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A Few Thoughts on Teacher Education

I noted today a letter in our local small-town newspaper, written by a teacher. I applaud her efforts to support teachers in very trying times and her regard for those who are committed to entering the teaching profession despite low pay and lack of respect on many sides. Her purpose was to encourage them to stay true to their calling despite the negativity, and I wholeheartedly support that.

One thing she said, however, made me cringe. Speaking to future teachers, she said, “You will definitely learn more your first year of teaching than you did in four years of college.” I don’t think she intended that as a slap at teacher education programs. Perhaps as a teacher educator in the 21st Century of Test, Rank, and Punish, I may be somewhat oversensitive; Teacher Education has its own set of “reformsters.” But here is what concerns me.

There is a current of thought among both teachers and the public that college classes for teacher candidates are ineffective, essentially useless. In some cases new teachers are even encouraged to “forget all that stuff you learned in college.” “Here’s how it really works,” they are told. I will be the first one to agree that reading about something or even watching a video about it is not anything like actually doing it. But to jump to “Forget it!” is selling me and a lot of other teacher educators, not to mention some truly valuable teacher education programs, very short.

While my experience is not the litmus test for this concept, I want to share it as an example of what I am talking about. The first time I attempted to become a teacher was back in the early 1960s. I spent time in the History of Education, Developing Curriculum, and other less than memorable courses that, quite honestly, did not teach me anything practical.  I did receive a degree in History, even though I did not complete the teacher education program. Over the next few years,I was invited to teach in one public school in another state and one private religious school. It was when I actually entered the classroom that I realized how little my coursework had given me in terms of practical preparation. I had to muddle through as best I could, inventing my own ways to cope and borrowing from other teachers who were willing to share.

Fast forward a few decades to the mid 1990s. Still wanting to teach, I enrolled in a post-bacc teacher education program at a local university. I took all the education courses that undergrad teacher education majors took, but this time, instead of being simply historical or theoretical, most of the classes were practical and hands-on. I learned so much about how to plan a lesson, how to manage the classroom, how to plan for special students, how to assess struggling readers, and much more that my first program had simply not addressed. I have thought a lot about what might explain the difference, and I suspect it was a literal explosion of research on education, and especially reading, that has provided a foundation to help teacher candidates understand not just the content they need to teach but how children learn and develop, and what techniques and strategies are most likely to be productive for learning. We now know so much more about these things than we did fifty years ago, and this knowledge has provided a solid base upon which to teach.

When I finally got my first classroom, yes, I found a few teachers, mostly older teachers, who were amused at my enthusiasm and looked askance at some of the “different” methods I had picked up in my college classes. But for the most part, I found a community of teachers who were supportive and willing to let me try new things I had learned and a school district that allowed me to go to professional development programs that continued to help me grow as a teacher. Yes, I learned a great deal that first year, but it was manageable because I had received a powerful foundation in my college classes.

Can teacher education programs be better than they currently are? Of course! One of the biggest drawbacks to most programs is the lack of what are called “clinical experiences,” that is opportunities for the teacher candidates to work directly with children and in schools. This is problematic on both ends. For example, college semesters do not mesh well with school calendars. Many teacher candidates take classes during the summer when public schools are in recess. As the pressure of high-stakes tests has risen, many teachers and administrators are reluctant to take chances with inexperienced teacher candidates in their classrooms, fearing it will reduce the amount of time children can spend in test-prep and/or result in lower test scores.

There is some research evidence that suggests teaching credentials should be given only to students who complete a 5-year program, rather than the traditional 4-year. In this program, the fifth year is generally a year of internship, where the student teacher essentially spends an entire year in a student teaching position, heavily supervised and supported by a mentor. This is indeed a wonderful idea, but again there are drawbacks. Such a program delays the student teacher’s graduation, requiring another year of tuition. It means that the student teacher is not able to work other jobs to defray expenses, and probably adds substantially to the debt the teacher leaves college with. Moreover, because certainly in our part of the country, teacher pay is so low, the student teacher will be unlikely to quickly recoup that expense and loss of potential income for a number of years, if ever.

Would we be graduating better teachers if we implemented a 5-year program? Undoubtedly, but until teacher pay justifies the investment and until state legislatures and the public understand this correlation, I don’t see anything changing. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to give the teacher candidates who matriculate my classes the most practical and realistic teacher education I can within the limited time and resources at my disposal.

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