Workers in the classroom could benefit students (Opinion Piece)

January 9, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Arizona Daily Star] — Problems in the Arizona public education system resonate far beyond any school campus. It’s taken time, but there are encouraging signs that the understanding of community interconnectedness has finally taken root as common wisdom. The case in point is an idea being proposed by Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne in his annual state of education speech. He is asking businesses to let their employees who have expertise in math and science become adjunct teachers by taking a how-to course at a university and teaching one high school class per year while continuing in their regular jobs. They would then have to become certified. There are potential snags, but this is an idea worth developing.

Horne says Arizona needs 70 new math teachers each year to replace those who retire or leave the profession. Add in requirements from the Arizona State Board of Education that increases the high school math requirement from two to four years, which goes into effect with the class of 2013, and Arizona will need 400 new math teachers to keep up with demand.

It’s unrealistic to think that recruiting efforts in other states and pushes within universities to encourage undergraduates to become math or science teachers will produce enough new educators to fill the need. Also destined to fall short are exhortations to professionals interested in teaching to abandon their current jobs, go back to college to become certified to teach and then start in a new career that pays $30,000 a year if they’re lucky. But there are interested people who would be fantastic teachers if given the chance. Being an adjunct lets them share their knowledge without asking them to make a substantial financial and personal sacrifice.

Adjunct teachers could bring a real-world perspective to high school classrooms. A professional engineer would be in a persuasive position to respond to the inevitable “Why do we need to know this?” queries from students. Students want to understand the relevance of what they’re supposed to be learning. Making a direct connection between the classroom and professional world builds that bridge.

Arizona’s community colleges and universities already hire adjuncts to fill teaching openings. Students benefit from real-world experience and the chance to form future job connections. Businesses benefit because their employees can identify promising students who would make good employees. Suzanne Taylor, senior vice president of public policy with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says her organization supports the plan because it will help make Arizona more competitive. “Businesses have recognized for a number of years that there is a shortage of employees with critical quantitative skills,” she said. Employers need workers who have math, science and engineering skills as well as “related problem-solving abilities and abilities to analyze complex information that comes along,” she said. “We feel it’s very important to do what we can to grow our own within the Arizona student population.”

When companies look for a place to locate, they examine local education data like test results, graduation rates and the number of students going on to college. Anything that helps improve Arizona’s educational standing will help the state. Being a good engineer doesn’t mean that one will be a good science or math teacher, however. Any teacher will tell you that much more goes into being an educator than simply knowing the material. An educator must know how to manage a classroom of 25 or 30 antsy teenagers, how to present the material in an understandable way and how to make complicated information clear to students just learning it. Adjuncts will need patience, empathy, adaptability and a willingness to learn. Teaching isn’t a good fit for everyone and adjuncts must be held to high performance standards, otherwise they’re not solving the problem. But this plan is worth pursuing. Creating a way for competent professionals to share their knowledge with high school students could help the schools, the students, business and our broader community.