Thursday, July 19, 2018

How To Build a Teacher

Now that we're talking about teacher residencies again, let me trot out my own teacher training, because I think it's a model for how teachers can be created. Then I'll tell you why it's probably not going to happen.


I attended Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college that, at the time, had a bit of a personality disorder (on paper, a liberal arts school and in practice, a pre-med, pre-law school). The school is located in northwest Pennsylvania. My graduating class had about 400 people in it. The education program was tiny (there were about eleven of us in my graduating class), but it was unusual.

Undergrad Prep

My Bachelors degree is in English, not education. The first principle of the program was that I should be an expert in my content area. I took about two education courses before I student taught. I was required to do some volunteer field work, including some sort of activity in a local school (I taught King Arthur to a high school class and Beowulf to a handful of gifted third graders) plus some sort of work with students in any setting (I helped out with the youth group at a local church). So we needed to have some acquaintance with the species of human students, and we had to be well-versed in the subject area we planned to teach.

This was definitely better than the student teachers I have received from local colleges, many of whom had basically no more than a high school education in the subject matter-- meaning they literally knew very little more than my students in class. This is a recipe for Bad Things. Classroom Management Rule #1: Know what the heck you're talking about.

Student Teaching

Student teaching for Allegheny folks happened in Cleveland. Before I student taught, Allegheny placed teachers in Cleveland City Schools, but it was the 1970s and the taxpayers kept voting down referendums which meant the schools kept closing in October when they ran out of money for that calendar year, and that was a bit too unstable for the college's tastes. So I taught in Cleveland Heights (Wiley Jr. High).

While student teaching, we all lived in apartments in a building at the corner of E9th and Superior (it's a hotel now). The college also rented several conference rooms, and most nights of the week we took education classes there, including methods for our specific disciplines as well as general ed classes.

I cannot begin to tell you how powerful it is to sit in a methods class and , instead of discussing what might happen some day in some hypothetical classroom, to talk about what happened to me today in my classroom, or what I am planning for that classroom tomorrow. Several of the classes were taught by working teachers-- not college professors.


That model of taking education classes just hints at the support the program provided. One of the classes was taught by the same professor who visited us in our classrooms. And unlike the typical twice-a-semester drive-bys that many student teachers get, my supervisor saw my usually once a week, for a couple of hours. So that once again, in his methods class, we could talk about very specific issues and very specific solutions while still looking at the larger picture. We could talk about issues specific to my own style in the classroom.

The Graduate Program

By the time all this was happening, we had to be accepted to the colleges Masters of Arts in Education program. That meant we went straight from graduation to summer school, where we took more high-level education courses and had the opportunity to take elective courses in areas where we thought we could use a boost.


The most nerve-wracking part of the program came next-- we needed a teaching job within forty miles of down town Cleveland. That's because our employers would view us a first-year teachers, but the college viewed us as interns. We had to be near Cleveland because a couple times a month we would drive in to that field office for classes, and the same professor who supervised us in student teaching now supervised us in our first year of teaching. Not as often by any means-- but that extra support through the first year is invaluable (particularly if, like me, you started your first year with a six week strike).

Some additional coursework over the next few years, and we were done, with a degree and teaching credentials for both Ohio and Pennsylvania.


Just one big one-- the huge cost. If you were paying attention to the numbers, you noticed two professors (one elementary, one secondary) based in Cleveland, a couple of rooms rented for a field office, and some part time faculty for those courses, all for just eleven students. The college ultimately decided that it couldn't afford to keep the program, and so they axed it.

In connection with a residency discussion, someone brought up the question of who pays the cost, and that remains a problem in teaching. Too many schools are trying to stay solvent by doing mass business in teacher preparation, but you can't mass-produce good teachers any more than you can mass-produce good doctors or nurses. It takes some personal mentoring and support. Allegheny's model co-opted the school district for my first year/internship, because I was a paid staffer. But nobody was paying the college extra to run a department with the highest prof-student ratio on campus.

Training teachers better than we do now means spending more than we do now, and where will that money come from? School districts that pay for a first teacher draft pick, sight unseen, a few years from now? More money from the government that won't adequately support education now? Do colleges make the education department more expensive to get into? None of these seem likely.

Finding a way to involve active or retired classroom teachers seems promising-- after all, we have a huge workforce of practicing experts in this field. But how that works out practically I do not know.

What I do know is the list of elements needed for a good teacher prep program-- strong foundation in content, strong support during student teaching, and strong support on into the first year or two in the field. Plus, in some states, a way to get potential co-operating teachers past the question, "Do I dare take a student teacher when my own career depends on these kids' test scores?"

It can be done, but it won't be cheap. Which is why it probably won't be done. But if a few more programs could even inch a bit in the right direction, it would help.

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