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Don't Insult Teachers — They Are 'Doing'

"Those that can, do. Those that can't, teach."

This is an odious and offensive insult to teachers everywhere. It should be banished, sent to the same place the "n" word has gone. Never will I write it again.

It's an insult to the memory of the historical Jesus, who is reported to have thought of himself as a teacher. What was it he couldn't "do" that led him down the path to his wonderfully instructive parables? Was it carpentry?

It's an insult to the special education teachers who taught my autistic son. What was it they couldn't "do" that led them down the path to such commitment and reciprocal joy?

It's an insult to the faculty of professional schools, trade schools and special schools such as Hartford's famous American School for the Deaf.

It's a personal insult to me. Both my parents were teachers. The most important part of my job as a professor is the instruction and mentorship of young people. This includes being a teacher of teachers.

But most sharply, it's an insult to the postgraduate students I met earlier this fall at Avery Point, in Groton. That's where UConn is helping to train the next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers that Connecticut will need to support its future economy. Specifically, UConn-Avery Point offers an 11-month intensive Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates.

During my guest appearance with them, I asked the question: "What rankles you most about your decision to become a teacher?" Kevin Agnello's response was to quote the insult above. This struck raw nerves around the room, leading to the fruitful discussion that precipitated this column.

If the insult were true, all these students would be admitting that they failed to "do" something else before choosing to teach. But Agnello didn't fail. He majored in finance and mathematics, graduated, and worked before deciding that teaching would be a more personally satisfying career. So he entered the certification program, will soon obtain his teaching credential, and will help lead the state toward its STEM future. Let's not throw insults his way as he matures professionally.

Also in this crowd were card-carrying scientists and engineers. Those like Stephanie Robles and Darcey Collins, who chose to leave good jobs for this higher calling. For them, teaching was a second choice, not in priority, but in historical sequence. Also present were several die-hard, but chronically underpaid teachers like Steven Hovorka, Jennifer Dufraine and Julie Simpson, who taught at hands-on science programs like Nature's Classroom, Mystic Aquarium, and Project Oceanology, all of whom were seasonally employed. Certification will allow them to earn a living doing what they already do well.

Finally, the biggest surprise was to see one of my own students, Hannah Mondrach. She was there, along with other recent graduates such as Tia Ciliano, Becky Redhead, Stephen Sobolewski and Aidan Weeks, who are in the process of adapting their training in science and math to expand the state's pool of STEM teachers.

Though I can't officially certify that the program is working well, I can unofficially assure you that it more than meets the mark. First, the student group led by Professor John Settlage passes my sniff test for enthusiasm. Arriving early, I lingered in the hall to listen for both the volume and content of the classroom banter. It was loud and on-topic, a trading of war stories from their student teaching experiences.

Second, the students talked about being a support group for each other like the guys at the VFW or the American Legion. They will need that mutual support to stay in the trenches and raise our STEM education to the rising global standard.

I end this column on a personal note. The decisions these young people are making parallels one I made many years ago. Indeed, I was once a gainfully employed and enthusiastic professional before my wife pointed out the obvious, that I should become a teacher. Like them, I went back for my certification, a doctorate, and the rest is history.

Robert M. Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at profthorson@yahoo.com.

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