The Atlantic teamed up with The Hechinger Report recently to put together a three-part series on the frazzled lives of beginning teachers. I’ve read the first two parts so far. The first one is straightforward to the point of being blunt: “The First Year of Teaching Can Feel Like a Fraternity Hazing.” The second is no less direct: “The Exhausting Life of a First Year Science Teacher.” Both are good reads. You should read them both.
Although both articles do a creditable job of describing the stresses associated with being a first year teacher, what’s most interesting to me is the way the series is oriented. Before each segment, there’s an editor’s note stating that the stories are part of a three-part series “about teacher preparation and whether programs are doing enough to prepare new teachers to take over their own classrooms.” This is restated later in each article: each of the teachers profiled is “is one of three teachers...followed over the course of their first year to look at how training programs prepare new teachers for the classroom—or don’t.” The onus is squarely placed on preparation programs to prove how well they prepare teachers for the work they plan to do, although anyone who knows will tell you that teacher preparation programs are just one piece of a complex teacher preparation puzzle.
And, oddly enough, the articles provide almost no insight onto the preparation the teachers they profile actually received. Instead they focus largely on the profound and complex challenges of first year teaching, challenges that seem to exist no matter how teachers were prepared. The main takeaway seems to be that we haven’t come close to cracking the code yet that will enable us to make good teachers. Everything we’ve tried is failing.
To make the point that teachers are poorly prepared, the first article (the one comparing the first year to hazing) is anchored by a link to yet another sadly deficient “study” conducted by the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and its leader, Kate Walsh. Walsh is responsible for the hazing quote: “We’ve gotten into a habit of accepting that we treat the first year of teaching like a fraternity hazing,” she says. “People say, ‘I just don’t think you can learn this ahead of time.’ Well, you need to set up those conditions ahead of time.” What she’s suggesting here is, apparently, that preparation for teaching should be the same thing as teaching is. Only it shouldn’t, because it should happen “ahead of time.” If you’re preparing to do something can you be doing it at the same time you’re preparing to do it?
I wish Walsh had spent more time on this vexing philosophical question. Instead, she turned her attention to setting up a gold-standard study designed to prove what she already knew. NCTQ visited hundreds of teacher education programs around the country, interviewed professors and students, sat in on lessons, and talked to principals, cooperating teachers, and even students in K-12 schools. They left no stone unturned in their quest to understand why teacher educators have failed to rise above their own congenital mediocrity.
No they didn’t. They looked at syllabuses. That’s really about it: NCTQ pulls syllabuses off the internet (and, on rare occasions, got them from actual people) and codes them to ascertain how much time professors spend on things like classroom management. They rely on other data sources too, apparently—you can see some colorful charts here with what appear to be coded bar graphs that are strangely incomplete, and there’s even a finger-wagging paragraph at the bottom of that page about the colleges and universities that wouldn’t share information with NCTQ—but don’t say much about the actual data or how it was analyzed. In fact the “Data collection, processing and analysis” graphic is my favorite: it has three sub-fields for “initial document request” but none for “data validation and processing” or “analysis and review.” There’s even a small disclaimer hidden on the page: “A variety of data, obtained from multiple sources, were used for evaluation.” That’s helpful.
You’ve heard the expression “never judge a book by its cover”? Keep that in mind whenever you hear about a new study from NCTQ.
Of course I have theory about why NCTQ has so much trouble conducting comprehensive research studies of teacher preparation programs: because it’s really hard to do it well. The truth of the matter is that there are things that can’t be taught to new teachers ahead of time because we have a radically decentralized approach to school organization and governance that makes preparation much less straightforward than it could be. The solutions Walsh and others have put forward for dealing with this reality hardly address the root of the problem and are as incoherent as they are short-sighted: they want alternative routes into the classroom, which undermine the idea that teaching is professional work that requires careful preparation, even as they call for a more prescriptive emphasis on things like classroom management in the preparation courses that do exist.
In the process they side-step the more stubborn realities of teacher education. Of course teacher education programs do a poor job of preparing students to teach in schools that may or may not accept them, may or may not invest in their development, may or may not enforce clear standards for student achievement and professional growth, may or may not provide the resources teachers need to do their jobs effectively. How should I prepare teachers to teach in schools where these variables are in play?
I’d go a step further. Line up any ten of my students who have earned teaching certificates in the past eight years and you’ll find people working in all kinds of different schools—some public, some private, some in the U.S., some abroad—or not working in schools at all. Each of them has varying degrees of autonomy and each receives variable administrative, parental, and curricular support, to say nothing of the challenges their students may bring to class every day. To suggest that there was one best way to get them all ready for that—which is what is suggested whenever it’s claimed that schools can be ranked and compared to one another—is absurd on its face.
As a teacher educator I can tell you quite plainly that I feel like I’m preparing people in the dark most of the time. I have no idea where they’ll go, what they’ll teach, or who they’ll teach it to. I don’t know if they’ll be given a mentor to guide them to an understanding of school and district procedures and policies or if they’ll have colleagues they trust with whom they can share ideas and with whom they can vent at the end of a long day. I don’t know if they’ll become so frustrated with the external pressures of trying to make a life as a teacher—Can I afford a house payment? What happens if I miss a car payment? If my contract is not renewed, will I ever get another job again?—that they’ll be willing to throw everything I taught them out the window just to make things work.
I’m not trying to make excuses; I’m trying to explain that the idea that there’s an easy fix to “The Teacher Education Problem” is both insulting and dangerous. In the end my problem with the National Council for Teacher Quality and all the other naysayers out there who reflexively blame our education system’s problems on teachers is that they miss the point so badly that you wonder if they could even find it if they tried. Our teacher preparation programs do need to improve, as does the quality of the teachers they produce. But the solution to the problem, however we define it, isn’t to force a prescriptive curriculum on teacher educators, and it’s not to just “raise the bar” for new teachers by requiring them to get higher grades. It definitely isn’t to abandon teacher education altogether, which is what “alternative routes” into the classroom essentially do.
The solution, in my eyes, is going to be harder to come to than that. Do we want our best students to become teachers? Okay, then, give them a profession they can be proud of. Pay them like professionals, and give them the freedom to teach the kinds of things that got them excited about teaching and learning in the first place. Do we want them to be caring, compassionate role models for young people whose daily lives may be marred by struggle? Let’s attack that problem at both ends by reducing the stresses kids are exposed to and by acknowledging that it takes time and effort to understand where other people are coming from. Let’s give prospective teachers time to mature past the first stages of excitement over teaching to ensure that they realize that savior complexes and poor preparation are two of the most insidious obstacles to success in the classroom.
The same goes for teacher educators: they deserve real training too. They should be teachers first, not researchers. Their work should be valued and they should be held to high standards, but they, too, should be compensated well for the work they do. Addressing this problem is just as important as addressing the other one.
Most of all, let’s remember that the preparation teachers get before they start teaching matters but it’s not enough. It can never be enough. If we really want life to get better for teachers like the ones profiled in these articles, and the thousands of others like them, let’s get serious about supporting them professionally at every stage of their development. We could start by advocating for more clear teaching expectations and providing support for mentorship throughout a lengthened induction period. It also wouldn’t hurt if we stopped blaming teacher educators for the shortcomings of new teachers. It might be more helpful, in fact, for some reformers to look in the mirror.
The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.