more in-depth information about the program’s particular general instruction method.

    Another type of pre-service preparation is subject-specific pedagogy. In an English teacher certification class, for instance, such instruction would cover how to initiate productive discussions about literature; for a history class, the material might be about teaching from original sources. Regardless of particular subject, candidates found this kind of knowledge interesting and useful. Because each program will have different specialties (and also different gaps in their subject-specific preparation), check to see if the program of your interest has courses on your preferred teaching subject.

    • Clinical Experience

    Clinical experience is more common in alternate-route teacher certification programs, which place individuals under the instruction of a teacher–mentor for a short period of time. For the duration of the experience, the candidate will observe, sometimes substitute, and receive feedback and guidance.

    Almost all candidates are excited about this process before they actually perform it, because of the opportunity to learn from a seasoned professional on the job.

    However, individuals’ experiences vary widely, even within the same program. The usefulness of the clinical experience depends on the efficacy, motivation, and morale of the teacher–mentor. Sometimes, the mentor is energetic, engaging, and willing to observe and provide integral feedback to the candidate. Other times, he or she seems apathetic to the entire process. Some prospective teachers have even reported that their mentors had a lack of subject knowledge and expertise. This component of the teacher certification process is hit or miss for most programs.

    • Continuing Education

    Many teacher certification programs, such as Teach for America, continue to provide guidance after the candidate has become a teacher of record. Because teaching is most difficult in the first year, this component can make the difference between failure and success. Having a support system that collates teaching experience is a positive feature in teacher education.

    History of Teaching Certification

    Teacher certification has undergone a number of different phases, most notably since the mid- nineteenth century. Knowing a few important facts about the evolution of the teaching certification system will provide a solid foundation for anyone interested in teaching at the elementary or secondary school level.

    The teaching certification system was created to recruit, train, and maintain skills of teachers on a district level. By 1914, almost every city in the United States with a population greater than 300,000 (and over 3/4 of those over 100,000) had its own teacher training program. Each city was different in the tests it administered to future educators, the training it provided, and the level of mentorship and support it gave.

    In the 1960s, teacher training departed from this model and began to be monopolized by colleges and universities. America’s teachers found themselves pursuing four-, five-, and six-year training programs, which ranged from an undergraduate to a master’s certification to teach. This system supported the statewide certification requirements that are now extant in the U.S. Now, in order to teach at a public institution at the elementary and secondary school level (K–12), teachers need to have gone through a state-certified program.

    History of Teaching Certification

    But there were sometimes problems with the mainstream teaching certification routes that teachers were pursuing in colleges and universities. Namely, these programs could not respond to the states’ quickly shifting requirements for teachers, either in particular districts or in particular content areas. As a result, a number of alternative routes to certification have sprung up since the early ‘80s. These vary in length and type of training and in recruitment procedures, as well as in a host of other factors. Some of these programs, such as the New Jersey Provisional Teacher Program, are sponsored by states. Some are provided by not-for-profit organizations such as Teach for America. While the same certification tests are administered by a state to certify educators with a certain competency of knowledge, educators are entering the job market with a wide variety of training under their belts, as well as with various levels of support and continued mentorship.

    Today there is a slight backlash to the statewide standards. As the education system has fallen under scrutiny, some wonder whether a more competitive, privatized system (with alternate certification routes provided by either private companies or organizations not affiliated with the state) would produce a higher-caliber teaching workforce.

    Some alternate certification routes train their future educators and deploy them directly to a single district, responding to the fluctuating demands of the market. This trend is in many ways a throwback to the origins of the teacher certification system, when districts and cities determined the regulations, content, and training their educators would receive.

    Last Updated: 05/05/2014

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