A teacher I work with is caught in the frustrating and nerve-wracking situation of being denied certification from the State of New York for no good reason. In her second year at a high-needs city public school, she is one of the best teachers I know: extremely committed to her students and to teaching as a professional career, highly knowledgeable in her subject area and in a range of pedagogical techniques, and she’s just earned a full masters degree from Bank Street College in middle school education. She teaches middle school social studies and already passed the grueling New York State Social Studies content area exam.
So what’s the problem? Many of her undergraduate history courses—taken at a top-notch liberal arts college—focused on Latin American and Caribbean history. The state does not want to honor these course credits toward her certification as a social studies teacher. This is a glaring example of our profession and the bureaucracy that runs it being completely out of touch with what matters in the classroom!
The seventh and eighth grade social studies curriculum in New York focuses exclusively on American history, from pre-Columbian times to the Civil Rights Movement. My friend has taken her share of American history courses, so that’s not the issue. The state is conveying—in red tape—that European history is more important to our American history teachers’ base of knowledge than is Latin American history. Of course, both are important. Ideally every teacher of history would enter the classroom with an intimate knowledge of the history of the entire planet, but the reality is that when we actually study history, we focus on something in depth. Evidently, the history that occurs south of our borders isn’t valuable in the classrooms of New York.
Or is it…? In fact the vast majority of the students my friend teaches are from the Caribbean, or their parents are. The specific way this teacher is able to weave together U.S. history with that of the Caribbean and Latin America helps create a cohesive understanding of the history of both Americas for her students, at times bridging the two worlds in which they live. This ability is very much in line with the increasingly global world our students need to understand.
Meanwhile, this teacher is threatened with suspended pay when school lets out later this month, while she has to take (and pay for) additional European history courses this summer. This is a teacher who invested in a full year of student teaching and a 45-credit quality teacher education program at Bank Street College—that’s 15 credits more than the usual 30-credit masters program.
In another middle school where I worked, the strongest teacher on the floor had taught social studies there for 15 years, was a cornerstone of the school, and a leader in the interdisciplinary humanities department. Originally from Puerto Rico, he had a degree in journalism from a University on the island, where he was a news reporter before entering the teaching profession (an experience that helped him make social studies content relevant to his mostly Latino students). When the state came in to evaluate the school and set it on the road to improvement, they discovered that this master teacher was licensed to teach only Spanish, not Social Studies. This year the administration had no choice but to assign him to teach Spanish as a foreign language—and he has no experience doing this!
The policies around having “highly qualified” teachers in every classroom just aren’t adding up for me right now. A brand-new NYC Teaching Fellow with a degree in European history and no course work in education would be considered a highly qualified social studies teacher in the state’s eyes. New York needs to rethink these definitions to account for the demonstrated success of a practicing teacher as well as the specific knowledge of the teacher in relation to school context and the global world in which we live.
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