I have a confession to make. I’ve been teaching for almost three decades now without a certificate. That’s right. According to the State of Virginia, I’m not qualified to do the job I’ve been doing for the last twenty-nine years.

Here’s how the system works. Public school teachers must hold a teaching certificate, earned by taking a variety of classes, usually through an accredited school of education. Most modern universities have such ed-schools, just as they have business, law, and engineering schools.
To earn a teaching certificate, prospective teachers must pass courses in such areas as curriculum instruction, classroom management, and childhood development. A quick glance through the catalog of UVa’s Curry School of Education gives a hint of what’s required: “Conflict Resolution,” “Social and Affective Processes in Development,” and “Strategies for Academic Achievement.”

I’ve never been moved to take such classes, and as a result, I’ve spent my career in private schools. 

Most folks are surprised to discover that independent schools don’t require teachers to be licensed by the State. In fact, many private schools, even the best ones, happily recruit teachers who’ve never set foot inside an ed-school. 

Independent schools believe that teaching is mostly an art, not a science: a wondrous mix of knowledge and charisma that can’t be learned from books in university classrooms, but must be acquired on the job, through hard experience in front of real students. 

Consequently, what matters most in independent schools is that teachers be masters of their subject, not that they have a paper from the State, certifying competency in “conflict resolution.” They know that any teacher worth his salt can figure out pretty quickly how to resolve a conflict.

Private schools have confidence that good teachers will learn over time to maintain discipline, work with colleagues, and teach lively classes. If they don’t, they’ll get out of the profession soon enough. In private schools, knowing concrete stuff—Shakespeare, calculus, Spanish grammar or U.S history—matters far more than “processes,” “assessments,” and “strategies.”

The insistence on licensure, I believe, seriously limits the pool of teaching candidates from which public schools can draw. Suppose Bill Clinton wanted to teach a high school government class. Sorry. No teaching certificate. Not qualified. Or imagine John Grisham applying to teach creative writing at Orange or Spotsylvania High. Nope. Not approved by the State. 

Frivolous examples? Maybe. But the truth is: lots of smart, innovative people are barred from the public system because they aren’t licensed and have no desire to be. Private schools, eager to give such people a chance, reap the rewards. Their faculties are filled with what Robertson Davies calls “cultured madmen.” Ask a student if she’d rather be taught physics by a retired fighter pilot or by someone well-versed in “alternative assessments” and see what answer you get.

My own decision to teach in independent schools was made many years ago, driven partly by economics and partly by the romantic notion that real education is for thinking deep thoughts. 
I heard the call to teach early in high school. When I headed to college, I didn’t want to spend my hard-earned cash on ed-school courses. I wanted to read Milton and Chaucer and Faulkner and Twain. I wanted to study poets and philosophers, great dreamers and thinkers. I had no yearning for classes like, “Methods of Collaboration and Consultation.” 

My choice to major in English, foregoing licensure, pushed me inevitably toward private schools. I don’t regret it. I’ve spent half a lifetime now in schools that cherish, reward, and nurture good teaching.

My purpose here is not to denigrate public school teachers. I have lots of friends in the public system, good teachers all. My own children have attended public schools. I’m a product of local public schools myself and remember fondly many of my former teachers. But it seems to me that good public school teachers succeed in spite of the system, not because of it. They’re not valued or respected as they would be in a private school.

Not long ago, between classes, I tried explaining my lack of a teacher’s license to some students. They didn’t understand how the system works and were surprised to find that their English teacher wasn’t technically certified. Afterwards, a young man came up to me with a piece of paper, ripped hastily from his notebook, across which he’d scrawled, “I, Peter V-----, hereby certify that Mr. Amos is qualified to teach 10th grade English.”