For Advice on Teacher Preparation, States Turn to the Experts: Teachers Themselves

By Peggy Barmore & The Hechinger Report — December 13, 2016 9 min read
Some 30 PK-12 teachers and representatives of university teacher preparation programs took part in the seventh of nine regional forums hosted by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this fall. They will all be brought together in the spring to discuss next steps.
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Elly Eckhoff listened intently as a group of veteran teachers listed what they think rookie teachers need before entering the classroom: more time student teaching and more training in how to communicate with colleagues, parents and students themselves.

And then she spoke.

“They need to know about mental illness, poverty training and assistance,” she said. “They need to know what poverty does to kids’ brains—the state of being in fight or flight.”

Thirty-plus teachers and teacher educators gathered in the conference room nodded emphatically as Eckhoff told of seeing more and more students coming to school not just deficient in academic skills, but carrying a lot of emotional baggage.

[Teacher candidates] need to know about mental illness, poverty training and assistance. They need to know what poverty does to kids’ brains—the state of being in fight or flight.”

Eckhoff knows what it’s like to feel unprepared for the trauma children can bring with them to school. One of her former 1st-graders attempted suicide, Eckhoff explained later. She was past those make-or-break first five years for a new teacher, and thought she had “a decent bag of tricks” for engaging students under emotional duress, “but it just seemed like nothing was working.”

Would better training have helped her?

Some states are turning to a new set of experts as they attempt to overhaul how educators are trained: teachers themselves. Eckhoff was among a group of veteran Missouri teachers who joined representatives of university teacher preparation programs and staff from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for a four-hour forum this fall as part of a state effort to change how teachers are prepared for the classroom and supported once they get there.

Related: Ready for Day One? Maybe not: What two new reports show about teacher preparation

Eckhoff said her teacher preparation taught her “to reflect” when a student was struggling, to ask herself, “What can I do to help the student be more successful academically, emotionally, or behaviorally?” But years of experience also taught her it takes a team that includes teachers, school administrators, counselors, and outside services to address the needs of hurting children who act out or bottle up their feelings.

“They’re holding everything inside,” Eckhoff said. “There’s a lot more outbursts with kids, and then sometimes it’s also the self harm, such as trying to cut themselves or even attempting suicide.”

Before they ever step foot in the classroom, she said, “what today’s teachers need is full courses devoted to these issues.”

The meeting was one stop in a weeks-long listening tour of those who mentor new teachers to help the state education department figure out how to improve training for preservice teachers. Veteran or master teachers like Eckhoff, who often have been rated highly under the new teacher evaluation standards and agreed to share their classrooms with aspiring teachers, are advising the department on issues from the soft skills teacher candidates need to how to keep professional development useful and relevant once they’re on the job.

“[Our state’s best teachers] are some of the most important and helpful voices in shaping policy direction because they are living the experience of effective teaching.”

Kim Nuetzmann, coordinator of student teaching experiences at the University of Missouri, said Missouri “wanted to hear the voice” of the veteran teachers first because they’re the ones in the classroom day-to-day with candidates. “We wanted to see what they’re seeing in the students,” she said, noting the teachers’ input will be valuable as they “move forward and continue to design coursework” for their preparation program. The University of Missouri forum was the seventh of nine.

Missouri joins Louisiana, Massachusetts, Delaware, Tennessee, and Georgia on the growing list of states using teachers to help them rethink teacher preparation. Changes in federal policy, in particular, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program and subsequent waivers to the No Child Left Behind law, prompted states to “get serious” about teacher preparation, according to Mary-Dean Barringer, who is with the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Hannah Dietsch, assistant superintendent for talent for the Louisiana Board of Education, said Louisiana has relied heavily on teachers in its own reforms. “[Our state’s best teachers] are some of the most important and helpful voices in shaping policy direction because they are living the experience of effective teaching and, therefore, able to help policymakers develop a path forward for excellent teaching for a greater percentage of teachers,” she said. “In Louisiana, we’re building and strengthening the role of those veteran expert educators.”

In October, for instance, Louisiana announced that students entering teacher preparation in the 2018-19 academic year will be required to complete a full-year classroom residency with an experienced mentor teacher. It was the No. 1 recommendation of new and veteran teachers, as well as district leaders and teacher preparation advisers in focus groups and a survey of more than 6,000 educators that Louisiana undertook in 2014, according to Dietsch.

Related: This may be the best way to train teachers, but can we afford it?

The embrace of teacher perspectives in how to transform teacher preparation comes at a key moment of change: The current crop of preservice teachers is the tail end of the millennial generation. They’re also the first cohort of prospective teachers to be educated entirely under 21st century education reforms, including No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards.

Forum facilitator Kim Nuetzmann has participants reflect on their teacher preparation before they launch into a discussion on how to change it.

In some ways, this experience puts them ahead of their older colleagues. According to the Missouri educators, new teacher candidates “know their content.” They listed among their younger colleagues’ strengths: lesson planning, the ability to adjust their teaching to the needs of students, and preparedness to address the academic needs of struggling students.

Yet in other ways, this new generation of teachers is falling short, teacher experts warned. They may be the iPhone generation, but millennials aren’t inherently good at using smartphones and other technology as teaching tools. They might take one class about teaching with technology while in training, said one participant, “but, by the time they get to student teaching, it’s obsolete.”

But most important, what many new teachers lack are the soft skills and understanding they’ll need to deal with both the big crises and everyday struggles that can get in the way of children’s learning. At the Missouri forum, other veteran teachers echoed Elly Eckhoff’s call for teacher preparation programs to provide more social-emotional training.

They said preservice teachers struggle with setting limits with younger children, including knowing how to interact with them outside the formal classroom at recess. They need to improve their communication and interpersonal skills, from making eye contact to communicating positive and negative news to parents about their child and “initiating positive relationships.” And candidates also struggle with how to navigate their relationships with colleagues; they don’t always understand school culture or a teacher’s other responsibilities, such as hallway and lunchroom duty, veteran teachers said.

Not everyone agrees that states looking for answers about how to improve teacher preparation should turn to teachers themselves, however.

“I get a little nervous if states are asking for input on what teacher prep programs should teach,” said Dottie Smith, a vice president with The New Teacher Project. “I think that misses the point.” Smith said states should focus on the indicators that show a new teacher is having a strong start.

First-grade teacher Elly Eckhoff worries new teachers aren’t getting enough about tending to children’s social-emotional needs in their preparation.

“There’s enough in current systems to say we expect brand-new teachers to be able to master student engagement at a developing level, and they need to lesson plan at a developing level … not proficient, not exemplary,” she said. “That’s not everything,” she added. But “it’s a starting point. If [a beginning teacher] masters those things, you have a solid start and you’re on a trajectory for continued growth in the right way.”

Margo Pensavalle, professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, where teacher candidates undergo a five-year preparation, said the very generational differences that concern veterans suggest the older teachers might not be the best people to gauge new teachers’ preparedness.

“Millennials are a different teacher than a lot of the master teachers that are out there,” she said, noting their training sometimes puts them at odds with their veteran counterparts.

Pensavalle explained that a recent survey sent out by the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing to master teachers, asking how their teacher preparation programs are doing, brought back “significant suggestions” for things the programs could do better, including teaching classroom management.

“We do classroom management really differently than how it’s carried out in the schools,” Pensavalle said. Instead of the traditional behavioral approach of telling students to stop whatever they’re doing, preservice teachers are taught “a restorative justice kind of approach,” she explained.

The model of having a university supervisor come in and decide who should pass teaching is a flawed model. We should make sure that the cooperating teacher is trained and prepared to do a really high-quality job evaluating and mentoring a student teacher.”

“We talk about first looking at your environment, your curriculum and your pedagogy, and make the best choices for your students. Because if you can engage your students, you’re going to have less classroom management problems,” Pensavalle said.

“You can’t compare [the two approaches] because they’re apples to oranges,” she added, but “it’s an area where our master teachers don’t think we do a great job only because we do it differently.”

But others are celebrating that teacher preparation systems are finally looking to teachers, many of whom are alumni of the programs in need of improvement, for advice.

“What’s to argue?” responded Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, when asked about states giving teachers a voice in teacher preparation. She argues veteran teachers should have an even more expansive role. “The model of having a university supervisor come in and decide who should pass teaching is a flawed model,” Walsh said. “We should make sure that the cooperating teacher is trained and prepared to do a really high-quality job evaluating and mentoring a student teacher.”

Columbia Public Schools teachers Brandy Ahrens, Elly Eckhoff and Heather Smith are intent as facilitator Kim Nuetzmann explains the three topic areas in which the veteran teachers were being asked for input: cooperating teacher support, teacher candidates and enhancing the partnership between PK-12 and higher education.

Louisiana’s Dietsch advises Missouri and other states considering engaging veteran teachers in preparation reform: “Think really hard about the role that those excellent teachers will play in your teacher preparation system,” she said. “It’s not just about informing a policy direction, it’s about giving those teachers a real role in preparing the next generation of teachers coming up.”

Related: Data on teacher prep grads will soon lead to consequences for some programs

It might be awhile before Missouri’s 55 teacher education providers that churn out more than 4,500 new teachers yearly see significant changes in how they do teacher preparation. Input from the forums will be analyzed and shared with the state’s advisory board for teacher education and others before participants regroup in the spring “to engage in learning and continue the dialogue,” according to Gale Hairston, director of educator preparation for the Missouri education department, who noted similar work is going on with building principals.

However, change is coming. Hairston said the message to teacher preparation programs is: “This world is changing and it’s going to continue to. Your candidates have to be prepared to teach in the future. Not the classroom you taught in five years ago, or 10 years ago, or never taught in.”

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