First Person / Teachers as targets

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The headline of Eleanor Chutes' June 19 Post-Gazette article said it all -- "Universities, Colleges Prepare Teachers Poorly, National Report Declares." The report, issued by the National Council on Teaching Quality, went so far as to claim that the preparation of teachers, including "about 16,000 of newly certified teachers in Pennsylvania each year" is "dismal."

My wife Anita and I are the products of a teacher preparation program at one of Pennsylvania's teachers colleges. We graduated from Edinboro State College (now Edinboro University) in 1965. Anita earned her teaching certificate in elementary and special education, while I earned my certificate in English.

During our careers, we taught everything from kindergarten classes to graduate seminars. By the time we retired from our profession, our teaching careers had spanned five decades. Of the hundreds of students who graduated with us from Edinboro, most also went on to long teaching careers both in Pennsylvania and around the country.

It's been nearly 50 years since we graduated from Edinboro, so Anita and I were struck by the "dismal" report card on teacher preparation in Pennsylvania's colleges and universities and wondered what the National Council on Teaching Quality would have thought of our preparation for the classroom back in the 1960s.

At Edinboro, we were required to take courses in general education, a major field of study and general instructional techniques. The general education curriculum and the courses in our majors were designed to provide us with basic skills, a broad education and a knowledge of the field in which we'd be teaching. The general instructional techniques courses were suppose to prepare us for the classroom.

Growing up in a working-class neighborhood and attending a Pittsburgh public school, I certainly needed the basic courses, where I learned that "yunz" was not standard English. I was also grateful for the humanities courses, where I learned that comic books were great fun, but, with apologies to Classics Illustrated, not great literature.

The "how to teach" courses, however, were another matter. For those courses, we did a lot of busy work and earned our grades by writing reports on articles we were required to read in education journals. In the actual classes, we learned practical things, like threading a movie projector and slicing broken film, and odd things, like using colored chalk and writing on the blackboard while still facing the class.

We were also offered a variety of teaching methods in a class taught by an instructor whose own method was staring at our shoes while he talked to us about the importance of making eye contact with our students. I tried not to take it personally when he told us the best way to teach Shakespeare to students with a comic book mentality was to "sugarcoat the pill."

We spent a semester of our senior year student teaching at nearby elementary and high schools. After years of preparing myself to teach the likes of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Hemingway, I spent my first class teaching Felix Salten's "Bambi" to seventh-graders.

Anita's most memorable moment came when a kindergarten student, who missed his mother, bolted from the classroom and dashed out of the school. She tossed off her heels, ran after the child and caught him in an embrace before he could reach the street.

Thanks to a few borrowings from Walt Disney, I survived "Bambi" and went on to teach Shakespeare and other great writers. And thanks to a pair of great legs, developed while walking the hills to Coraopolis High School, Anita saved a child's life and, with her caring heart, went on to make school a safe haven for generations of young children.

Looking back on it all, I think what made me a teacher was my passion for literature, which began, oddly enough, with reading comic books. In Anita's case, it was her good-heartedness and love for children.

As for past and present teacher preparation and evaluation, we'll leave that to the critics.

Teachers have always been an easy target. George Bernard Shaw once said, "those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." If Shaw were alive today, he may well have added, "Those who can't teach, become critics of teachers."

Putting acerbic Shaw and gloom-and-doom accountability groups aside, Anita and I believe the next generation of teachers will be fine -- as long as they have a passion for what they teach and care about their students. But just in case, Anita and I will head outside to see if the sky is falling.


Richard "Pete" Peterson, the author most recently of "Pops: The Willie Stargell Story," is professor emeritus of English at Southern Illinois University, where he was a Teacher of the Year. His wife Anita still receives thank-you letters and calls from her former first-graders.


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