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If Education Is Going to Change, Teacher Prep Needs to First

Every 5th period for the first two months of my career, I cried.

After teaching periods 2, 3 and 4, I'd run into my friend's classroom and position myself in the middle of the two doors so I couldn't be seen from either; I wondered often whether or not I had what it takes to be a teacher.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration if I said I felt left to the wolves when I started teaching. Still, in my teacher education program, my actual teaching experience often contradicted the theoretical learning I was getting in school. Frustrated and disappointed, I continued to attend classes, teach and obtain my teaching credentials feeling seriously underprepared.

There were likely many factors that contributed to this feeling: my expectations of what teaching was, the misaligned curriculum with the realities of the classroom and the fact that I started my career in a struggling, low income school with a plethora of challenges that no schooling could have readied me for.

Although my teaching preparation program did address lesson planning and good general English teaching practices, it was slim in the area of practical classroom management, problem resolution and didn't even address school culture and politics, which I learned in the thick of it has a lot to do with a teacher's success in a school.

Technology wasn't mentioned at all.

And don't get me started on the teacher tests for certification and how poorly they align with the reality of what we teach or how we teach it.

But somehow I did survive and well.

After those first few months, I was able to develop rapport and relationships with the students and my colleagues despite my extremely uneven skill set as a teacher. It was because of my ability to think on my feet, learn fast, and a determination to become great at what I was doing that my teaching career was not going to end after three years. After all, this is what I am meant to do and a lack of preparation wasn't going to stop me.

Recently the Hope Street Group conducted a study on preparing the next generation of teachers and much of their findings are aligned with my experiences despite the fact that I graduated from my teacher prep program over a decade ago.

First of all, much of the curriculum is rooted in theory and not in actual classroom realities. For teachers to be truly ready for the classroom, they need more time working in clinical teaching programs where they are immersed in school environments. This would help pre-service teachers have a better idea of what school culture and expectations are and how to navigate them more effectively.

This pre-service experience shouldn't just be for observations and student teaching, but to build relationships and get hands-on experience working with the day-to-day challenges of the classroom with a variety of different students and learning profiles. Imagine how much more prepared teachers would be if they've already experienced the hardships of poverty with students or sat in on an IEP meeting to better understand the services of the students they may work with in the future.

Second, with the shift in learning expectations, new teachers need to be taught about the standards and how to implement them in their teaching. Being taught to write a procedural lesson plan isn't enough anymore. Instead, teachers need to be shown how to flexibly plan for diverse populations and differentiate in a meaningful way. In this way, they will also draw on necessary reflective practices that will enhance learning for everyone, including themselves.

Other areas that came up in the study as in of improvement were additional instruction in behavior management, content-based courses, and child and adolescent development coursework. We can surely read a text on education psychology but until we see the way it works for real, it is only a diagram in a textbook meant to languish in oblivion.

Teaching is the kind of profession that requires hands-on experience. As a matter of fact, most of the learning I did was in my classroom using a trial and error approach. There needs to be a safe environment with great mentorship programs where new teachers can take risks and then reflect on the success/challenges of those risks and adjust accordingly. As we grow as educators, we develop a "toolbox" of strategies that become more readily available and learn to transition between as needed more adeptly.

Unfortunately, there are few things that can provide these opportunities short of actual doing. The same way we want our kids to participate in their learning in the classroom, their teachers need to learn the same way, by doing. And it is because of this, that I have taken to speaking to pre-service teachers in their college classes. I've developed relationships with professors so these future teachers have the opportunity to ask the questions they are curious about and get very direct answers for. I want to keep contributing to the solution - so more teachers are more ready and prepared to stay with the profession for a long time.

As educational philosophy continues to shift based on current research, new teacher programs must reflect the reform in the classroom environment. It seems sad and weird that folks coming out of traditional programs are still learning what I learned so long ago with little modification. It is my deep belief that preservice teachers and educational leaders need to be more aware of alternative assessment practices and grading. It would be my greatest honor to teach adults on this subject. If more teachers and leaders are aware of alternatives and how to implement them, perhaps we could change the traditional practices.

When you think back on your teacher education program, what do you wish you would have been taught that may have helped you sooner? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in March 2016. It has been modified.


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