How can students learn if they don't have teachers?

Knowing it does not mean you can teach it!

In the last few months, I have mentioned the teacher shortage schools are facing across the country. In particular, I have brought attention to the fact that Clark County is short 16 math teachers in high school. That translates to somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 students in Clark County being taught by substitutes.

While that is problematic, these kids have to take a proficiency exam to graduate. How can the Nevada Legislature hold these kids accountable for their math education if they won't guarantee them a qualified teacher?

The Legislature would not even pass a bill that would have allowed retired teachers to come back into the system to cover this shortage. Other states have done that quite successfully. But they did allow that provision for the universities. Just how many ways can you spell "dumb"?

The Clark County School District put out a call for people with math backgrounds to apply for teaching positions. About 30 responded with at least an interest in teaching mathematics. They ranged from business people, to retired military, to people currently subbing in the schools. Of the 30 or so people, 15 actually filled out an application so they could receive the required 120 hours of in-service training required to be placed in classrooms by February. Hopefully, all 15 of these will attend the training and take a math position in the district.

These candidates will have to learn about such things as lesson planning, grading and attendance regulations. The question most often asked during their pre-screening dealt with classroom management. In other words, what do you do if a kid does ...?

While they will receive instruction on classroom management, I explained to many of them that, like student achievement, classroom management is very dependent upon the teacher. Teachers who are seen as caring, competent, consistent, friendly, firm and fair don't tend to have many classroom problems. The key is to treat students the same way you would like your own child treated.

While these candidates have a solid math background, they will need to be taught how to open a lesson, develop concepts so students fully understand why rules work and connect those concepts to previously learned math and/or outside applications.

Many of these applicants know that to divide fractions, you flip and multiply. Now they have to be able to show the students why that shortcut works. Not only will they be expected to fully explain the rationale behind the rules, they will have to learn to read students' faces. Expressions from students often determine if teachers need to move on or try a different way of explaining.

A tough lesson for these new candidates will come when they find out the state Legislature, through the actions of the Council to Establish Academic Standards, has put more in the curriculum than can be covered for mastery. In other words, these new teachers will see the frustration of experienced teachers as they and their students are forced to move on before fully learning a concept. There will be meaning to the phrase "set up to fail."

Hopefully, these teacher candidates will have empathy. If they remember difficulties they had while learning and share those strategies with their students to overcome them, those kids will be more successful.

Knowing the math content is not going to be a problem for these people; it's translating it so these kids can remember it, understand it and apply it. Tricks to help kids remember will have to be learned by these folks; for instance, how to remember the difference between complementary and supplementary angles or remembering their trig ratios using SOHCAHTOA.

These teachers will have to help the students take notes so they can study more effectively and efficiently, to think critically about the material they have learned so they can apply it. What these new teachers will begin to understand is that while memorization is important to learning, so are connections and understanding.

So while we can give teachers a template on how best to set up a class such as answer questions on the previous night's work, state the day's objective, introduce new material, develop concepts, guided practice for skill acquisition, closure by restating what was taught and what the student should know and be able to do, then long-term reviews so kids are less apt to forget important material learned earlier, the simple fact is teaching is not an easy job. And it is not a job in which a person can support a family easily.

Maybe that's why more than 50 percent of the people entering the profession leave within the first five years. Maybe that's why we have a shortage of qualified teachers today. Hopefully, this fast track alternative route to teacher licensure will be highly successful. We know that these teacher candidates know the material to be taught. The question is, can they teach it so students will be comfortable in their knowledge, understanding and appreciation of mathematics?

Bill Hanlon, a Las Vegas educator, is a member of the Nevada Board of Education. His views do not necessarily reflect those of other members. His e-mail address is


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