Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Better Teacher Preparation

There are folks who believe that the problems with the teacher pipeline begin with college and university programs for preparing teachers in the first place. Are there ways that we could improve that part of the pipeline?

First of all, I'm not someone inclined to fight unconditionally for the traditional system, in part because I am not a product of it. My college experience was different in several key specifics:

1) My BA is in English, the subject I teach, on the theory that I should be as knowledgeable as can be about the subject I'm teaching. Because I was headed for teaching, there were a couple of English courses I was required to take. Beyond that, I emerged from college just as well-educated as any other English major.

2) I took only a couple of methods courses before student teaching-- however...

3) I took several methods courses while student teaching. Though my school was a small ruralish college, student teaching was in an urban setting (in my case, Cleveland Heights). We lived in a hotel in downtown Cleveland (corner of E9 and Superior) and took evening classes at a field office maintained by the school in that same hotel. My methods courses were taught by working classroom teachers, except for the one taught by the same professor who observed me while I was student teaching. This made the courses enormously practical ("So, this happened today. How could I have handled it. And this is what I'm planning in two days-- is this a good way to approach it?")

My home away from home back in the day
 4) I was observed at least once a week, sometimes for several class periods. Seriously. My professor knew some of my students by name.

5) My first year of teaching. I was a regular first year teacher to my district, but an intern to my college's graduate program. I still took classes at that same field office, and the same guy who watched me through student teaching checked in on me in my new classroom (just not so often).

That's the system that produced me, and every time I'm host to a student teacher, I'm again aware of how different many other teacher programs are. That said, there are many things that the current system does well, many things that are necessary for preparing the teachers of tomorrow, like the study of pedagogical methods, child development, and classroom management. I would still trust a person with a teaching degree and traditional certificate before I turned to someone who has nothing to offer except a pulse and a college degree in whatever.

So what would I change in order to make college programs more effective and useful?

1) Put working teachers in the driver's seat.

Education is the only professional field in which working, experienced professionals have no say in how people are trained for or admitted to the profession. Too many (not all, but too many) education courses are taught by people with no actual classroom experience. I don't care if you're a super-duper education researcher-- a whole lot of education research on "effective" methods and "proven" approaches is bunk, and the people who know the difference between the bunk and the non-bunk are working in classrooms.

I've known of education professors who worked as substitute teachers in their local districts. That's awesome. And as I, and people like me, approach the end of a teaching career, local college education programs ought to be calling us up and trying to recruit us for their program.

And no college education department anywhere should settle on a list of course requirements until a bunch of experienced working teachers have signed off on it.

2) Provide actual supervision and support for student teachers.

For a program to visit a student a mere three times for a brief drive-by is criminal-- particularly when the person doing the "observation" has never met the student teacher before that first visit. Visits should be extensive and often. Student teachers should be in some sort of setting (classroom, meetings, whatever) that allows them to seek and receive guidance as the student teaching is going on.

3) Address the underlying philosophies

Here's a major irony of the standards movement-- while we are supposedly shifting students to Really Understanding The Concepts behind what they're doing and not just performing tricks, we have shifted teacher education toward producing technicians, mechanics who just unpack a standard here, align a lesson there, and tighten some bolts on the meat widgets in the classroom.

Why are you teaching? What are your goals? What are your underlying assumptions about education, knowledge, human nature, human growth, and the values behind all of this? If you don't know the answer, you're just a worksheet deliver service utilized by a content delivery system.

4) Broadening the Pool

This is probably the hardest part, but it's important because so many states are trending in the wrong direction.  Too many places are responding to the teacher "shortage" by opening the door to any warm body that's willing to take the job. This will not work. They will continue to recruit people who have neither the training nor the ability for teaching, and the warm bodies will either leave quickly or stay and do a lousy job.

Meanwhile, by opening the door to any warm body, they devalue the profession and make it less appealing. The creation of fast food anybody-can-do-them jobs did not spark interest in culinary schools.

The "shortage" is simply a failure of states to make teaching attractive. Instead, they've transformed it into a job that offers little autonomy, little job security, lousy pay, general disrespect, and the chance, not to improve children's lives, but to read a script and prep the kids for a bad standardized test. This is not how you attract and retain the best and the brightest, or even people who would otherwise be drawn to teaching.

There's a big conversation to be had about teacher training programs, and we aren't having it, though I keep waiting. In the meantime, colleges looking to recruit for their teacher program staff know where to find me.

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