Thursday, October 4, 2018

5 Necessary Additions to Teacher Prep Programs

In the search to improve teacher preparation programs, the focus has often been on tweaking some traditional features, like methods courses that focus on bulletin board construction and education professors who haven't been in a classroom since Ronald Reagan was a governor. But if we really want to beef up the preparation of teachers, there are some larger steps we need to take. If you run a college teacher program, consider adding these requirements. If you intend to become a teacher, the following should be elements of your preparation program.

Major Level Course Load

If you are going to teach English, you should take the same sort of course load that an English major takes (in fact, you should probably just go ahead and be an English major). Ditto for all subject areas. For elementary teachers, the requirement is the same, but you can pick your specialty.

There is no substitute in the classroom for knowing what you're talking about. That doesn't mean the teacher needs to be infallible. But if you have to teach the history of World War I and the last time you learned about it was in high school, you'll be challenged to come off like an expert. Beyond the academic benefits of having students learn from a teacher who knows, a teacher has far fewer classroom management issues when the students believe she knows what she's talking about. Be an expert in your field.

Be Involved In Performance

If you are going to work in front of an audience for a living, you should practice it. Join band or choir. Take a role in a theater production. Do something that requires you to get up in front of an audience and do your thing while simultaneously paying attention to crowd response. A good teacher is able to read the room; experience in the performing arts will help you develop that skill. Ideally, your experience should be in a small ensemble. As part of a hundred-piece marching band on a football field, audience reading is of limited use. But if you're working with a jazz trio, you will quickly learn about losing a room's attention and figuring out, on the fly, how to win them back.

Take A Course In Which You Stink

Nobody becomes a math teacher because math was their worst class in high school and they hated every minute of it. And yet, you will teach those very students. You probably plan to teach a subject that you aced, and despite what the critics say about the teacher pool, you are probably no dummy. Which means that your subject matter knowledge bank is filled a bunch of things you know because you just... well, you just know. You have skills that you just kind of have, somehow.

How do you help a student complete the journey from Being Deeply Lost and Confused all the way to Understanding the Subject Like a Boss if you never had to complete that journey yourself? Everyone has had that teacher--the one who doesn't really explain things but just keeps repeating them (and, in the worst version, looks at you like you're a dope for not getting it).

You owe it to every future student who will struggle in your class to go struggle in a class yourself. Feel the stress and frustration and burden of Not Getting It. Practice the attack skills that are needed by someone who needs more than just ten minutes of instruction and a single assignment to Get It.

Work At A Low-Level Job

You may very well do this already, but if you don't, you should. Not simply for the classic "this will help you realize how badly you want to use your college education to avoid this kind of work" reasoning, but because this is the world that a large number of your students are going into. In fact, if you teach high school, many of them are already there. Teachers are college educated, and if not careful, they develop a kind of college tunnel vision. But college is not everyone's destination after graduation. I'll gladly argue that all students benefit from studying Shakespeare and ancient history and algebra and classic American literary movements--but not all students benefit in a "this will help in college" way.

Some firsthand experience in the working world will help you maintain a more well-rounded perspective. Note: if you are in some parts of the country, you may be a teacher with twenty years of experience still also working at one of these low-level jobs. That's not helping your professional balance; that's being taken advantage of by your employers.

Take Up A Sport

It doesn't matter if it's a competitive sport like football or an individual sport like kayaking--get involved in an activity that involves bodily exertion, mental focus, and physical stamina. On that list of Things Nobody Tells You About Teaching is the fact that, done well, it is physically demanding. Not as demanding as roofing or professional wrestling, but definitely more demanding than office work. You will be on your feet all day, and you will not get to set your own pace--there is no "I'm just going to take five minutes to regroup" in teaching. So build your physical stamina and mental toughness, as well as getting involved in physical activity that will help shed stress.

Note: If you are going to be an elementary teacher, you'll want to work on your bladder-holding skills as well.

Originally posted at Forbes


  1. Good advice, but I would add that if you're going to teach in an urban school where there are probably students who don't know English well, you should certainly be sure to take foreign language so you know how hard and long it is to learn, and preferably spend time in the country of the target language so you know how frustrating and stressful it is to not be able to understand and to feel isolated.

    I also think you should take as many psychology classes as possible since understanding people is pretty key, ditto sociology for a better understanding of the challenges so many people face and why. And of course as much cognitive and motivation theory as possible, so you don't have to figure it all out on your own through years of trial and error.

  2. As a retired elementary school teacher, I agree with all of these, particularly the final point about bladder control.

    My own experience with "take a course in which you stink" was to take intensive beginning Chinese at the University of California summer session. Though I was told by one of the teachers that"I seemed to know how to learn languages" it was still the stupidest I've ever felt in a classroom. No matter what I did, I just couldn't remember what I'd been taught, at least not to my own satisfaction. That feeling of struggling and achieving no more than partial success helped me to understand the C and D students more than anything else I ever did.