Education Opinion

Prep for Success: Improving Teacher Training

By Ilana Garon — June 11, 2013 4 min read
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In the previous week’s post I talked about the problems I’d experienced during my own teacher training, and my disappointment with the process as a whole. Now I’d like to offer some suggestions for ways teacher preparation and certification might be improved for future new teachers:

1) More time as a teaching apprentice. The most useful part of my teacher training was the six weeks I spent working (in summer school) with a master teacher. Helping her out and acting as her “assistant” in the classroom showed me what good instruction looked like, and allowed me to take part in planning for and managing the class. It also gave me confidence that I could do this on my own. I only wish I’d had more time--six weeks seemed woefully inadequate, such that when I finally stood in front of my own classroom on my first day, I felt like a baby bird pushed out of a nest too soon.

2) Courses that emphasize the practice of teaching (not theory.) One of the few useful aspects of my master’s degree was a course in curriculum design. The requirement for the course was pretty simple: design a curriculum. In a better taught scenario than I experienced, the professor would have been more (ahem) hands-on in helping new teachers develop great lessons, rather than simply checking off if we’d done the work, but I digress. While I hated this course at the time, I’ve since realized that the ability to think about instruction as a sort of “story arc,” with day-to-day lessons culminating in meaningful project-based assessment, is the foundation of good teaching--and that with more emphasis and guidance in curriculum design, I’d have been a better teacher earlier.

3) Professors who are teachers, or who have significant experience teaching. It is simply not useful to be learning the practice of education from someone who has never taught, or who has only taught two years. Too many education professors taught briefly or not at all, then went to graduate school and studied all kinds of theories about pedagogy, and now teach in education master’s programs. To be a professor in one of these programs, at least five years of primary or secondary school teaching should be a minimum requirement, along with a willingness to impart practical applications for the mandatory theoretical coursework that so dominates these degree programs.

And outside of the ivory tower...

4) Frequent “jam sessions” with an experienced mentor-teacher. A common feature of new teacher training now seems to be frequent observations during the first year by a mentor-teacher, usually one who is semi-retired. Observations and critiques of lessons in progress can be helpful in moderation, but what really helped some science teachers (who did training at the same time as I did) was support in writing lessons. Their mentor, whom they all loved, would come see them after class, talk to them about difficulties they were experiencing, and then ask what units they had coming up. And then he’d plan with them. One of these science teachers, who became very successful in his own right, said the best thing about meeting with their mentor was that he always emerged with great ideas and great lessons.

5) Standardized, non-convoluted requirements for certification. Earlier this year, there was talk of a teaching “bar exam.” Could we please do this, and replace all the nonsense that teachers have to do right now for certification? When I started teaching in New York City, I took three exams, one for my subject (the Content Specialty Test), and one for general knowledge (the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test), and one for pedagogy (the Assessment of Teaching Skills--Written.) The exams weren’t challenging--they were just long, redundant in terms of what they tested, and really expensive. Then I also had to make a video of myself teaching, which I sent off to some office in Albany. I’m not sure anyone ever watched it, which was good, since my underwear was sticking out of my pants the whole time and I didn’t have an opportunity to re-tape it before the submission deadline.

The following year, Albany rescinded the requirement for video making, but instead instituted a requirement for a certain number of professional development hours. Now, if I went five miles across the river in New Jersey, I’d have to take a completely different set of exams (Praxis) in order to get certified, along with whatever other requirements that state has. Couldn’t all the states get on the same page with teacher certification and preparation, streamline the approach (fewer individual exams, please!), and make it easier for teachers to move around? Consistent requirements for preparation and certification would enable teachers across the country to collaborate, share best practices, and be picked up by districts and schools where their skills could be best utilized.

I know I must be missing things. Readers, please weigh in, in the comments. What would improve teacher preparation?

The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.