Published Online: July 23, 2013

First Person

Six Essential Elements for Improving Teacher Prep

The strawberry yogurt smacked my arm, gushing down my dress. As the class of high schoolers erupted into laughter and tears burned my eyes, a thought erupted in my mind: "My teacher education program did not prepare me for this first year." Not only was I miserable, but students could not learn in the classroom I had created.

Ten years—and two times almost quitting—later, I now love my teaching career and can do it well. Last month the National Council on Teacher Quality released a report evaluating teacher-prep programs, and the deficiencies found in so many of them reminded me of how ill-prepared I was. Rather than pile on, I want to share a few elements of what I think a quality teacher-preparation program should have for the sake of new teachers and the kids in their classes.

1) Be Practical. Above all, everything in a teacher-preparation program must be directly usable in the classroom. Specifically, programs should include practical training on long-range lesson planning and how to prevent behavioral mayhem. There are too many programs that trap prospective teachers on campus to chat casually about the hypotheticals of education, wasting essential learning time. I graduated from a traditional master's in education program idiotically unaware that lessons must be planned with the entire unit and endpoint mapped out beforehand. Yes, during my first year of teaching I planned each lesson day by day with no idea where they were headed, making myself and my students miserable. I would have thrown yogurt at me, too!

2) Mandate a full year of experience in an actual teaching classroom with multiple mentors. My favorite teacher-prep program right now is the Boston Teacher Residency, which places teachers-in-training as "residents" in classrooms, paired with mentor teachers for a full year. I mentored BTR teachers for two years and always marveled at how well-prepared they were after completion of the program. The vast majority of BTR graduates are still teaching because they knew exactly what they were getting into when they took on a class solo. It also helps to have more than one quality mentor teacher. As a new teacher, I had four mentors due to a fluke in my placement, and I learned something different from each one. Mentors make a world of difference.

3) Align with the type of school trainees want to teach in. Teaching in a suburban school is much different from teaching in an urban school. One error I made was attending a teacher-prep program aligned to high-income, high-performance schools, while my student teaching was at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum. During teacher-prep class discussions on what to do if one student were an English-language learner, all I could think was, "Do these ladies know that 90 percent of my students are ELLs?"

4) Build in failure and resilience. To succeed as a teacher, you must fail repeatedly as a teacher-in-training (when there are still supports in place), or you will get crushed once you’re on your own. A flaw in my teacher-prep program was that I did not experience enough humiliation and defeat as a teacher-in-training. Had I been hit by flying yogurt during my student teaching, would I have realized how mandatory it is to have a rock-solid classroom management plan before entering the classroom as a full-time teacher? As it was, I graduated with an impressively ineffective discipline scheme—and both my students and I paid the price.

5) Mandate observations at a variety of schools. You don’t realize how unequal this country is until you see a wide swathe of schools, and most people (shockingly, most teachers, too) do not do this. All teacher-prep programs should necessitate visits to at least five different schools over the course of a year.

6) Emphasize humility. As a 21-year-old student teacher, my fatal flaw was hubris. Do not underestimate the arrogance of recent college graduates or their inability to comprehend how bad they will be at teaching. A quality teacher-prep program must repeatedly make explicit mention of this fact, or ... there will be yogurt thrown.

For me, having these elements in place in a teacher-preparation program would have made a world of difference for both me and my students. I am ashamed of the unfocused, chaotic environment I created as a young first-year teacher, and I sincerely hope that teacher-training programs evolve to prevent such malpractice in the future.

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