The Tenth in a Series: Why Alternative Teacher Certification Programs and Research-Based Teacher Selection Together are Uniquely Designed to Meet the Needs of at-Risk Students

“All Children Can Learn” - So What?
by Vicky S. Dill, Ph.D. Delia Stafford-Johnson

Santee: Editors’ Note: Just when we thought the waters of Columbine, Paducah, Pearl and all the other shooters’ purgatories had subsided, another monstrous tragedy raises the question, “What could have been done to save two precious lives and the feeling of safety and security of all the rest of the students’-forever shattered by the events of today?” In Columbine both immediately after the shooting and two years following, the waters are still troubled; post-traumatic stress doesn’t disappear quickly. As consultants at Columbine, we know, Santee will never be the same. At this time, our most valuable national resource--the nation’s school teachers--will again be risking their own careers as ensurers of good test results to discuss the ideas of victim, bully, bravery, risk-taking, and gun carrying. May they take the time and may they be richly rewarded for their investment! We can only say to the people in this veritable army of national resources and advocates for kids, our thoughts are with you. (Dr. Dill is author of A Peaceable School: Cultivating a Culture of Nonviolence. 1998. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa).

A Parable. A man died and went to Heaven and was being given the celestial tour by St. Peter. That tour started in a verdant anteroom right off the porch to Heaven where the grass was immaculately groomed, the flowers an exhilarating frenzy of red, yellow and blue, and the trees heavy with organically grown fruit. “This must be the gardeners’ paradise?” the newcomer queried. “Indeed,” said the patriarch, nodding at a blissfully happy green thumber. They then moved on to a most aromatic quarter where sweet tea, herbed bread, and warm cheese scents wafted on the breeze. “The Emeril Room?” “Indeed,” St. Peter affirmed. “This is the hall of cooks, and a very popular place it is! As is appropriate to the celestial city, we kick it up a notch!” They then opened the door to another room. It was stark empty. “What?! Who’s supposed to live here?” the newcomer asked in alarm. “Oh, not to worry!” St. Peter assured him. “This is the hall of teachers and it’s empty because it’s staff development day, and they’re all in hell!”

Growers and Grumblers. How does a principal or sitebased hiring team know, when they interview a teacher, if that teacher is a lifelong learner or if she’ll have her first year of experience thirty times in a row? (Haberman, M. Star Teachers of Children in Poverty. West Lafayette, IN. 1995, p. 43). Will s/he be a grower - a lifelong learner-or a grumbler? A grower is someone whose lifelong passion for learning spills over into the classroom. A grower excites children and demonstrates a pattern for exploration of the world and its mysteries. A grower has many of his or her own vital life pursuits. This native interest in science or the liberal arts emerges from a driving desire to understand the world. Lifelong teacher learners share their latest good book, masterful chess moves, favorite Hopi Indian instrument, or the website that yielded a revelation with their students. Conversations about these lifelong passions evidence emotion and spill over into children’s lives. Growers expect to learn something relevant not just to the classroom but to life itself every day.

On the other hand, there are the grumblers. This would be someone who says, “Don’t worry about that test; the legislature will do away with it next session!” “Don’t worry about that principal and that interdisciplinary stuff. That principal won’t last two years!”

“Oh, me! I forgot my knitting and I could have gotten that sweater done today in that reading workshop!” “I finished grading all those papers and even got the grades in my book that last workshop?” Grumblers prefer “sit and git” to any kind of embedded staff development because they don’t believe anything should or could change in their classrooms. They don’t learn; they don’t implement; they don’t reflect. They expect to be bored in the same way they expect their own students to be bored with their instruction. When a student doesn’t learn something being taught the same way for the 13th bazillion year, it’s the student who is thought to be defective. Like a too-small or twisted apple, the student is sorted, labeled, re-categorized, and his or her curriculum is repackaged. Basic drills and skills ensue until the unfortunate misfit goes, nevertheless, to the cider apple bin.

It’s not possible to estimate the cost of this “I don’t know; I don’t grow” attitude. With absolutely no infusion of emotion, life, hope, or personal interest in the material being taught, failed teachers perpetuate instructional abuse on captive kids year after year and get paid for it. The boredom can be excruciating. Recent research indicates that over 90% of all 8-9 year olds go to school expecting to be bored. Why wouldn’t students drop out by the time they’re 15? How many of us could play the school game patiently for six or seven years, sometimes experiencing a constant turning over of teachers (some trying very hard to succeed; others not caring), ill-equipped schoolhouses, and almost universal teacher low morale? Boring instruction carries a high price. Dr. Porter of the Quest Center in Ohio notes that several states, about a dozen, use the retention in grade rate to accurately predict how many prisons that state will need. We also know that for many at risk children, it only takes one interesting and invested teacher to turn around the life of a child. So will this prospective candidate be a lifesaver or a jailbuilder?

Theory-to-Practice; Practice-to-Theory. In order to be a lifelong teacher/learner, teachers must be able to accept that generalizing about teaching and learning is a valid practice (ie., “most children benefit from hands-on experience” is a generalization most consider valid). Failed teachers will deny the validity of generalizations saying things like, “That’s a good idea (something learned in staff development), but it won’t work with my students.” Successful teachers not only accept the validity of generalizations, they also can implement them in the classroom. To continue the simple example, a successful teacher who learns from experience or a mentor or professor that hands-on experience is a good technique will actually initiate or increase the number of hands-on experiences available in the classroom. This theory-to-practice skill enables schools to actually get some bang for their staff development buck. After learning something at staff development, things in the successful teacher’s classroom actually change. That’s the theory-to-practice skill: I learn or believe this, therefore, I do this in the classroom.”

Practice-to-theory relates to the ability to reflect. At its most primitive level, this ability is expressed when a teacher observes another teacher, let’s say, singing the alphabet song. The observer might say accurately, “That teacher believes some learners benefit from auditory instruction.” In the high school, a teacher observing another taking the class on a field trip to a power plant and spending several weeks exploring alternative sources of energy might correctly say, “My colleague believes that learning must be relevant to real life questions like energy sources and my colleague believes students learn a lot outside the classroom.” More sophisticated applications relate to self-reflection. Successful star teachers constantly observe their own teaching, make modifications, reflect on these modifications or innovations, and improve their practice. The implications of the skill of being able to translate action into theory are numerous and consequential. Unless a teacher can acquire and apply new theory or generalizations in the classroom to what s/he just saw, no activities will change. The status quo will prevail because the reason for making any change will elude the teacher. “”What can I do here? What can I change? Let’s see, if I seat Evan beside Vanessa and if I simultaneously play Mozart that they both enjoy, maybe they’ll be able to cooperate. This might work because they’re both tactile and auditory learners and I know like kinds of learners often make dynamic teams.”

When Something’s Missing. What if a teacher lacks either the skill of generalization based on observation or the skill of implementation based on generalization? What happens to students when only half of the package arrives? The following model will help hiring teams analyze candidate behavior:

  ACTION Actually performs the teacher’s role  
IDEAS about the teacher’s role STAR A HESITANT B

A. Individuals who are able to explain purposes as well as implement activities. This individual is a “star.”

B. Can conceptualize, but cannot implement ideas; talks about teaching, but doesn’t act as a teacher (“hesitant”)

C. Cannot explain ideas or plans. Presents a variety of each with confidence but cannot explain why. A “charger.”

D. Doesn’t know what to do; acts in fits and starts. Watches while things fall apart (Ibid, p. 42).

This graph shows the imperative: a teacher has to be able to exhibit both skills - theory to practice and practice to theory, action to thought, thought to action. This is a skill that often comes with practice. If, however, that skill is not there, there is nothing about the school or district setting that would suggest that staff development will help it grow.

Where Do We Turn? While there is no guarantee that midcareer switchers or midlife candidates will have both the theory-to-practice and practice-to-theory skills, it certainly makes more sense to think that mature human beings who have had to implement initiatives in the real world will be more likely to have them than individuals who are trying to do so in the context of their first fulltime job. Too often this first start involves a classroom full of at-risk learners. We can up the odds significantly by both understanding the baseline non-negotiable this skill represents and by screening every potential candidate for this skill. We can also find this skill among the general population and certify those who have it. Lifelong learning is the bedrock hallmark, not only of interesting curriculum, but of basic advocacy for kids. In moments of desperate sadness, we need to up the probability that we’ll hire teachers who grow and learn and who build relationships with kids as high as it can go.

For further information about how your school or university can develop Alternative Teacher Certification programs, please contact The National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information at or call 713-667-6185.
Vicky S. Dill, Ph.D. Delia Stafford-Johnson

For many years Dr. Dill worked at The Texas Education Agency reviewing traditional teacher education programs and building alternative program and has many years of experience in teacher education in colleges and university. Dr. Dill authored A Peaceable School: Creating a Culture of Non-Violence published by Phi Delta Kappa (1999). Dr. Dill is currently Associate Director of Special Programs for Round Rock ISD (Round Rock, TX) and Senior Researcher for The Haberman Foundation/NCATCI. Delia Stafford-Johnson is President and CEO of The Haberman Educational Foundation/National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information (NCATCI). For ten years, she was Director of the first alternative teacher certification program in Texas started in the Houston Independent School District and has twice been honored by President Bush at the White House for her work in teacher education.

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