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Voices: Listening to teachers on licensure reform, part one

As part of an ongoing series on recruiting, training and supporting teachers, Donnell-Kay fellow Sarah Jenkins interviews veteran teacher Mark Sass about his work with the LEAD Compact.

I’m grateful that my fellowship at The Donnell-Kay Foundation allows me to nurture my obsession with policy’s impact on teachers. The Licensing Educators for Academic Development (LEAD) Compact is looking at how to reform the licensing element of the profession, discussing teacher recruitment, training, induction, ongoing professional development, and retention. Given my fixation on teacher perspective, what better way to understand the process than by talking with the two teachers in the group? Mark Sass and Sarah Casaletto agreed to share the unique perspectives they are bringing to the licensure conversation.

The following includes excerpts from my recent conversation with Mark. Mark has been teaching high school social sciences for 18 years, for the past 14 years at Legacy High School in Broomfield. He is a member of the Aspen Teacher Leader Fellows and of the Denver New Millennium Initiative, an initiative of the Center for Teaching Quality. Stay tuned for my conversation with Sarah, which will be posted tomorrow.

Why did you want to be part of the LEAD Compact?

Throughout my career as a teacher, a lot of my focus has been on the profession of teaching. I think we have a crisis within the profession as to whether or not it actually is a profession; this, in part, is based upon how our community views teachers and how teachers view themselves. I want to look at ways, through licensure and renewal, that we can professionalize the occupation. That’s my driving force.

As a teacher, what are your core values that guide your participation in the LEAD Compact? How is your perspective unique during licensure conversations?

I’m looking at the profession in general terms, in much broader terms. What are our core beliefs about teaching? Is it something you’re born with, learn with practice, or master with simple techniques? Is it a precise science, a completely data-driven practice, an art, or a sacred calling? Those stereotypes drive people’s views, which, in turn, drive policy. What Sen. Johnston floated last year was that as long as you pass a background check, have a bachelors’ degree, and pass a generic placement exam, you can teach. That approach negates the idea that there is a certain set of competencies and training that monitor entry to the profession; it’s based on the stereotype that teaching is a profession in which you put someone in the classroom and mold them. We need a bigger, broader conversation.

What were your main concerns around licensure before joining the LEAD Compact?

My main concern was the recruitment piece, where a lot of attention is right now. I think that is the wrong approach. If you take care of retention, recruitment will follow. Make teaching so it’s not a profession that people want to leave quickly. Research supports that teacher turnover has a negative impact on schools themselves. I think it also has a negative impact on the profession.

How has your perspective changed since participating?

I’ve gone into this open minded. I’ve learned what to stand firm on and what not to. For example, I’ve been made aware of the concerns with rural districts. What we continue to hear at the LEAD Compact is that we have districts struggling to recruit teachers, and I get that, but it’s geographically specific. I don’t want to change the entire way in which a teacher enters the profession just because of those situations taking place. What can we do to help them? I’ve opened up to look at what’s really going on in those rural districts and their needs.

Thinking three years into the future, if you could choose one thing that would be different about licensure, what would that be?

What I’d like to see different is the re-licensure piece and opportunities for teachers to attain different levels of licenses. We treat teachers very much the same; we all get the same license, with some exceptions for specific subjects. I would like to see multiple licenses that recognize different abilities: master teacher, mentor teacher, teacher leader, etc. Some teacher unions push back on any way that you would differentiate teachers; they’re very sensitive to that, not wanting to recognize any teacher as different. I’d like to see us get over that. There are teachers who can mentor and teachers who are interested in policy. Many professions recognize people with differing abilities, and we want to take advantage of those. I don’t know if policy can do that or if that’s something the profession has to take on.

Thank you, Mark, for your willingness to share your thoughtful and constructive perspective as someone who regularly inhabits the teaching and policy world. Tomorrow, we will check out the LEAD process from Sarah Casaletto’s perspective.

*The Donnell-Kay Foundation is among several funders supporting the work of the LEAD Compact.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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