In the Classroom

Demand falls flat for controversial teaching permit so far

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana has an early answer to a heated two-year-old debate about whether it needed a special teaching permit for teachers changing careers to get them into the classroom more quickly.

Then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett said it was critical to have, while education school deans and others said the “career specialist” permit was unnecessary.

So how many teachers have requested the credential that can be used for the first time this fall?

Just two. But if they actually got jobs, it doesn’t appear they’re working in Indianapolis.

Not in Indianapolis Public Schools, not in Perry Township and not at Christel House academies. Washington Township hasn’t made any hires with the permit, nor has Decatur Township or Beech Grove Schools.

No career specialists are working at Charter Schools USA’s schools, and none have so far matriculated through the Teach For America or Indianapolis Teaching Fellows programs — where perhaps you might expect second-career teachers to get their starts.

Those are just a few of the districts, schools and programs Chalkbeat contacted.

Risa Regnier, assistant superintendent at the Indiana Department of Education, said the two permits that have been granted were in visual arts, and she doesn’t know if the permit-holders have teaching jobs yet.

“This is probably viewed by other individuals who have had other careers make a career change,” Regnier said. “Someone might go through the steps to obtain one of these permits and then go seek a job.”

The Indiana State Board of Education passed new teacher preparation rules allowing the permit — known as the Rules for Educator Preparation and Accountability, or REPA III — in September. To qualify, an applicant must have a four-year college degree in the subject they want to teach, a 3.0 GPA, about three years of work experience and must pass a content knowledge test from the state.

The new permit was strongly opposed by many educators, mainly because they believe it skirts a part of teacher training that Pat Rogan, the executive associate dean of the School of Education at IUPUI, said is one of the most important — understanding the how teaching works so that kids learn.

Even teachers with more traditional preparation, such as two years of assisting in the classroom, college coursework and a stint of full-time student teaching, can struggle, she said. The fact that so few permits have been issued seems to prove her and others right — it is unneeded.

“Education personnel understand that teachers must be well prepared prior to being asked to teach our youth,” Rogan said in an email. “Legislators were misguided in their efforts to de-professionalize teacher preparation.”

A battle over qualifications to teach

The state board and education department have been discussing changes to teacher licensure for years.

An earlier version of the rules, known as REPA II, was proposed by Bennett in 2012. It immediately prompted backlash, with a parade of education groups opposing his plan.

Bennett and others argued that licensing rules kept good potential teachers, especially those with professional and life experience, from considering the profession because it required a long and expensive training regime before they could be hired.

But educators argued training in classroom methods was important before teachers begin work. Some felt insulted that the original proposal in essence said untrained workers from other fields could instantly become teachers.

The first proposal, Rogan said, “would’ve lowered the standards for teacher preparation, would have allowed unprepared individuals into our classrooms. It would have allowed those individuals to practice, i.e. learn, on the backs of our children.”

Bennett backed off, adding into the rules more training for teachers who use the career specialist permit.

“I think the state board of education heard loud and clear from everyone — teachers, principals, superintendents, business leaders — you know that doesn’t make any sense,” Rogan said.

Dan Elsener, a former state board of education member who voted in favor of the new rules last fall, still believes the idea is sound.

Easing teacher licensure rules with the new permits should open up a “talent pipeline” to help fill empty positions and bring in more qualified candidates, he said. Plus, there are safeguards in place to prevent those who are unqualified from sticking around, he said.

“Every board member gave it serious thought,” Elsener said. “It wasn’t casually done because you never want to put a professional in front of young people when the consequences are so high with K-12 education.”

New license sees little demand

So why such a tepid response from job-seekers?

Regnier said she never expected that the new permits, which are not issued by any specific school or district, would be in high-demand.

Demand might be so low, she said, because of the very requirements for additional training that educators asked for. In other programs that are more widely used, aspiring teachers don’t necessarily have to teach and take foundational classes at the same time, she said.

But there are few rules around the training. It could be overseen by a university, a local school district or another state-approved program. That haziness is troubling to Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith.

“Career-specialist training doesn’t have to be college training, and that’s a little scary,” Meredith said. “I can’t say I want my kid in a class with a teacher who doesn’t understand how kids think and act and learn.”

But once a teacher with the permit begins teaching, Regnier said, they’ll have to devise a plan for additional learning and bring it before the state board for approval.

“Even though there is some flexibility there, it comes back to the state board to review the pedagogy component and determine whether it is delivering the knowledge and pedagogical skills that the state board believes that this teacher should receive,” she said.

A case for trusting school leaders

Elsener said teachers and community members need to place more trust in school leaders when it comes to hiring with the new permits and have faith they’ll evaluate all teachers fairly under the state’s rating system.

A school leader can judge whether someone would make a good teacher, even if their experience is in another field, he said.

“You have to trust the local people that they are going to take good care of their young people and they are not just going to hire someone,” Elsener said. “It requires you have a good accountability system so you can’t hide incompetent teachers.”

But Rogan said teachers, legislators and policymakers must work together to create rules that both prepare teachers appropriately and make sure schools can choose from a variety of qualified candidates.

There should be broad agreement on the basics of what teachers must know before they start teaching.

“Teachers and educators need to do a better job of talking to their neighbors, talking to their legislators and other state decision-makers about what they do, how they do it, what challenges they face and what contributes to their success,” Rogan said. “But on the other hand, legislators need to be better listeners and more attentive to the realities of today’s classrooms and what challenges teachers face and also a bit more humble about what they don’t know.”

And it’s early yet, Regnier said. The license has only been available since January. It could still prove useful for future teachers and those doing the hiring.

“This has only been a possible type of license for people for about six months, and we’ve only issued a couple of them,” Regnier said. “It is still very, very early in the game to tell whether this is going to gain popularity and how it’s going to be received.”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.