A weekend interview with UF College of Education dean Catherine Emihovich
This week, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education launched a new panel to recommend ways to improve teacher preparation and training. University of Florida education dean Catherine Emihovich is one of two Floridians on the group. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the need to improve the profession, which she suggests has not always been taken as seriously as it should be.
How did you come to be on that committee?
They contacted me. I know the president of NCATE very well. He asked me because of that and, being the dean of the flagship university in Florida, we've been accredited by NCATE since 1954. He knows we're doing some very innovative things with our accreditation work. ...
What do you see that is working that will help to make the teaching profession more of a profession?
Well, I think that like all the SUS schools in Florida that are also NCATE accredited, we follow a set of professional standards. But we also focus a lot on the way the new accreditation work is going, which is to place a greater emphasis on clinical preparation, which is to say more time in classrooms with hands-on experiences, strengthening the content knowledge -- which has always been true at Florida -- and really building strong partnerships with schools to ensure that what the pre-service teachers are doing in the curriculum matches what they are going to do once they leave us. And then, in our case as well, we've continued that model by developing what we call our job-embedded master's degree ... to really do continuing professional development for teachers who have been out and practicing for many, many years. But there's new innovations, new ideas, new research strategies for working with kids that come along all the time. That's to make sure that they stay current in their practice.
Do you really think that teachers have just been in the position of being thrown into classrooms?
Yeah. First of all, even people who go through a strong preparation program at the undergraduate level still find teaching very challenging. Then you have the fact that Florida has hired so many teachers through alternative certification or very often through programs such as Teach for America where they have virtually no experience in the classroom and start teaching. So teaching is a far more complex activity than people imagine it to be. And even with four years of preparation, it's still not enough. For people who come in by other means and have almost no grounding, particularly in pedagogy, it's almost insurmountable. About 70 percent of the teachers in urban schools in Florida are coming through those kinds of alternative pathways.
Why do you think it's taken a period of time to recognize this? Or has it always been recognized and now we're just doing something different about it?
I think actually teaching has been largely an undervalued profession in America. It was initially conceived of as something that nice young girls did before they got married. It still is predominantly a female profession, in that 87 percent of all elementary teachers are women. It's very difficult to attract men into the profession, particularly at the early grade levels where children desperately need really strong male models. And it's just been work that has been really undervalued in terms of its complexity, and it's important to setting the groundwork for what kids will do later on. ...
Teaching is so essential to make sure the kids are ready to enter into other fields. It's such an essential grounding, I think it's one of the most important professions. Yet in the general public's eye, it's a very undervalued profession. This work, I think, is really going to elevate it because we're treating it by saying, 'Look, it's much more like preparing doctors.' You don't say because a doctor has finished four years of medical school that, okay, they're all done. They go through years of residency and all kinds of additional training before people say they're really ready to be a doctor.
It just seems odd, especially since there's been so much attention paid to improving education and education accountability, that nobody would look at teachers and say they are a critical piece.
Well, that's because nobody asked teachers what they thought.
Why is that?
I'm not really sure why they haven't really consulted teachers. I mean, the unions have always promoted this. But people think that's because they've got a vested interest in making teaching a profession.
I know the state of Florida has begun reviewing ratings of the colleges of education based on the teachers' students. Is that something that will be helpful in this regard?
Well, I think it will be helpful. There are so many factors and so many variables that go into how well kids perform in school that saying teachers are the only reasons why kids are or are not learning is probably overstating it. That being said, I think it's also still important to look at outcomes in terms of student learning. So I think we need to pay attention to that. But I wouldn't want to say we should judge the teaching profession by only that measure alone. ...
As legislators move toward adopting things such as performance pay and differential pay, is there a way that what you are working on can complement what they are doing? Or are these things antithetical to one another?
I think the key for colleges of ed is to build very strong relationships with school districts. And that's essentially what we've done, both in our pre-service program with our professional learning communities, and also with the job-embedded master's degree. We have built these strong relationships with the districts because we really have to work hand-in-glove with the school districts. The changing standards, the expectations of the state in terms of what they want to see with the curriculum, you have to really stay abreast of that and also by having relationships in place so you have strong mentor teachers in place to work with your pre-service teachers, as well as having professors in residence at schools. I think those are really important pieces to assess how well the programs are doing. A good number of the SUS schools are doing just that.
As far as the money goes, I'm sure it's got to be important. If no one is being paid as a professional, then how much more can we expect teachers to remain?
Yes. First of all, it is true that teachers are underpaid relative to the work they do and the skill level that is involved. So clearly that is a factor. But there also is an equally strong factor, and here's why relationships with school districts are so important. It's not just about the teachers. The principal as instructional leader plays an extremely essential role. Many teachers who leave teaching, it's not always because of the low salaries. Sometimes they leave because of working conditions in the schools themselves.
So you have to train principals as well as teachers.
Right. We really have to work together. It's really a system. And I think that's the hardest thing to grasp in almost anything we do in American life, that's thinking of things as interrelated systems rather than trying to look at each piece individually and trying to correct one piece at a time, when in fact all of the pieces are interconnected.