PSCS founder Andy Smallman told me a story once about a time when he was in high school. He was working as the night manager of a bookstore, working from 1:30 until 9:30 p.m.—a full 40 hours a week—closing out the till, balancing the books, locking up, and making the night deposit at the bank. The only thing preventing him from graduating high school a semester early was a half credit in “Occupational Education.”
He met with his guidance counselor and explained his evening job. “Is that worth half a credit?”
The counselor said, “What you do on your own time has no bearing on what credit you earn in school. You have to spend time with a certified teacher.”
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I went through the process of earning a teaching certificate. After 10 years in a classroom, I remain unsure of the point of obtaining that piece of paper. Pretty much everything I needed to learn about teaching and learning came from delivering lessons to students, then reflecting on what went well and what didn’t.
Actually, that’s not true. Through that process, I learned how to be a teacher in a traditional school. That is, I learned how to manage the behavior of 30 teenagers, most of whom would rather be doing something else, while conveying academic information that has little meaning in their lives.
This, I’ve found, is a completely different process from authentic teaching and learning. For example, one of the best teachers I ever had was Mr. DiStefano, my first basketball coach. He showed me the basics of the game, and helped me understand what I was good at.
I got my first job when I was 14, working at a convenience store. My boss worked hard, was a man of impeccable integrity, and spent more time than he should have teaching me things like how to ask for a raise and why I should spend more time talking to the 14-year-old girl who also worked at the store.
When I was a freshman in college, the assistant sports editor would spend 20 minutes with me every time I wrote an article for the newspaper, explaining his edits. He would engage me in a conversation about my interview, praise me for doing a good job, and provide constructive criticism for next time. It was all done so casually that I wasn’t aware of just how generous he was being with his time.
None of them, to my knowledge, ever took a class in classroom management or adolescent development.
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PSCS has a process by which students can earn school credit even when they’re spending time off campus. By submitting an independent study proposal, students can find mentors in the community to pursue things about which they’re passionate.
One student recently spent a week on his grandfather’s farm to pursue an interest in drafting and building. He decided he wanted to build a throne, and immersed himself in a software program that would help him create a 3-D sketch of his project.
He then showed the sketch to his grandfather, who has a lifetime of experience in woodworking. His grandfather taught him a valuable lesson about the relationship between designer and builder, the same lesson that defines the relationship between architect and contractor, and web designer and programmer: just because you can imagine it doesn’t mean it’s realistic to build it.
So, the student went back to his software application and made modifications. Eventually, they agreed on a design—the throne got scaled down to a simple chair—and began building together.
It’s hard to imagine this experience would have been more profound if the grandfather had a teaching certificate. The truth is, by locking kids up in a school building all day, we miss the opportunity to connect them with some of our community’s best teachers.
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