While at dinner with friends last night, a problem that I often pore over came up: that of teacher preparation.
I’d like to offer a disclaimer before I go any further in this post: I was not adequately prepared my first year of teaching. That led to many tears on my part…and probably on the kids’ part, too. I was not able to give them what they needed or deserved that year.
However, research shows that the better prepared a teacher is, the better they are for students, and the more likely they are to stay – not to mention the personal and professional fulfillment and happiness that comes with competency.
From personal experience, I can name a laundry list of things that I think would have made me a better teacher on day 1. Of course, hindsight is 20-20, and this is all rather hypothetical, but here are some of the areas that, if included or expanded in the path to teacher certification, could revamp our current programs to bolster greater success among students and teachers alike. In no particular order:
- Expert knowledge of content – this is what my department lead preached day in and day out my first year teaching. I was resistant to the idea that, just because I did not have a good understanding of the standards I was to teach or the subject matter I was tasked with conveying to my students, I could not be a good teacher. This is mostly because I am stubborn. I was wrong. I need to know my content forward, backward, and upside down before even attempting to plan a lesson for kids.
- Behavior management – okay, it’s not like I didn’t have training on this when I was learning how to be a teacher. But, at least in my mind, this training was flawed for a couple main reasons: first, I did not receive adequate support in finding my own voice; instead, the focus was on being stern, practicing your “teacher stare,” etc. This is not at all my style. Secondly, I did not have nearly enough opportunities to practice my training in a classroom setting. I read and role-played a lot but, come August, was thrown into the fire all alone.
- Cultural sensitivity and competence – I was first introduced to this idea when working with a youth program in college. I tried to correct a student’s language that sounded harsh to me when my superior suggested that I take a step back and tone things down a little, seeking to listen and understand rather than speak and be understood. He explained that, in the culture of the kids to whom I was talking, sometimes, they simply use different expressions in casual conversation, and it’s not always aggressive or ill-intentioned. He suggested that I start by reading Love and Logic, which I soon found to be a manifesto on student discipline, and go from there. What I know now is that, though it can be hard to relate to students of different backgrounds, it’s not actually necessary – not in all areas, at least. Being a white educator in an urban setting with a mixture of Hispanic and Black students, I don’t look like any of my kids, and there’s something to be said for those educators that do. As I mentioned above, I have found and honed my own personality in the classroom, and I leave certain situations or conversations up to my colleagues who share more of a cultural understanding with my students. This prioritization has taken lots of time and reflection on my part, though, and was not included in any training I received.
- Ongoing support and development – you see, this is why I like Teach For America so much, but you’ll hear more about that in future blogs. Most teacher prep programs, rather using traditional or alternative certification routes, offer little to no support once the teacher begins their school year. I often compare first-year teachers to baby birds: their “parents” push them out of the nest, hoping that they fly. But if they don’t…well, too bad. *splat* Having mentors or coaches in classrooms for each teacher – in addition to the school’s administration – could allow them to problem solve on a deeply personal level everything from management issues to gaps in data.
- Teacher voice – for being entrusted with the lives of hundreds of students every day, we sure don’t seem to get much credit. Experienced teachers, especially those still in classrooms, are a sorely missing component from teacher preparation programs. They can tell it like it is and offer anecdotal tips and current best practices. It’s always good to hear from wide and varied experiences.
This country already has a teacher shortage in too many regions. As schools of education and alternative certification programs work to remodel their paradigms, students will still be cycling through the system. We can’t put kids on pause and stop them from aging one year at a time. And for as long as we continue to offer a public, age-based path, isn’t it better to have a teacher in front of every student at all times instead of vacancies while we wait for the cream of the crop to complete their training?
Thus, I present to you my ongoing catch-22: we expect – and our students deserve – well-trained, highly qualified teachers, yet we need warm bodies in classrooms as students grow and advance year by year. We cannot stop our youth from aging while we solve our problems.
To revamp teacher preparation programs would require a major shifts and, in some cases, complete overhauls of university systems as well as alternative certification outlets. This, of course, takes time and money. So, can we even afford to think differently about the standards we have for our public school teachers in this country?
Can we afford not to?
Discussions and proposed solutions are encouraged in the comments.
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