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GRAVES: A gentle push to continue learning

If you ever have the good fortune — and I say that sincerely, tongue nowhere near cheek — of taking an introductory course in teacher ed, you will typically hear or, better yet, engage in a discussion of the status of education as a profession.

The classical professions include such areas as medicine, law, ministry, etc. The debate assumes certain criteria exist for a true profession and, so, is waged over the extent to which education meets those criteria.

One such criterion is expertise. A true profession must have a generally accepted body of knowledge which its practitioners have mastered. Additionally, those practitioners must continue to study even after they have officially joined the profession because the body of knowledge is assumed to advance over time. Physicians take and read scholarly journals. Barristers study the latest pronouncements of the Supreme Court. Ministers study the latest, densest tomes of theologians.

Now whether education truly meets muster as a profession or not, both sides of the argument would agree that it at least aspires to such. Because of this, educators are also held to a requirement to continue studying in the field and so when teachers and administrators seek recertification — which happens every five years in general in South Dakota — they must demonstrate that they have done so.

This can be accomplished by enrolling in undergraduate or graduate coursework, engaging in less formal continuing education hours, or even pursuing an advanced degree. The last time I recertified, I managed this by going back for a master's degree in a field I particularly enjoy.

As in any field, people look at the recertification education requirements in different ways. Some view it — eyes rolled — as hoop-jumping and find the simplest, cheapest, least time-consuming way to move that certificate expiration date forward a few years. I understand this — people are very busy and any full-time teaching jobs leaves the instructor swamped with a seemingly endless list of jobs and a dwindling amount of time in the day. When you are besieged, something will be given short shrift and the pursuit of new learning opportunities is frequently the victim. Sometimes you are so busy chopping, it seems there's no time to whet the blade.

Personally, I've always sought to use the requirement as a goad to learn something new and hopefully something useful (though I cannot say I always fully manage it, having as much potential for apathy and sloth as the next guy). After all, if you must pursue some kind of coursework, why not look for something relevant? Thus, when I noted that my current certificate will expire next June, I took some time to reflect on just what it was that I wanted to learn in my chosen field and what might also be useful in my career as an educational administrator. OK, I was also looking for something I might truly enjoy. Why not?

I found it at one of South Dakota's distinguished regental universities, a course entitled Children's and Young Adult Literature. The course began less than a month ago, as I write this, and will continue well into December. What a great experience it has already been. One of the first "assignments" was to read an assortment of Caldecott (picture books) and Newbery Award (young adult books) winners. I could have read these books anytime I wanted, of course, but frankly I wouldn't have done so without this prompt. Nor would I have waded into an online debate with other educators and public library employees over the extent to which young people should be allowed to and very much encouraged to read "what they want." Or to have cracked open a textbook on reading and its importance to and pleasure for young readers.

And that is just so far in the course. What lies ahead includes a literature circle discussion on a Newbery winner by an author I've loved but of a book I somehow missed, an author/novel study, a personalized reading website, reflection papers, and a digital presentation of one's "life as a reader."

And as much as I've enjoyed these tasks so far and look forward to them in the very near future, I have to admit I would have undertaken exactly none of them without the gentle push from the recertification process. Without the course, there would be no infrastructure for the activities (assignments, groups, lists of suggested book) and there would be no sense of urgency necessary to overcome the clamor of the daily tasks and demands.

Leaving the argument over the "profession" status of education for another time, I can at least state that its aspirations toward that status and the emphasis it puts on continued study in its field of expertise is having a decidedly positive effect, even on those who fancy themselves far too busy for saw-sharpening.