Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How To Train Teachers

This is the sequel to a post you'll find here, which was a response to a blog post by Cristina Evans Duncan that you'll find here.

So if education majors are currently "too easy" or "not useful," then what can we put in their place? I have some ideas, and most of them are based on how I myself was trained. I've talked about this program here and there around the blog, but today I'm going to focus directly on it in the context of that important question-- how should we train teachers?

I will preface this with a huge caveat-- this is all about training secondary teachers. I'm pretty sure elementary teaching has a different set of requirements.

Undergrad studies

I attended Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, a small liberal arts college with a serious split personality-- dedicated to the liberal arts, and yet primarily adept at churning out pre-law and pre-med majors.

I went to Allegheny so I could become an English teacher. But I was not an education major because there was no such thing. My major (and my degree) were English. I studied exactly the same range of classes that any English major did, but my coursework included a couple of English courses designed for future teachers. Additionally and unofficially, several of my professors, knowing that I was a future teacher (did I mention that it's a small school) hooked me up with projects and independent studies that put me in local high school classrooms.

This was part of Allegheny's basic philosophy-- Step One in being a good classroom teacher is knowing what the hell you're talking about when you teach.

Undergrad Education Courses

We only had a couple. One was a philosophy course which included non-majors, and it was strictly about looking at the very idea of what we were trying to do and why. Another was a proto-methods course that involved trying to design and teach lessons. One of the highlights of that class was the professor, Robert Schall (we called him Dr. Bob, after the character on the Muppet Show's Veterinarian's Hospital) who sat in the back of the room and played Bobby, the World's Worst Student. To this day, I marvel at his ability to pre-channel every difficult student I was ever going to teach.

I don't know how he did it, but Dr. Bob provided a feature missing from too many education departments-- a professor with a realistic grasp of what a real classroom is really like, really.

Prior to student teaching, I took only two (maybe two and a half-- it's been a long time) education courses.

Student Teaching

Here is where our program varied wildly from most traditional education programs.

Allegheny student teachers did their work in urban schools in Cleveland. Initially the school used Cleveland City Schools, but as that district became unstable (closing in October because levies failed), Allegheny moved out into Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland. The theory here-- if you could handle an urban elementary or middle school, you could handle pretty much anything.

Allegheny leased a set of rooms at a hotel in downtown Cleveland (corner of East 9th and Superior) where the student teachers lived. In that same hotel, the college rented a set of conference rooms which were used as classrooms. And now, while we were student teaching, we took our practical heavy-duty methods courses.

That's not even the amazing part-- my student teaching supervisor saw me roughly once a week, usually for a couple of hours. And that same guy was one of my methods teachers in the evening. Imagine a teaching methods class where your professor says, "Okay, here's a thing that happened to you yesterday in your classroom. Let's all talk about how to handle a situation like that." We could spitball approaches for dealing with problem students, test them out, and talk about it within a week.

In short, the support during student teaching was huge, both from faculty (mostly adjuncts in Cleveland, most of whom were working classroom master teachers) and from fellow student teachers. Isolated far from home base (in those days, you didn't go out in our neighborhood after dark), we had nothing to do but focus on becoming teachers. And my eighth graders at Wiley Junior High were relentless and unforgiving-- I had no choice but to get it figured out, but I had lots of help.

When I watch my student teachers get visited two or three times, for thirty or forty minutes a pop, by a supervisor they've never met before, I feel sad for them. The traditional system depends entirely on the luck of the draw for cooperating teachers-- get a good co-op and you can get a great career start, but get a bad one and you're in a world of hurt.

But we're not done yet

We moved immediately from graduation into our Master's program. This was how the college had made a deal to put teachers without the requisite number of education credits in a classroom. We started in summer school after graduation, and the following fall--

Well, the next fall was our first year of teaching, as far as our school district was concerned. But the college considered us interns. Our first job had to be within forty miles of that same Cleveland field office. Every couple of weeks we traveled there for more coursework, and once a month or so, the same guy who had watched me through student teaching came to watch me work in my first classroom (Lorain, OH). So the same network of support that had helped us through our first teaching year.

A few more years of summer coursework, and we were fresh new MA in Ed grads. This, I think, is one of the great undiscussed necessities, but I'm going to argue that there is not enough room in a standard four-year program to learn everything you need to learn (and not enough experience in the undergrad years to know what you wish knew).

Where can I sign up?

Not at Allegheny. They canned the program years ago.

You may have deduced, reading through the description, that this program did not handle huge numbers. I student taught with eight other undergrads, and graduated with a total class of thirteen or so. The kind of support required for the small number of students was not cheap.

And so we arrive at the same old problem that badgers education around every turn-- we know how to do it right, but that would be expensive, and we don't want to spend a bunch of money on education.

So what do we need

If I were going to start a teacher training program, here's what I would require:

* Professors who have found some means of staying connected to actual classrooms
* Intense and thorough content area training
* Heavy duty support through student teaching
* Support that continues through the first year of teaching
* Involvement of working master teachers
* Graduate work
* Enough funding to do all these things well

I do not know if such a program would be easier or harder (it can be pretty hard to do senseless activities), but it would be better preparation than what most schools do now.


  1. Peter, what kind of courses did you take in the summer for your Master's?

    1. The reason I ask is that the lead-in post had to do with appropriate coursework for teachers-in-training. I agree that one problem is that education professors may not have the practical experience to be useful. I also think that you and Cristina are not so far apart in your appreciations, though she uses the terminology "rigorous and challenging," and you use "useful." I agree that "useful" is probably the better word, but I also agree with Cristina that coursework needs to focus more on "the specifics of what works (and how, and why it does.)" She also says she learned more from "reading professional texts independently," and I had a similar experience. But I don't see why graduate students shouldn't be reading these professional texts as part of their classwork.

      I agree that better mentoring for beginning teachers is absolutely key. I also think teaching programs should include a Master's degree. Student teaching should be more along the lines of the "clinicals" that my daughter had to do to be a physical therapist. The question is, is there actual coursework that would be useful? I think there is.

      I didn't get my Master's in education, but rather in-field, so I don't know what is taught in these programs. As an undergrad, my classes in educational psychology and adolescent psychology were useful. Pre-and post-student-teaching seminars were a joke. The professors seemed to have no idea what content should be or why the class existed. The only thing I remember from the pre-seminar was that the professor walked in the first day and talked about how maybe Jonathan Livingston Seagull was real. I kid you not. (This was the early 70's. I think he must have been high.)

      My methods class was not very useful. Planning and "teaching" three 10-minute mini-lessons to peers does not prepare you to teach four different 50-minute preparations every day to actual students. It's somewhat akin to thinking that writing five-paragraph essays prepares you to write 5-15 page essays in freshman comp. Much more helpful was a class called "Spanish linguistics for teachers" taught through the Spanish department. We studied the linguistic (morphology, syntax, semantics, etc.) differences between English and Spanish to pinpoint what would give the students the most problems and why, and strategized how to facilitate learning. I was later able to apply the concepts and analyses I learned to the teaching of French and English as a second language.

    2. So, in general, what kind of coursework would be useful?

      (1) Cognitive psychology classes on how people learn: educational psych, adolescent psych, child psych, child development, cognitive psychology.

      (2) At least one course in special ed on learning disabilities. More and more special ed kids are being mainstreamed and we need to know as much as possible about how to work with them. We also need to be able to help identify them so they get the help they need so they don't slip through the cracks.

      (3) I've wracked my brain for years to try to come up with a way to teach classroom management in coursework. I've seen some advertisements for video courses that sound like they might show useful examples of what works and what doesn't. Then the other day I was doing some light research into charter schools and happened to come across one called Uncommon Schools. They seemed to get better results on standardized tests (if you think that's important) than Success Academy or KIPP and I wondered what their methodology and philosophy was, but had trouble finding anything on it. Then I found that they follow a book by Doug Lemov called How to Teach like a Champion. I think the title's stupid, but I found a blogger site where they did an overview of the 49 strategies that Lemov espouses in the book. They have to do with classroom management, student motivation, and cognitive learning. Some of them are things I do naturally, some are things I learned from experience or independent reading, and some of them are from cooperative learning. But 90% of them are simple, practical things that work, and would be especially helpful to beginning teachers. It seems like a course using it as a textbook might be useful.

      (4) I think something that I would call "fluency in lesson plan writing" is needed. Lesson planning takes a lot of time, and the more practice in it the better. There should be a course where you have to write a complete lesson plan for every class. If all students planned the same lesson, you could compare plans and see different approaches and discuss the merits, and a good professor could offer pointers. It's impossible to know how a lesson is going to go in a specific class of students, but it would help with ease in writing them if you're going to have to come up with four a day every day. It's like why with writing in general they encourage journal writing and say the important thing is to write a lot.

      (5) We're working with people and their psyches, so the more psychology classes, the better we can understand our students as people.

      (6) In order to understand and empathize with the problems of students living in poverty and their challenges, sociology classes would help. Not something specifically for teachers, but regular sociology classes.

      (7) Beginning teachers also say they have trouble coping with the needs of non-proficient English speakers. I think the best way to help teachers understand what these students are going through and get an idea of their needs would be to take two semesters of a foreign language and then spend 6 weeks in a country where the language is spoken. Feeling like a foreigner is a very eye-opening experience.

      (8) And, of course, a strong foundation in content area.