Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Better Teacher Training

The US DOE recently revived an initiative for improving teacher training in this country. It's a dumb initiative. Pearson offers edTPA, basically a new gateway into the profession, to insure that only the qualified enter the profession. edTPA is a dumb program. TFA is only the most prominent of the many "alternative paths" into teaching. As a means of creating great teaching professionals, TFA is the very essence of dumb.

"So, Mr. Smart Ass Blogger," you ask, "do you have a better idea?"

And I answer (because you called me by name), "Yes. Yes, I do."

I went to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania,and I chose them so that I could go through their teacher program. I was an English major, with minimal education classwork before I entered student teaching. But I never regretted that I didn't have more pre-student teaching coursework in "How To Make a Bulletin Board" or "Favorite Professorial Theories That I Imagine Might Work in a Classroom."

We all student taught in schools in the Metro Cleveland area, and lived in an apartment building at East 9th and Superior (with a boarded up ball room in the basement, but that's another story). We took methods courses while student teaching right down the hall in the classrooms that the college rented. Our student teaching supervisor saw us in a classroom usually at least once a week, and for more than one class-- that supervisor also taught one of the methods classes, where instead of talking about cloudy hypotheticals, we talked about how to handle a situations that had just happened in our classes. 

After graduation (with a BA in English) I immediately entered the college's Master's in Education program. I started course work that summer while looking for my first job. My first job had to be within forty miles of downtown Cleveland, because while my school district considered me a first year teacher, the college considered me an intern. I took coursework (meeting less frequently) at that same field office and was regularly visited (but less frequently) by the same man who had supervised me in student teaching. So again, my coursework was practical and based on what I was actually dealing with; it also gave me a bi-monthly meeting with other first year teachers.

After that first year, I still had coursework to complete, but those first experiences, with strong support and training anchored in the real world-- that's what set me up for success as a teacher.

As you might guess, the program no longer exists. Two full time faculty (elementary and secondary) and a satellite office for a relatively small program (there were about fifteen of us in my graduating class) was not cost-effective, and certainly did not generate the kind of robust revenue stream that some of our state teacher farms can crank out. But my experience than and since has given me some definite ideas about what features would be included in a great teacher prep program:

1) Investment. We cannot train great teachers on the cheap. Teacher training has to stop being the mass market college cash cow.

2) Content base. Fewer classes like "Great Untested Pedagogical Theories" and more courses about the actual subject you're going to teach. Confidence in the classroom, control of the classroom, is best based in knowing what you're talking about. And yes-- the pedagogy vs. content balance can't be the same for elementary and secondary.

3) Screening. Every single working teacher has had that conversation, talking about some student teacher and asking, "How did he ever make it this far?" Answer: his checks don't bounce. If we aren't ever going to wash anybody out of programs, the very least we can do is sit down with them and have a little Come To Jesus talk about their particular challenges and how they must be addressed. Too often, it has somehow come down to me-- the barely paid part-time university helper who serves as the last stop on this journey-- to supply the career counseling that the college, its professors, its department chair, etc never provided.

4) Massive support. Our current system depends on luck. Did you get a good cooperating teacher? And is that co-op a good fit for style and personality? Is the part-time field observation guy who you'll see two or three times really committed to the job, or did it look like an easy way to make some quick retirement money? Luck is not enough. Take steps to make sure that every student teacher has strong, focused support.

Additionally, let me note that it is not helpful to assess the future teacher's ability to take standardized tests or put on dog and pony shows. This is like testing political candidates' ability to stage a "debate"-- it may be a useful skill, but it has nothing to do with performing the job for which you're being considered.

We could implement these items many ways. Some people like the educational version of a teaching hospital. Some people like the notion of career steps that allow teacher mentoring to be a real job with real pay and real time to do it instead of a fake job with a tiny stipend paid for work that you squeeze in around the edges of your actual job.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked this article. I do need to note, as a former manager for teacher leadership development (sort of an instructional coach), this actually sounds an incredible amount like a first year in TFA.