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The Three 'Buts' of Teacher Preparation

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I vividly remember graduating from a teacher-education program almost 30 years ago. I remember the bold way I walked into a school district’s central office that June and asked to speak to a personnel director. The receptionist told me to “fill out this application and mail it back.” I took it, walked across the parking lot to my car, and stopped dead in my tracks.

“No!” I yelled inside my young mind. “I’m not leaving without a job!” I marched back into the building to the same receptionist and asked her to give me a list of the names of the high school principals. She smirked and announced that I wouldn’t be able to reach any of them—they were all in a meeting room right behind me. I thanked her, turned and walked to the door leading to that room and waited. After an hour, the door opened and I jumped in front of the first person I saw.

“I want a job!” I declared to an alarmed principal and everyone else within earshot. In August, he was my boss.

Oh, to again have that same energy, spunk, and downright courage. Of course, a week after I started that first job, teaching four different levels of English and a drama class, I was asking myself why I hadn’t gotten in my car that day and driven far, far away. I was not prepared for what I found in my new job at the high school that fall.

I got into a conflict the first day with a senior who stood up, arms outstretched, and looked around at his classmates: “Obviously, she doesn’t know who I am.” I tried to be brave. “I don’t care who you are,” I barked. “Sit down!” It went rapidly downhill from there.

Drug deals were consummated in my classroom right under my nose, and I didn’t even know it until students ratted each other out. I heard a couple of expletives that year that I’d never heard before (although they are commonplace now), and many times they were directed at me.

In addition, I didn’t know what to teach. Instructionally, I was a mess. I had done my student teaching in junior high, and something told me those lessons wouldn’t go over well with high school seniors. There were no new-teacher mentors back then, so I opened my classroom door (everyone’s door seemed to be closed back in those days) and walked a few steps down to a colleague’s room.

“I don’t know what to teach,” I confessed. She handed me a textbook and closed her door.

No More War Stories

Many of us who have been at this teaching thing for a while wear “first year” stories like this as a badge of honor. Gather a roomful of veteran teachers and the memories will surface faster than tales of childbirth at a Lamaze convention. But most everyone in that roomful of vets will also agree that what we want for today’s new teachers is no war stories. We want to be sure they are more prepared for the “real world” of teaching than we were, and we are ready to offer them support when they come to us.

To help me pursue my own commitment to meaningful support, I decided I needed to know exactly how ready our new teachers really are when they come to us today. So I asked them.

I communicated with almost 50 first-, second- and third-year teachers and posed this question: Do you feel that you were prepared for the real world of teaching when you got there? Teachers were eager to respond. For the most part, they did feel ready. Many of them began their answers with the phrase “I felt prepared.” Of course, that phrase was usually followed by a “BUT…”

Here, in no particular order, are the “but’s” of teacher preparedness I gathered from my young colleagues:

1. You can guess the first one. It’s on the top of every new teacher’s list (and some veteran teacher lists, too). Classroom Management. The bane of a novice teacher’s existence. How to get little Johnny to sit in a seat and learn.

One teacher said, “My program didn’t explain any classroom-management techniques.”

But could they really? Here’s what I believe: You could hire Dr. Harry Wong to move in with beginning teachers, have him read from The First Days of School as a bedtime story every night, and they still wouldn’t feel prepared. Classroom management is one piece of our profession that is on-the-job-training.

All the theories and tricks are great, and student teaching is helpful, but there’s just something about looking eyeball to eyeball with your own class and learning what works and what doesn’t. Eventually, experience takes over where college lectures leave off. You’re able to say, “Oh, I had this same problem last year, and here’s what worked.”

Quiet reflection after sweating it out in the classroom management trenches really shaped my teaching after those first couple of years. I still struggle periodically. There are more behavior variables in a middle school classroom than I could have ever imagined. But the knowledge that, year after year, I have managed to figure it out and survive past Christmas keeps me pushing onward.

2. Another item that’s high on the teacher unpreparedness list is the need for more information on students with special needs. I believe most teacher-education programs fit in an overview of student exceptionalities, but few programs have figured out how to find the time to focus on specific issues, unless the teacher candidate is specializing in that area.

Many of new teachers who talked with me lamented their lack of understanding about teaching autistic students, students with ADHD, and children who bring severe anger issues to class. My advice here is what I refer to as “calling in the wagons.” Don’t be reluctant to consult the specialists in your building—counselors, psychologists, and social workers are there to support us. Their expertise, as part of a collaborative effort on behalf of our special needs kids, is critical. As are parents. They are often the most accessible experts on the student’s exceptionality we have.

As the mother of a child who was diagnosed with ADHD as a 1st grader, I can tell you that I was once considered the “ADHD Expert” at my school. I studied everything I could get my hands on about the disorder and attended workshops on strategies for organization. First and foremost, I knew my child better than anyone else. Don’t be afraid to involve parents who have done this homework.

3. The last “I’m prepared…but” that I heard clearly when polling new teachers focuses on the amount of paperwork we deal with on a daily basis. Second-year teacher Jenny said it like this: “In college they never gave me a system to organize all the STUFF—the papers being handed in, the papers going out, the papers going home, the homeroom papers, letters, extra copies, absence folders. But as they say on Project Runway, you just have to make it work.”

I have to admit I don’t know much about Project Runway, but I can attest to “making it work.” During those first years, I worked continually on organization systems. I tried crates, folders, boxes; you name it. Basically, teachers have to figure out what works for them, and make changes as necessary.

I have a teacher friend who has three-ring binders for everything. Every unit she teaches is kept in a binder. That would drive me crazy, but it works for her. I prefer folders. I have a file drawer full of curriculum folders, a file drawer for professional folders—workshop handouts, my personal licensure documents, my evaluations, information from my professional organizations, and so on. Classroom handouts are kept in a basket for a couple of weeks (for students who have been absent or who misplace their papers) and then they are moved to a recycle box.

I also have a folder for each of my students; these folders hold student work, notes from parents, and any documentation related to that student—testing information and health concerns, for example. Again, this system is what works for me. New teachers will find, most likely by trial and error, what works for them.

I am delighted to report that as a result of my “action research,” it is apparent that many of our new teachers today feel better prepared to teach than most of my “mature” colleagues and I did. As one beginning teacher said of her teacher education program, “they pushed us to be great.”

Thank you to our teacher educators across the country who are challenging our future colleagues to aim for the top. They will, in turn, enter their own classrooms, and push their students to be great. And that, after all, is why we’re all here.

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