What makes a good teacher? That question goes back at least as far as Socrates sessions with the young men of Athens. It's being asked anew by Americans concerned about the quality of public education in their country and worried about a coming national shortage of teachers, as retirements increase and enrollments surge.
The American Council on Education, an organization of colleges and universities, has just offered its answer. In a trenchantly worded report, the council appeals for strengthened teacher-training programs throughout the country.
That's part of the answer certainly. Students who want an education degree should be given instruction that thoroughly grounds them in the subjects they'll be imparting, and in the computer technology that's becoming an ever larger part of Americans' work life. The council's report points to failures on both these counts, and to the failure of colleges and universities to give the teacher training the priority it deserves.
But there's more to good teaching than the best of academic preparation. The movement toward alternative credentialing for teachers - based more on work experience or subject expertise than education school - indicates that effective teachers can come from backgrounds other than an education major in college.
Consider Teach for America, a program that for 10 years has been recruiting college seniors to spend their first two post-graduation years teaching in some of the country's poorest school districts. Not all the recruits have succeeded, but many have, providing highly motivated, well-educated talent where it's most needed.
In the decades just ahead, the country will need to draw teachers from any direction it can. At the same time, states and districts will need to strengthen support efforts, such as mentoring by experienced teachers, that encourage new teachers to stay for longer than a year or two. More adequate salaries, of course, are another key to longevity on the job.
The essentials of teaching - commitment, creativity, and a love for the students - need an opportunity to develop. When they do, good teachers are self-made.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society