THE JOY OF TEACHING - BUT FIRST...
by W.R. Marshall
American Reporter Correspondent
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Wolfgang Ketterle, 2001 Nobel Laureate and John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics at M.I.T., has said auf Wiedersehn to Cambridge and spent his Nobel bucks on a little place in your home town.
He's grown tired of solving the mysteries of the universe, just wants to grow flowers and read poetry. But after a year, he realizes he misses teaching, has known for some time America is falling behind in the sciences and wants to reach kids before they get to university, so he decides to teach high school.
Now he's read in the local paper that there's a shortage of good science teachers - of all teachers actually - so he calls the nearby high school to offer his services:
"Hello," says Professor Ketterle. "To whom would I speak about teaching at your school?"
"That would be Principal Skinner."
"Not Seymour Skinner? We attended the Max Planck Institute together."
"Yes, that's our Principal Skinner. I'll give you his office."
"Thank you," Wolfgang taps his toes while he's being transferred.
"Principal Skinner's office," a pleasant voice answers.
"Yes, hello, my name is Wolfgang Ketterle; I'd like to speak to Principal Skinner."
The woman gasps, "The Wolfgang Ketterle? The Wolfgang Ketterle, who along with Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the Bose-Einstein condensate?"
"I am that guy," Wolfgang confesses.
The woman gushes. "Big fan, Dr. Ketterle, big fan, been following you since you worked with Pritchard back in the '90's."
"I'm flattered, thank you."
"Now what can I do for you, Dr. Ketterle?"
"I'd like to teach at your school."
"Wonderful. Wonderful. Just send me your Letter of Clearance from the county and I'll set up the interview."
"Your Letter of Clearance."
"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage," Wolfgang says in a most European way.
"Hello?" Wolfgang says, a bit perplexed. "Please, just tell Principal Skinner it's Wolfgang."
"Dr. Ketterle," the woman, still pleasant of voice, replies. "He can't interview you unless you have a Letter of Clearance from the county."
"He can't even speak to me?"
"Not if you're looking for a job."
"I see. So I need this clearance letter. And how do I get such a letter?"
"You have to call the County School District. Here's the number ... and I think you're much better looking than Cornell or Wieman," she giggles.
Wolfgang calls the county. There is a bit of toe-tapping while he waits.
"Hello, Teacher Recruitment," says a woman with a voice every bit as pleasant as the first woman's pleasant voice. "How can I help you?"
"I'd like to get a Letter of Clearance so I can teach high school."
"Are you certified?"
"Well," says Wolfgang, with no idea what awaits him. "I've been teaching Physics at M.I.T. for a while."
"I see. Do you have a teaching certificate from Massachusetts?"
"I have a Ph.D."
"Yes, but no certificate?"
"I won the Noble Prize in Physics in 2001."
"Yes, well, that's very nice; you'll need to be certified in South Carolina before you can teach here. You can find the county paperwork online, but I wouldn't bother filling that out until you've done the state paperwork. We can't process the county papers until you've completed the state paperwork. Here's their number."
Wolfgang, ever the optimist, is pleased it's an 800 number, but isn't tapping his toes.
He's finally connected to another pleasant woman - easily as pleasant at the first two - who, after initial pleasantries are exchanged, says, "Dr. Ketterle, you're a perfect candidate for our P.A.C.E. program. It's where we bring non-traditional people into the classroom; lawyers or writers or college professors, you know, people who haven't taught."
"But I taught physics at M.I.T."
"Yes, but you didn't teach high school. It's very simple, really. You send us $75 along with the paperwork you'll find on our Website; work history, letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc; and don't forget your fingerprints. Then you'll have to take the praxis exam in your subject - we have to know that you know that you know your subject. It's only $100 per subject."
"But I won the Nobel Prize in Physics! I can get you a letter saying I know the subject."
"Yes, well, we have to protect our children... . Where was I? Oh, yes. There's a four-week course you'll have to take before you can start. They'll teach you things like classroom management, curriculum, teaching methodologies and so on, but the beauty of the P.A.C.E. program is you can get your certification while you're teaching."
Wolfgang takes a deep breath, "I see. And how long will this take?"
"Depending on how quickly you can get your paperwork together, as little as two months, but it might take as long as three."
"And then I can teach?"
"No. Then you can go back to the county, and after you do their paperwork, they'll issue you a Letter of Clearance. Then you can start to interview."
"But I discovered the Bose-Einstein condensate."
"Look, Dr. Ketterle, I hear that a hundred times a day. We don't want to waste our principals' time interviewing people who aren't good candidates. It's for the children, you know."
This cautionary tale is fiction only insofar as Wolfgang Ketterle remains at M.I.T. and Seymour Skinner is still manning the helm at Springfield Elementary. The rest is based on actual conversations with people at both the county and state school boards in my state. Before you start saying it's a South Carolina thing, make a few calls to your local and state school boards and learn the horrible truth - it's a national thing.
According to the National Teacher Recruitment Clearing House, over the next 10 years the nation will need 2.2- to 2.4-million teachers - they expect at least a 10% shortfall - and shortages of qualified mathematics and science teachers are at an all-time high.
But there's the good news: the people who stand between your kids and good teachers are decent, earnest folks all doing their best to get the very best teachers into the classroom.
Ah, but there's the bad news: the people who stand between your kids and good teachers are decent, earnest folks all doing their best to get the very best teachers into the classroom.
And they can't get out of their own way.
No matter how you cut it, all potential teachers coming from other professions have to face a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, do tons of paperwork and fork out a bunch of cash just for the possibility of getting a job that pays less than an assistant manager's job at Wal-Mart. Is there another profession that mistreats potential - not actual - employees this badly?
Mark Twain said it best: "God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board."