Education Secretary Richard Riley voiced a widespread concern recently when he observed, "It's gotten so bad that some schools have been forced to put any warm body in front of a classroom."
"It" is the teacher shortage in many parts of the United States - a problem sometimes addressed by bringing in clearly unqualified people.
But such "warm bodies," to use Mr. Riley's phrase, are to be pitied. The classroom, particularly in some of the urban districts where teachers are most needed, is no place for amateurs. But what constitutes a professional?
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit group, has for many years tried to raise teachers' professional standing. It runs a voluntary certification program that requires applicants to rigorously examine their classroom practices - including critiques of videotaped sessions with students.
Those who go through this process often say they become better teachers, more aware of what works with students. They have an enhanced sense of professionalism. At the same time, they become resources for other teachers, particularly new ones just entering the classroom.
That's one way teaching will be strengthened. And it could also go a long way toward retaining teachers who are attracted by the signing bonuses, tuition-debt relief, and other incentives being offered by states like California and New York.
Another way is to open the ranks of teachers to people whose work or life experiences give them a lot to share with the young. The growing numbers of Americans looking for productive ways to spend their retirement years should be tapped to supplement the teaching profession. Alternative certification can be arranged, and teachers' unions shouldn't be allowed to bar the door.
Secretary Riley would probably be first to admit there's no one way to be a good teacher. The profession demands flexibility and creativity - to respond to the array of individuality in any classroom. Anything that gets in the way of those qualities will only add to the problem highlighted by Riley.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society