Thursday, March 28, 2019

What To Look For In A Teacher School

Robert Pondiscio just reviewed a new NCTQ book for high school students about how to become a teacher. I haven't seen the book, so I'm in no position to comment on it, but it does remind me that we don't spend nearly enough time talking about teacher prep, not from a policy point of view, but the point of view of high school students who want to end up teaching some day.

I am not the person to come to for a spirited defense of traditional teacher prep programs. I've sent students off to them and hosted student teachers from them, and the fact is that some are fine and some suck with the suckage of a thousand black holes. There are many current alternative paths to the classroom that also suck, but dammit, we asked for it by letting North Shmeretown State Teachers College get away with doing a terrible job. I've written before about fixing that, but this time, let's talk about your teen should be looking for when she goes teacher school shopping.

If you (or your child) want to become a teacher, what qualities should you look for in a teacher prep program?

1) Emphasis on content.  

My own program prepared me to be an English teacher by requiring me to be an English major, so I was shocked to discover that some teachers were arriving in the classroom with no more subject matter knowledge in some areas than they remembered from their own high school classes.

The foundation for everything you do in the classroom-- including classroom management-- is you knowing what the hell you're talking about. Yes, you need classes about the pedagogy and technique, but all the lesson-writing skill in the world will not save you if you don't know what the hell you're talking about.

"But I'm going to teach elementary grades-- everybody already knows that stuff, right?" First, no, not as much as you think they do. Second, the elementary grades need more understanding of child development. And every elementary teacher should be an expert in teaching reading. Every one.

Look at the course requirements for the school's program. If it's mostly education methods with little room for the content that you'll actually have to teach, that is a weak program.

Note: Teaching you your state standards is not teaching you content. If state standards are a major theme of the program, it's a bad program.

2) Professors with classroom teaching experience.  

No, teaching college courses does not count. Way way way way waaaaaayyyyyy too many college education professors teach methods and instructional techniques based not on experience, but on a couple of pieces of research they read, or their own pet theories, or their ideas about what ought to work in a classroom. Every teacher who ever hosted a student teacher has had that moment when, hearing the student teacher describe what her professor told her to do, they wish they could teleport that professor into the classroom to try the technique himself. But of course many college ed professors don't even go out into the field to watch their students work in a classroom.

And no, having been in a classroom for one or two years when he was 22 also does not count. Look for colleges that have ed course taught by professors who took the job as a second career after a first career in the classroom. Look for professors who work one day a week as substitutes in the local public system.

3) Practice practice practice  

Teaching is large part performance, and there's only one way to get ready to perform, and that's to stand up and do it. In my most useful methods class, we did weekly workshops in which we presented trial lessons while the professor sat in the back of the room as "Bobby," a good representation of That Student. For years after, when a student posed a problem in a class, I would think, "Oh, hi, Bobby!"

Practice can take many forms-- the important part is that you do something with the theories about practice. You have to stand up in front of real live humans and try to make your pitch for Hemmingway or punctuation or the Louisiana Purchase or integers or whatever. There is no substitute. You can help prepare to perform Hamlet by reading criticism and studying Shakespeare and watching videos, but until you physically stand up and start doing it, you won't be ready.

4) Field experience with support      

A full semester of student teaching is a minimum requirement. If a program promises that they can get you already with less, or none, take a hard pass. It's a good sign if the program also has other field experiences built in. Several local colleges have added a shadowing experience that seems to be useful for getting pre-teachers ready for the more intensive world of student teaching.

You may think this is not so necessary. "Hey, I was just in school!" But elementary school was a lonnnng time ago. And high school-- well, there were many parts to which you were not paying attention. You didn't see what happened in classes you didn't take, and in your own classes, you weren't paying attention to what the teacher actually did.

But the most important question to ask is about what sort of support you will get while in the field. This is by far one of the weakest areas in many programs. In your fifteen weeks in the field, you might see your supervisor three times-- and it will b a supervisor who has never previously met you and doesn't know you from a whole in the ground. In these programs, your success and the foundation of your career rests on the blind luck of your cooperating teacher selection.

Your supervisor should see you often-- weekly is not too often. It would be nice if he was a professor who already knew you, but many programs hire retired teachers to do supervision, and they can turn out to be good mentors as well.

Support also means processing and reflection time. Say, a methods course taken while student teaching in which student teachers and their supervisors talk about the hows and whys of what's going on in those classrooms during that same week.

But if the school's approach is to say, "We got a placement lined up. There will be someone by a couple times to make sure you're still alive. See ya next semester," that's not a good program.

5) Getting you outside of your box.    

One of our local colleges is fairly socially conservative, and it draws many students from private religious schools and homeschooling. They train their student teachers with a strong content background, but when they land here in a public school, there is often some culture shock. "It's almost as if," one frustrated student teacher told me, "as if these students don't really care about Shakespeare." Yes, almost. Another told his co-op, "Oh no, I don't want to teach those classes. Can't I just teach the honors students?"

My own experience was going from this rural, small town mostly white district to student teach in a mostly black urban school. I had preparation and support for that, and it was far better for me as a teacher than if I had simply student taught in a school similar to the one I came from.

Your job as a teacher is not to get students to see the world the same way you see it. It's not just about being culturally sensitive. It's about getting outside of your own box, about being challenged in all of your assumptions about what is normal and reasonable to expect. This will open up your own understanding of the world and how your content fits into it. It will also serve your students because it will keep you from mistaking "different" for "wrong." Every student ought to see someone like them in front of a classroom at least-- at least-- once in their educational career. But barring that, they should at least have a teacher who sees them as they are, and doesn't just see a bunch of deficiencies or differences. If you think you're sure what "normal" is, you are a menace to your students. Your program should, somehow, get you out of that box.

Programs, traditional and alternative, that come up short in these areas are not your best choice. Keep looking and keep asking questions.

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