Just a couple of years ago, a colleague of mine – a woman who has taught for over 25 years – broke down in front of me after school one day and cried her eyes out.
She felt like she was failing her students, not because of her inability as a teacher, but because “the system” has increasingly made it impossible for her to meet their needs.
Overcrowded classrooms, individual student needs, a plethora of mandates, and out-of-control testing can make the job seem frightfully overwhelming.
If teaching can bring effective, veteran teachers to this level of frustration, imagine what it can do to a first-year teacher.
Teaching is an inherently “learn by doing” endeavor, and though I think it’s fair to say I eventually became a first-rate teacher, I shudder when I think back to the first few years of my career.
An early mentor once told me that it takes at least four or five years to learn how to be a good teacher. Many years later, this has not changed. Quite frankly, the students I taught during the first few years of my career had a less effective teacher than the one I would become later -- far less.
Most educators feel something needs to be done to better prepare teachers, but deciding who is at fault and how to fix the problem is proving even more divisive than the role of standardized testing or the Common Core.
The role of the teacher, and by extension teacher preparation, has become the most pressing issue in education.
The main criticism of traditional teacher preparation programs is that they are too theory-based. According to this viewpoint, prospective teachers spend too much time listening to education professors lecture about how students learn instead of getting real world experience teaching actual students.
The validity of this argument is hard to dispute, though I think it’s critical that teachers still understand cognitive development, curriculum design, and the like. Practice uninformed by theory is often misguided, at best, or downright harmful, at worst.
The truth is that we know what it takes to train good teachers, and we’ve known for some time.
Today, we might call this the clinical model (as in doctors), or the apprentice model (as in skilled trades), but the central idea is that it takes time and guidance from experienced practitioners to learn how to do complex things.
The solution is not exactly AP calculus.
The main reason we don’t see more apprenticeships in most teacher preparation programs is that this approach also takes a great deal more money. So if innovation is required in this undertaking -- and it will be -- we will need that fresh thinking to include new and creative ways to raise funds, as well as prepare teachers.
Some colleges are already doing this kind of thing with a co-teaching approach, for example, wherein beginning teachers spend their entire first year, not just a few months, teaching a class alongside a master teacher. Others are creating college-community partnerships that get student-teachers into the classroom far earlier than traditional teacher preparation programs.
In the district where I teach, I know that both our administration and our local teachers’ union have tried to offer what guidance we can to new teachers. Still, these are stop-gap measures after their professional preparation is done. Until the approaches described above are more widespread, new teachers won’t enter the classroom as prepared as we would like them.
What is not the answer, and certainly not the kind of innovation we need, is the approach Teach for America is doing, or any other initiatives that seek to bypass teacher preparation altogether by rushing people without an education background into the classroom after a six- or eight-week orientation.
These kinds of organizations use what I call the "Walmart Model."
That is to say, they know they are going to churn through (mostly young) teachers at a very high rate, much like Walmart goes through workers. Long hours, low pay and prestige all lead to massively high turnover rates.
The Walmart Model achieves a head-shaking double whammy. It seeks to remove both the preparation and professionalism from teaching. This approach accepts high turnover rates as a matter of course and seeks to mitigate the negative effects through scripted lessons, pre-packaged curricula, and drilling for tests.
In other words, they’re trying to take the teacher out of teaching.
Their way of dealing with the ineffectiveness of the current state of teacher preparation is to bypass it altogether. And if you think this approach is what the highest achieving nations like Finland and South Korea utilize, think again.
So what’s the Next Idea?
In my dream world, we’d attack this problem by making teaching more professional, not less. Here’s how we might do that:
- Teaching would require a master’s degree before you get your first job, not after.
- The graduate degree would have an academic focus, not a rehash of the pedagogy courses one took as an undergrad.
- Education students would spend more time in K-12 classrooms, and at an earlier point in their program of study.
- New teachers would spend their entire first year co-teaching under the tutelage of an experienced colleague.
It’s also true that higher salaries would be necessary to attract the best students and to justify their increased college costs.
In the highest performing countries, teaching is seen as a prestigious occupation and elite students compete for acceptance into teacher preparation programs.
In America, we’ve tried to sell teaching as a missionary endeavor, but that hasn’t really worked, has it?
Finally, the sheer volume of teachers our society requires may, in fact, be the crux of the teacher preparation challenge. We need between three to four million teachers in this country, a staggering amount. This, more than any other reason, is why the rigorous and time-consuming preparation I described above is likely to stay relegated to my dreams.
Still, there are innovative teacher preparation programs at some colleges across the country right now.
They’re finding ways to give prospective teachers the time and guidance we know they need to become effective educators. But, especially in an era of declining budgets and increasing college tuition, how do we “scale up” these innovations to meet our massive needs?
That might be the most critical homework our nation has ever been assigned.
A 22-year veteran, Keith Kindred teaches social studies at South Lyon East High School.