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Yes, but where are your credits in Recess Management 101?

The Monthly hasn't just dispatched reporter/anthropologists to cover bureaucratic culture-we've asked the natives to tell their stories. This piece ran in 1984.

We've all heard about the sorry state of the teaching profession. No fewer than a half-dozen national commissions have given their assessments of our public schools within the past year, and the poor training and the quality of our teachers have figured prominently in their criticisms.

I do not agree with the emphasis many of my colleagues put on the usual culprits when they try to explain why talented people shun the profession and why the best teachers are usually the first to leave. Low pay, burnout, pushy parents, incompetent administrators, and apathetic kids are certainly problems. But something else has driven me to distraction-more specifically, a group I'll call the High Priests of Certification.

Who are the High Priests? They come in many guises-as school administrators, state government bureaucrats, even union officials. They mouth a common goal: to protect the citizenry from unqualified, incompetent teachers. It's a noble purpose. But having experienced firsthand the High Priests' obsession with enforcing irrelevant regulations and their zeal for bureaucratic pettifoggery, I've reached an opposite conclusion. The High Priests' activities seem to be one of the major reasons such teachers never get near a classroom-or decide to leave the profession altogether.

My acquaintance with them goes back a long way. In the mid-1960s, I answered a newspaper plea for high school English teachers. The ad used the word "crisis," but I soon discovered that New York City's Board of Education was not so desperate as to think that my master's degree in English literature qualified me to teach. The examiner acted annoyed that I was wasting his time; don't come back, he told me, until I had the 13 units in education required to get an emergency teaching certificate.

I began the classes. For one year, four nights a week, I listened to such discussions as an overview of American education up to 1914, taught by a professor who poured his energy into constructing multiple-choice exams. One professor instructed us in the psychology of the adolescent-without once mentioning sex. In another class, we spent the term rewriting Greek myths.

Perhaps my most memorable class taught me how to pass out paper. To my professor, mismanaged paper distribution was apparently the first step toward anarchy, and he insisted that mastery of his technique would make or break a teacher. People who've never taken an education course think I'm joking when I tell this story, but it's true. In fact, the tips on paper distribution were the only practical things I encountered that year of night school.

So I completed my education classes and was certified by New York City to teach English. I taught for a year in a high school in Queens, where I quickly discovered that all the theory I'd learned in my education courses was as useful as a water pistol in a gang fight. (I also learned that the paper distribution technique I'd learned worked only with straight rows, and I wasn't a straight row teacher.)

I left Queens and moved to central New Jersey when I got married. It was there that I had my next encounter with the High Priests of Certification. I applied to every village, hamlet, and town I could think of, and while many had openings, none would allow me to teach. The problem was that I had never been a student teacher. "But I've taught, really taught," I protested, describing my harrowing year in the urban high school. The looks of withering scorn that I received from more than one interviewer made it clear that this wasn't worth discussing.

In 1969 I moved to Troy, in upstate New York, and applied for a job in the public schools. I quickly learned that I had several strikes against me. The first was that I'd taught college English. "You'd be too intellectual for us," the local superintendent informed me. A second demerit was that my undergraduate and graduate degrees were not in education. When the superintendent discovered that my degree in medieval literature was from Berkeley, my fate was sealed. "You'd be too intellectual and too radical for us," he proclaimed.

But I persisted. Less than a week before school started I was in the district office, applying for work as a substitute, when I heard that some state funding had come through for a new, experimental program in remedial reading. The superintendent hired me on the spot because of my experience in Queens working with "those colored kiddos." It didn't seem to bother him that I had no experience teaching seventh graders or remedial reading.

My subsequent years taught me that this kind of teaching made me happiest. In all modesty, I also had some talent for it. In 1973 1 was given tenure, and the next year I was named Teacher of the Year in Troy. I went on to become one of five finalists in New York's Teacher of the Year program. But the good times were not to last. An administrator who had a way with words informed me that my program had been "liquidated.'"

It was at this point that my problems with the High Priests of Certification really began. They wanted me to spend a semester student teaching and take two more education courses in reading. "But I've taught reading for 13 years," I protested. "You can't enter an elementary classroom without six more units in reading," the examiner told me.

So I had to take some reading courses. What kind? This only added insult to injury: the bureau couldn't have cared less. In fact, the classes didn't even remotely involve reading instruction for elementary school children. If I could find an accredited course in teaching Serbo-Croatian folk tales to left-handed senior citizens of Aleutian descent, that would be just fine. All that mattered was that the class have a course code that belonged to a university department of reading.

There's one final irony. For all the hassle and for all the certification requirements, none of the administrators or state examiners that I've mentioned has ever seen me teach. For all they know, I could be the best teacher in New York State-or the worst.

The Editor's Favorite Lines

The last sentence of "Now You 're Thinking Like a Lawyer," is one of the greats, but so are these. In a 1971 article, "The Senate's Lame Doves, "John Rothchild took the antiwar senators to task for their failure to vote against the appropriations that financed US- forces in Vietnam:

"There is that vision of a battlefield with a few brave young Americans surrounded by a closing knot of North Vietnamese, while a credit adjustor slips through the enemy lines to repossess our guns and declare, 'Senator X wouldn't pay for these."'

In 1978, Michael Kinsley, exposed the danger of oversimplifying the conflict-of-interest problem:

"Is it a conflict of interest for a mother to have a second child?"
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Title Annotation:The Culture of Institutions
Author:Ohanian, Susan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Previous Article:Now you're thinking like a lawyer.
Next Article:What happens to a senator's day.

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