Monday, July 25, 2011

Teacher Training

Like a few million others, I learned about teaching at schools of education, earning a Bachelors in Education, then a Masters and finally the post-graduate work for administrative certification.  All in all, I figure I took about 50 education classes, not to mention a few hundred workshops and trainings from experts in the field.  At a time when teacher qualifications and efficacy are being questioned around the country, teacher training programs are under the microscope.

Some of the education classes I took were duds, focused more on ensuring that captive students dutifully admired the contributions to the field from their professors.  Contrary to popular wisdom though, I found several of my education classes well-organized and useful.  Many assignments were well-structured and developed skills teachers need:  unit planning, lesson planning, diagnostics, curriculum alignment and so on.  As an administrator, I learned all about school finance and student rights from some very sharp instructors.  In classes, I learned to collaborate and to honor the diverse viewpoints of others.

But I do have ample criticism about teacher preparation programs.  If I were in charge of their redesign, here's what I would change.
  1. More rigorous admission standards leading to more rigorous coursework
  2. Fewer practicum experiences with carefully selected (and paid) supervising teachers
  3. Diverse methodologies experienced, not just the current rage
  4. Creative problem solving training and practice
  5. Required fluency in a foreign language 
  6. More coursework in math, science and social studies for elementary teachers

Standards for Admission
The biggest drawback in most of my ed classes was frankly the caliber of some of my peers.  Ed programs are notoriously easy marks for students in the middle of the bell curve.  In nearly every class, there was pressure from students to reduce workload, extend deadlines and minimize theory.  Students wanted practical application and showed little patience for theoretical constructs.  I'm no glutton for ethereal readings but do believe that some of that theory is rather important to our craft.  A significant improvement to teacher training would be to raise the standards for admission to education degree programs.  Make them more competitive and accept those who've already demonstrated a level of scholarship in undergraduate studies.  Allow professors to expect high caliber work.  If we're going to be educators, we ought to be people who revere academics.

The relatively recent requirement that all prospective teachers pass competency exams in their subject matter fields has been an improvement.  Not surprisingly some struggle mightily with the tests.

Practicums and Student Teaching

The trend over the past 20 years has been to reduce college classroom time and increase hands-on opportunities in classrooms.  I was part of a design team at an Oregon college that created such a program.  There is much to be said for placing trainees under the tutelage of master teachers and giving them application experience.  Unfortunately our expansion of practicum experiences has come at the expense of quality.  With so many students to place with experienced teachers every term, colleges will accept just about anyone willing to take one of their students.  Some are learning at the knee of master teachers.  Others are being exposed to less than stellar practice.  The selection process currently is through school principals.  Each year I was asked to suggest teacher names.  I could have suggested several outstanding examples but not everyone is willing to supervise a student teacher or practicum student.  Even those who are willing are not willing every year or every term.

My own experience with supervising teachers was not stellar.  As an aspiring teacher, I was assigned to a veteran more interested in coaching than teaching.  He gave me lots of opportunity to design curriculum and instruct his classes but little in the way of modeling or guidance.  We are better off ensuring that teacher candidates have excellent models than lots of time in classrooms.  Let's refocus on how to ensure quality experiences, even at the expense of quantity.  Offering to pay supervising teachers half of the student teacher's tuition for the experience would be a start.  Then perhaps with more teachers wanting to participate, colleges could be more discriminating in who they employ.

What's Missing from the Curriculum?

Already teacher education programs are chock full of classes covering the gamut of needs:  special education, standards and assessment, educational media, methodology, child development, reading in the curriculum areas and so on.  My experience though was that every single education class would be structured based on the pedagogical trend-of-the-moment.  For several years, every class used cooperative learning groups exclusively, such that I went years without the opportunity to complete a single assignment independently.  Before that, every class employed Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences.  We need to divorce ourselves from the latest trends and embrace the entire scope of educational methodology, employing and exposing students to a plethora of methodologies, thus expanding their toolboxes.

Creative problem solving practice needs to be enhanced.  Effective teachers learn to adjust and redesign their instruction to meet the individual circumstances of each class of students.  Teachers need to be able to adapt assignments to gifted students, non-readers and reluctant learners. They need to be able to incorporate current issues -- from breaking national news to school news -- into their instructional plans.  They need to be able to progress through all six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy -- from Knowledge to Evaluation -- within a unit.  Aspiring teachers need practice developing, modifying and assessing instruction.

One significant omission from teacher preparation programs is foreign language.  Fluency in another language (and how to teach it) should be a requirement for certification.  If it were, every elementary and middle school student could be receiving language instruction with no additional expenditures from districts or states.  (See "Every American Bilingual" for why this is important.)

Content Area Preparation

High school teachers take most of their undergraduate coursework in their subject area.  Elementary teachers also take courses in the content areas but because of the need to teach so many subjects, the depth in any one subject is considerably less.  Generally elementary teachers are excellent in teaching reading and writing skills.  Some are less comfortable with math, science and social studies curricula.  Hearing a 2nd grade teacher bemoan the new learning she'll need to teach 4th grade content in a reassignment should be cause for alarm.  We need our teachers to be much more comfortable in the disciplines they teach.  I would recommend additional math, science and social studies coursework for prospective teachers, ensuring each has a firm grasp of more than just their grade level content.  They need an appreciation for the ways of thinking and problem-solving unique to each discipline to excite and expand their students' learning.


With some modest changes to our current teacher preparation regimen, teachers would enter the field better able to envision what master teaching might look like and to grow into master teachers themselves.  I am not one who wholly discounts or dismisses the work of education departments generally.  As I said, I had some valuable experiences in my classes.

2 comments:

  1. I think you have some great ideas here. I understand the idea of making teaching like a skilled trade with apprenticeships; but like you, I had some terrible experiences in my practicum setting. I became a teacher despite my classroom training experiences, not because of them. I also agree that colleges need to be a little more selective in who they allow into teacher training programs. Theory is important foundational material upon which classroom practice should built. I often wonder if a more selective process would've helped me to avoid those terrible months of practicum--my cooperating teacher might not have been a teacher at all. My only concern in being more selective is this: teaching is not a very glorified position and there are many areas already seeing shortages. If colleges are more selective, will there be enough teachers? If there aren't enough teachers and class sizes boom, will the skilled teachers still be so skilled? You raise many interesting points! Thank you for this well-thought post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. We, as teachers, do not control our own professional standards which makes us the only profession that must adhere to requirements that were not created by and for ourselves. The only solution I see would be to take over the whole process.

    As long as the universities are in charge, they will always decide in favor of the deep trough of money that comes with having an education program and against cutting ineffective and unnecessary courses and streamlining processes.

    And as long as politicians are able to determine professional requirements, we are going to suffer through many of the tribulations that you outline above.

    I just wrote about this in my own blog:
    http://credulantmusings.blogspot.com/2011/09/one-big-union.html

    Keep up the good works and keep posting!

    ReplyDelete

I'm interested in your comments.