Seventeen-year-old Katie Abbott knows what defines a good teacher: It’s someone willing to spend extra time with a student to make sure a concept or skill has been learned.
"It needs to be obvious that they genuinely care about you," said Abbott, student body president at Mesa’s Westwood High School.
But that’s not enough for a teacher to be considered "highly qualified" under
the federal government’s "No Child Left Behind" law.
It defines a highly qualified teacher as someone who holds a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, has obtained full state certification or licensure and has demonstrated subject area competence in each academic subject taught. Every public school teacher must be "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-06 school year.
Caring about students is not a requirement — and yet, many educators and students say that quality is essential.
Billie Enz, associate division director for curriculum and instruction at Arizona State University’s College of Education, said teachers need to be experts in other things besides the subject they teach — areas such as child development, motivation and "intangible things like inspiration," she said.
"You want someone who is a content specialist, especially at middle school or secondary school," Enz said. "You need someone with interpersonal skills. It’s this beautiful balance of being bright, caring and highly skilled."
Teri Ory, principal of Gilbert’s Edu-Prize Charter School, agrees that good teaching takes more than what the government prescribes.
"After obtaining the right papers, they need to have a heart for kids and be willing to go the extra mile," Ory said. "They need to be childcentered. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s so important."
When Ory interviews candidates for teaching positions, she looks for good people skills, a good sense of humor, and someone emotionally healthy with interests outside of school.
"Their lives can’t revolve around school," Ory said. "They need to be a whole person to be a good teacher. It is easy to have school become your life."
With the federal deadline for being "highly qualified" one school year away, school districts across the nation are scrambling to make sure their teachers’ credentials stack up. The law also required every state to report in September how many teachers already meet the "highly qualified" definition.
Arizona was one of a handful of states that failed to meet the September deadline. Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said the U.S. Department of Education has given Arizona an extension until December. The process was delayed because of problems in how data was reported, Horne said.
He added that he expects Arizona has a high number of teachers who are not currently "highly qualified." But last week, state officials did not have an estimate readily available.
While the state as a whole may have a low number of "highly qualified" teachers, many districts in the East Valley have almost all of their teachers meeting the qualifications.
Scott McWilliams, director of certificated personnel for the Mesa Unified School District, said he met Oct. 21 with all principals in the district and went over the requirements with them. He said principals will report to him by Nov. 26 regarding their schools’ progress toward having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.
McWilliams estimates that about 99 percent of teachers in the district will be given the label "highly qualified."
"We’re in good shape," he said.
Katy Cavanagh, the academic officer for the Scottsdale Unified School District, said about 94 percent of Scottsdale teachers have turned in their paperwork and, of those, 98 percent already are highly qualified to be teaching their classes.
Officials with the Kyrene and Tempe elementary districts and the Gilbert Unified School District said 80 percent to 98 percent of their teachers meet the federal definition of a highly qualified teacher.
Terry Locke, spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District, said Chandler still is surveying teachers, but he doesn’t think it will be an issue. Chandler, one of the state’s highest paying districts, attracts many teaching applicants.
"We receive about 1,000 applicants every year, so we can be pretty picky in who we choose," Locke said. "We attract many highly qualified teachers."
CHARTER SCHOOLS EXEMPT
While district schools are busy making sure their teachers meet deadlines, charter schools are exempt from the "highly qualified" teacher requirements.
Ron Caya, founder and executive dean for the New School for the Arts and Academics, a Tempe charter school, said students know if a teacher is highly qualified.
"Being certified doesn’t mean much," Caya said. "You can look highly qualified on a resume and have it be nothing but a snow job."
Caya said the teachers he hires haven’t necessarily graduated from a college of education or taught in a traditional system. Yet, they know their field thoroughly.
"I happen to observe time after time that those that have practiced in their field have a 95 percent return rate in students," Caya said. "They really respond to teachers who are experts in their field. Students understand the difference between good and bad."
Abbott remembers Kristeen Harris, her fourthgrade teacher in 1995 at Mesa’s Franklin West Elementary School, as a great teacher.
"She was my first teacher who was really, really strict," she said.
Abbott worked extra hard in Harris’ class to read 100 books so she could earn a special lunch with her teacher. She still remembers the conversation she had during that lunch.
"That was really the first time," she said, "that a teacher sat down with me and talked about my future."
- Tribune writers Daryl James, Beth Lucas and CeCe Todd contributed to this report.