How one teacher's experience overcomes lack of certification

At Ellicott City school, history becomes special

August 30, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Many mornings, as he bikes the few miles to the Homewood School in Ellicott City, Ken Katzen worries about whether he is really teaching his students the things they need to know about colonization, transcendentalism and criminal and civil law.

When they leave his sparsely decorated classroom each year, he frets, will these teen-agers know what their rights are?

It's a question any good teacher would ask. But it's made even more relevant for teachers like Katzen, who are forced to teach subjects or on grade levels they never prepared for in school to make up for a growing teacher shortage.

State education officials bemoan the high number of Maryland teachers who are teaching outside their certified fields, particularly after a study by Education Trust - a national children's advocacy group - said that 22 percent of the state's middle and high school teachers did not study in college the subjects they teach.

The report, released last week, also said that 35 percent of the teachers in Maryland's secondary schools with high populations of minority students are teaching outside their fields.

Katzen is one of those teachers.

Although he has taught many subjects over the years, Katzen, 56, is certified with a masters degree in special education. That means he is trained to teach students who need individual education plans to combat a documented learning deficit.

At Homewood School - Howard County's alternative learning center that houses three special education programs in one building - Katzen still does some of what he's trained to do.

But the particular program he teaches in, Gateway, is for students with behavioral problems, not necessarily learning problems. So this year he is charged with teaching high school students U.S. government and history - a course he not only isn't certified in, but also disliked as a child.

"I think it's fascinating now," Katzen said. "But I didn't necessarily care for history when I was in high school."

`Behind the curve'

Today, after more than 30 years of teaching, Katzen has many, many friends in the profession. And when he compares himself to the ones who studied the subject in college, he fears he comes up lacking.

"A U.S. history teacher who is certified in social studies just knows more history than I do. They have more history-teaching techniques than I do. So there are weaknesses there," he said. "I'm behind the curve on using the technology and some of the latest techniques in social studies."

He wishes he had more social-studies-related stories to tell, such as interesting trivial tales about presidents Garfield or Taft. And he worries how his fidgety, emotional, impulsive students will pass the high school assessments - rumored among educators to be impossibly difficult for any student.

"It's very frustrating knowing that the kids we have who have huge holes in their education, many of whom have very little intrinsic motivation to learn," Katzen said, "most of them, I really don't see how they're going to pass [the assessments]."

At the same time, Katzen doesn't think officials should forbid teachers from teaching outside of their certified areas - especially at schools like Homewood.

"People ask me what do you teach, and I say, `I don't teach social studies. I teach kids,'" Katzen said. When you have a talent for teaching children, wherever they are on the academic scale, the certification is not so important, he said.

"There are dynamite math or science teachers that I'd love to have here, because they've figured it out. They learned how to teach these kids," Katzen said.

"But I would rather have someone with the skills who can teach these kids. And as a generality, special education teachers are much better prepared to teach the sort of kids we teach than subject-area-certified teachers." he said.

In his classes, for instance, Katzen might teach one group with two different textbooks, a skill used regularly by special education teachers familiar with individualized instruction. He's deft at modifying classwork for some students, and assessments for others.

`Innate ability'

As the students in his class chatter constantly and repeatedly interrupt - "Mr. Katzen! What page you say that was on again? Mr. Katzen! Can I sit at a different desk?" - he coolly manages to keep his train of thought, sometimes stopping to answer, sometimes calmly ignoring his chanted name.

The learning is haltingly slow at Homewood; but it goes on.

"I tell them, `I know you're not going to remember the year that the Battle of Little Bighorn took place. But if you learn to think so that no one takes your money or your power or your rights, unless you want them to, that's what I want you to learn,'" Katzen said. "Social studies is about thinking."

An expert in social studies might not be able to get through to them in such a challenging environment. But Katzen can, and does.

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