Our columnist notes that 3,000 teaching positions were left vacant or filled by someone not qualified. He takes a humorous look back to his own school days and wonders what makes a teacher unqualified?

I recently read that Missouri is in the midst of an alarming teacher shortage, with 25% of the state’s 550 public school districts implementing a four-day week due to the lack of staff. In fact, according to our Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, more than 3,000 teaching positions last year were either left vacant or were filled by someone who was not qualified.

That last part led me to ponder, just for a second, what kind of courses one has to take in order to get hired as an unqualified teacher. Then, I recalled some of my elementary and high school instructors and decided that achieving the lofty status of “unqualified educator” is not a new situation at all.

I know plenty of folks who achieved a fine education at tiny, rural schools, but the off-the-beaten-path school I attended included on its roster a handful of teachers whose mental wiring was badly frayed. That school frequently hired whatever warm body they could find. The jobs were not highly desired by recent graduates and/or qualified educators, and the pay was lousy. Those enlisted to train young minds in our neck of the boonies were usually not the cream of the crop.

I disliked my time in school and learned little. However, the dark cloud of public education did provide a silver lining. It gave me countless stories of backwoodsy educators who were possessed of, and I’m putting this nicely, a host of bizarre quirks and infinite eccentricities. My second-grade teacher was roughly 1,000 years old. She tottered around the room, smashing her cane down on student’s desks for no discernible reason. Every afternoon she forced us to swallow several Smith Brother’s Cough Drops as she feared that juvenile hacking might hasten the journey to her eternal reward.

My sixth-grade teacher collected half-eaten food from our cafeteria trays and stored it, for months, in our classroom’s tiny coat closet. I’d never before met anyone who collected old fish-sticks and half-empty cartons of milk—coins and stamps, yes; perishables, no—and can only assume she was a pioneer in the field of animal activism. The coat closet’s rat population exploded that year.

My fellow students and I discovered that our eighth- grade teacher could be distracted from any subject, for hours, by raising our hands and asking, “Are elves real?” I don’t have the space to discuss my high school teachers, but suffice to say that one could barely speak English (he was allegedly from Thailand) and fled the county barely 12 hours before immigration authorities raided his house. Another resides, to this day, in the state penitentiary.

Which brings me back to the original question: What constitutes an unqualified teacher? Missouri’s State Board of Education has an answer. They discovered that, each year, more than 500 teachers are rated “unqualified” because they miss too many questions on the certification test. But, and this is the sort of sheer genius that only a governmental agency could concoct, the board decided that the formerly unqualified could be deemed highly qualified by simply allowing them to answer fewer questions correctly.

In other words, the board decreed that alleviating a teacher shortage by guaranteeing higher pay, providing better working conditions, eliminating redundant administrative positions, and cutting frustrating bureaucracy was a far inferior option to simply lowering the standards for proficiency and expertise. I wonder if an affirmative answer to the question of “Do you collect old food?” is now considered grounds for non-certification.

I wonder…was it ever?