Education Opinion

Teacher Prep Led by (Drum Roll, Please)...Teachers

By Justin Minkel — March 31, 2014 5 min read
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As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made a pragmatic argument for empowering women in developing countries: “You cannot move on a path to democracy and open economies if you isolate and marginalize half the population.”

The same principle applies to opportunities for teachers to lead change in our educational system: You cannot move on a path to excellence if you isolate and marginalize half the professionals involved in education.

Our system needs the other half, too: university professors, researchers, administrators, and any other professional who genuinely cares about student needs more than status or profit.
The problem is that these groups, despite notable exceptions, tend to be pretty dismal at partnering with teachers.

Testing companies will bring in teachers to provide feedback on a new test, but teachers had no hand in designing it on the front end. Policymakers will scramble for teachers to speak in favor of a new initiative, but teachers weren’t in the room when the initiative was crafted and key decisions were made.

The implicit assumption is that we need teachers to implement everything--new standards, new curricula, new tests--but teachers aren’t capable of the thinking that goes into creating these reforms on the front end.

Justifications for this teacherless approach to reform are so inane they don’t pass the “giggle test.”

“Teachers are just so busy--they wouldn’t have the time.”

“Teachers understand pedagogy, but they’re not content or policy experts.”

For a rebuttal of the three most common excuses I have heard, read the post I wrote after an author of Common Core tried to justify to me why teachers weren’t included on the team writing the ELA standards.

Where teachers have a hand in shaping policy, schools work better for students. It’s no coincidence that in states like Colorado and Kentucky where Common Core implementation has been successful, teachers were involved early in a meaningful way. In states where teachers are seen as golems--necessary for the labor involved but too dumb to make any real decisions--implementation has been a train wreck.

Next week’s post will focus on roles for teachers in leading policy, curriculum, and professional development. This post considers what practicing teachers can contribute to teacher prep.

The role: Practicing classroom teachers in hybrid roles can split their time between teaching in a public school and leading a teacher prep program as a member of the faculty.

The rationale: In the current system, there’s a disconnect for most new teachers between what they learned in their prep programs and what they experience when they step into the classroom. They got plenty of theory in their program, but the connections to practice aren’t always clear.

This disconnect is toughest to bridge when it comes to conflicts between legislated policy and research-based best practice. For example, most new teachers get a background in how to differentiate instruction for students based on their interests, how they learn best, and their level of academic readiness. But how do you reconcile that approach with a system of testing in which every kid gets the same questions of the same difficulty level, with more emphasis on reaching a single baseline of proficiency than with individual academic growth?

The same people who talk about the poor quality of teacher prep programs often advocate for eliminating them. The logic of this leap eludes me. It’s parallel to saying, “Health care coverage in America is poor. Therefore, we should eliminate health care.”

If teacher prep programs are weak, or at least widely variable in their quality, doesn’t it make more sense to improve them than destroy them? Involving practicing teachers in shaping teacher prep is one way to do that.

What it looks like: I know several teachers who teach at colleges and universities on evenings or weekends. But hybrid roles make it possible for a middle school teacher to teach three periods of Language Arts each morning, then teach future teachers at a nearby campus in the afternoons.

Teachers are often seen as a convenient source of adjuncts, paid at the same cheap rate as doctoral students even if they have decades of teaching experience. It would look very different to put practicing teachers on the same level as education professors, with similar pay, similar status, and similar influence in shaping the direction of teacher prep programs. Teachers could be making decisions about how to structure student teaching, which books and articles pre-service teachers should read, and what a future teacher needs to know and be able to do.

What it will take: We need to stop seeing a PhD as a higher badge of expertise and intelligence than the trifecta of a Masters, National Board certification, and a career spent teaching.

In 2008, I was teaching a Masters-level course in differentiated instruction at the University of Arkansas one day a week as an adjunct professor. Over the course of the semester, the pre-service teachers in the course kept telling me how much they appreciated having one professor who was a practicing classroom teacher.

They listed three main reasons:

1. I helped them relate theory to practice.

2. I had experienced recent initiatives like the test pressure of No Child Left Behind in a way that professors who left the classroom decades ago had not.

3. I used teaching techniques like simulations, student-developed rubrics, Think-Pair-Shares, and the Gradual Release of Responsibility model that were relatively rare in the more lecture-oriented domain of academia.

One day after class, I stopped in to talk to the Dean of the School of Education. He ended our conversation by saying, “Well, if you decide to come finish up your degree one of these days, let me know.”

This conversation happened shortly after I was named the Arkansas Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. I had a Masters in Elementary Education from UC Berkeley, and I had been a teacher for eight years.

But for this dean, it didn’t matter how much I knew about teaching children, or how good I might be at it. I wasn’t a true professional, because I lacked a PhD.

There’s a benefit in completing a dissertation, immersing yourself in research, and writing articles for peer-reviewed journals. But there’s also benefit in working daily with students, translating theory into instruction, and choosing teaching as a career.

Next Steps: Given the emergence of hybrid roles, the calls for dramatic improvement in teacher prep programs, and the example of nations like Finland and Singapore where teachers are researchers and teaching is considered a “thought profession,” this is an ideal time to reconsider the separation between academics and practitioners. As a first step, professors and deans at schools of education need to realize that while we value their expertise, they should value ours, too.

We can collaborate as equals. Future teachers will be better at working with students as a result.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher 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.