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Originally published September 11, 2012 at 5:32 PM | Page modified September 11, 2012 at 5:32 PM

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Op-ed: Good teachers are made, not born

Supporting teachers in the tough job of continuously learning the craft of teaching improves public education, writes guest columnist Jonathan Knapp.

Special to The Times

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SOME people think that good teachers are born; educators know that good teachers are made. They are made over time, through education, perseverance, practice and guidance. Newly minted teachers may be shiny and bright, but teachers with experience connect with students. They are the coin of the realm for student achievement. It takes time to get from here to there.

Supporting teachers in the tough job of continuously learning the craft of teaching improves public education.

For many in the recent crop of ed reformers in America there is a sort of article of faith about educators' unions. It goes something like this: Teachers are great -- except for all the ones they call incompetent, burned out, or lazy; it's the teachers' voice -- the union -- that is the problem with public education. For these kinds of true believers, it is hard to refute ideology with reality.

Still, I believe in reality-based discussions.

The Seattle Education Association union functions as the vehicle for Seattle's public-school educators to improve public education in order to better serve Seattle's children. Improvements to children's learning conditions, by happy coincidence, are improvements to educators' working conditions. Educators argue for improvements that they know work.

Back to making a good teacher. Fortunately, the state still requires that teachers be extensively educated for the profession, although this too is under attack with Teach for America. The teacher has to provide the perseverance. The job provides the opportunity for practice.

Where does the guidance come from? New teachers need mentors. Years ago, if a new teacher happened to meet up with an amenable, experienced peer at the school building, then mentoring happened. That wasn't good enough.

The Seattle Education Association advocated for and obtained through collective bargaining the STAR mentor program. It pairs every new teacher with an experienced mentor teacher who is a recognized leader in classroom practice. The program has demonstrated success in helping new teachers get better faster.

Teachers continue their professional development throughout their careers. The most rigorous professional development track is National Board Certification. This yearlong reflection and inquiry about teaching practice has a national first-year success rate of only 35 percent.

Teachers dive into a program to improve their professional skills that only one in three successfully complete in their first year -- on top of their day jobs. When teachers complete their certification, they help to raise everybody's game at the schools they work in. They become respected teacher-leaders.

Experience has shown that teachers in support groups led by trained facilitators have the best chance of completion. The Seattle Education Association tried unsuccessfully for years to get Seattle Public Schools to run support groups. We aren't waiting any more. We created our own National Board candidate support-group program.

In 2005, when pioneers like Donna Shy and Lori Fujimoto successfully completed National Boards on their own, there were just 22 National Board-certified teachers in Seattle schools. Now we have 276 certified teachers. Washington is third in the nation and interest grows continually. The number of teachers who have signed up to pursue this development track is double what we hoped it would be.

This support helps make Seattle one of the few urban school districts that buck the national trend of high teacher turnover. The nationwide average is 50 percent of new teachers leaving the profession within five years. Turnover is even higher in urban districts. In Seattle, 70 to 80 percent stay more than five years.

With each contract negotiation, the Seattle Education Association has pushed for changes that enhance the teaching profession. It's our proven track record. It will be our bargaining stance again in 2013.

When teachers have a voice in developing themselves, it strengthens all of the teaching profession. That is what the union does. And that is good for all students.

Jonathan Knapp, an automotive technology teacher volunteered in Bosnia during the siege of Sarajevo, ran a small business and organized for third-party politics, is president of Seattle Education Association.

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