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A Missing Partnership: Principals and Professors

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First, ask principals for feedback. As an elementary-school principal, each year I interview and place student teachers and participant-observers from as many as six different colleges and universities. I meet with each semester's group of student teachers five times for 90-minute seminars. They share aspects of their lessons and perceptions of their cooperating teachers, and I discuss a set of agenda topics (and provide follow-up handouts) from a list I refer to as "Elementary School Classroom Realities"--topics ranging from effective teaching and classroom-management techniques to discussion of the job market. I maintain close contact with their cooperating teachers regarding their performance and, if asked, I formally observe and critique their lessons.

But in all of my years of dialogue with deans of elementary education, directors of student-teaching placements, and field supervisors who come to my school to observe their students, not once have I ever been asked my views on the caliber of the undergraduate program that prepared those student teachers. Not once have I ever been asked to comment on the relative strengths of "their" student teachers, vis-a-vis those of other colleges and universities. Not once ... despite having interviewed, placed, observed, and, to an extent, supervised well over 100 student teachers and participant-observers during my principalship.

This silence on the part of university personnel speaks volumes about one of the chief problems in teacher education today: its whisper-thin connectedness to real-world classrooms.

If teacher educators are truly interested in forging a partnership with local school personnel, then one obvious starting point is meaningful dialogue with the building principal. The principal, as the instructional leader of the school, can offer insights available from no other source. Neither the university student-teaching supervisor nor any other member of the education- school faculty can, like the building principal, articulate the school's mission and goals. Only the principal can place the cooperating teacher's instructional program in perspective as it relates to the schoolwide and districtwide instructional program. And only the principal can offer a schoolwide and districtwide profile of students and staff, and explain how that mosaic affects the instructional program in terms of objectives and delivery of services.

By virtue of that unique perspective, the principal is in a position to make a valuable contribution to student teachers placed in his or her school in two important ways: by conducting regular seminar sessions, and by observing classroom lessons. I do both, though I have never been asked to do so by any of the university faculties. But shouldn't a building principal also be considered a potential collegial supervisor of student teachers, at least to the extent that he or she has both the time and desire to perform that role?

Not all principals, of course, should be expected to meet regularly with or observe student teachers. Their schedules are already full, and some will not want this added responsibility. But shouldn't a principal be afforded the opportunity to make that decision?

It is ironic that the same institutions that, quite properly, teach their student teachers the value of assessment repeatedly fail to consult with principals to help them assess the quality of these students. One wonders why teacher-education institutions aren't reaching out for all the feedback they can possibly get, and why principals aren't at or near the top of the list of people to contact about the relevance and quality of their teacher-preparation programs.

Were universities to offer this opportunity to principals, they might discover that in this small step they gained much ground in the battle to bridge the gap between theory and practice. All that is required is commitment by university and school personnel to build a trusting relationship and to work cooperatively.

A second step that can be taken by teacher educators to build closer ties with school practitioners, particularly principals, relates to reading habits. They should read common sources. One would think that those responsible for preparing students to teach in the schools would be familiar with what is being read by school administrators and teachers. It seems a reasonable assumption based on the interlocking nature of work goals. But it is far from the case.

In a survey of 200 principals I recently conducted for the Long Island Principals' Center in New York, only one journal was reported to be read by 90 percent of the principals at both elementary and secondary levels--Educational Leadership. In addition, elementary principals frequently read Principal, and secondary principals read the NASSP Bulletin in large numbers. The Phi Delta Kappan was also widely read by principals at all levels. In their survey responses these practitioners appeared to want to read most often about ideas that could maintain or improve existing programs, or about innovative practices that might be an improvement over what they were currently doing.

University teacher-education personnel, on the other hand, frequently read journals containing mostly theoretical and research-oriented articles that are of little interest to and are rarely read by--most principals and teachers. Professors of education often appear to school practitioners to be overly concerned about whether or not trees make a sound when they fall in the forest if no one is around. The front-line troops in schools have little time for such abstract pondering; every day they deal with the loud thuds of crashing trees.

A look through university catalogs and bulletins shows that teacher-education students are exposed to many courses emphasizing effective teaching and classroom-management techniques. Such courses should provide lively discussions of topical matters. But, sadly, many professors rely on textbooks rather than the timely articles appearing in the professional journals principals read. And most textbooks are simply not current enough to offer fresh ideas and perspectives for problem-solving.

I am continually dismayed at the large numbers of student teachers and recent teacher-education graduates who have little or no understanding of some of the major issues under discussion in today's schools. How can elementary-school teacher-education graduates not be familiar with the phonics/whole-language controversy? How can they not be familiar with what Slavin and Johnson and Johnson say about cooperative learning? Lee Canter and assertive discipline? Madeline Hunter and effective teaching? Marie Carbo and Rita Dunn on reading and learning styles?

There is no need for university faculty members to abandon their special interests, or their favorite higher-education journals, or research-and-theory quarterlies. And, similarly, there should be room on principals' reading lists for the inclusion of subject-discipline journals and newsletters. But until teacher educators regularly read the same journals that those responsible for interviewing and hiring their graduates do, they will not be fully able to prepare their graduates for the real world of school. Principals make daily decisions about what programs to investigate and implement based in part upon the guidance they receive in such professional publications. If student teachers and recent graduates have not been exposed to the same up-to-date thinking because their professors have not been sharing and discussing recent journal and magazine articles with them, then their preparation will not be as complete as it could be and should be.

The education of pre-service teachers cannot help but be vastly improved if principals and field supervisors work in concert instead of in isolation. No new Holmes Group or John Goodlad study is needed to tell us what we already know--that we have to break down the walls separating schools and universities. This may begin happening if we start communicating with one another as though we really do serve a common purpose.

Allan S. Vann is principal of James H. Boyd Elementary School in the Elwood Union Free School District, Huntington, N.Y.

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