Thursday, August 7, 2014

Teaching Teachers to Teach? Context Matters

Apparently it is open season on teacher preparation programs and professional development for teachers. Last week New York Times columnist Joe Nocera had an op-ed piece called Teaching Teachers. His column follows a Sunday New York Times book excerpt on Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone). Nocera quotes heavily from Green’s work. In Education Week, Walt Gardner Weighs in with Can Teaching Be Taught?

This all comes in the wake of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) latest report on the quality of teacher education programs. The NCTQ is a Bill Gates funded reform arm of the corporate education reform movement. The apparent purpose of the NCTQ is to discredit traditional teacher preparation programs through the most cursory and flawed of research methods, so that profitable alternative graduate programs can make money.  To gather information for their report, NCTQ mostly views documents on education school’s websites and uses their own metrics to decide on their quality. NCTQ has been universally discredited in the media. See Linda Darling Hammond’s piece from the Washington Post here.

Here is a good general rule: If anything you are reading cites the NCTQ as a reference, don’t believe a word of what is said.

The gist of Nocera’s op-ed in the Times is that university departments of education inadequately prepare teachers to teach and that once on the job teachers are left to their own devices to figure it out or not. He cites Elizabeth Green as saying,The common belief, held even by many people in the profession, that the best teachers are ‘natural-born’ is wrong.”

Really? This is the common belief? I suppose that my thirty year career in professional development has been a mirage. I get a little tired of people outside of education telling me what the common beliefs are.
Sure I think that many people believe that there are those with a particular talent for teaching, but in all my years as a teacher and administrator, I have for the most part encountered professionals of varying talents, who were trying to improve their craft. Talent is never enough. The baseball player Tony Gwynn was the finest hitter of is generation. He had considerable athletic talent, but more importantly he worked hard every day to get better at hitting.

So, how do we best improve the preparedness of new teachers coming into the field and how do we make sure that improvement in teaching continues throughout a teaching career? I believe that the context of the learning is key. Undergraduate education can only do so much. Learning to be a teacher is an on-going effort that must be pursued over time in the context of the actual classroom.

I have taught undergraduate education majors and also working teachers enrolled in Masters Degree programs. The graduate students were far superior students mostly because they saw the direct application of what they were learning to their classroom. In a word, they had “context” for what they were learning. Not only that, they also had a laboratory (their own classroom) in which to try out ideas. They came to class with questions in their head about how to improve their instruction. These graduate classes were like seminars in teaching improvement.

Through no fault of their own, undergraduates do not have this context. That is why it is important to get pre-service teachers into the classroom as participant observers as soon as possible. Many schools of education are already doing this, of course. Education majors need to be in the classroom observing and assisting the certified classroom teacher starting in the sophomore year. College professors need to reinforce this in-context learning by attending these visitations themselves and discussing what happens there in a seminar structure.

Of course, these regular visitations should end in the senior year with a minimum 18 week student teaching experience under the guidance of an informed college supervisor and a master classroom teacher. This experience is critical.

No matter how good the undergraduate program is, however, it can never substitute for the moment the neophyte teacher steps in front of her/his own class. In this context, the new teacher is most open to learning and the opportunity for learning is fully contextualized. At this point it is critical that the neophyte have a skilled mentor who is readily available for assistance. Most current mentoring programs in schools fall short because resources of time and money are not available to provide a real mentoring experience.

Ongoing professional development also has a large role to play. As I mentioned above, new teachers can greatly benefit from continuing their education on a graduate level because that learning is now contextualized. School districts can help their teachers stay current and refine their professional abilities through in house professional development. Many of my colleagues moan when they hear of another professional development program coming their way, but done right, these programs are critical.

So how do we do professional development right? Once again a part of the answer is context. Professional development should happen in the teacher’s classroom to be effective. A good model would look like this.

1.    Formal presentation given by an experienced and knowledgeable teacher/consultant to a group of teachers on some important aspect of teaching and learning
2.    Planning time for the teachers to meet as a group and develop a plan for integrating this new strategy into the classroom
3.    Observation by the teacher/consultant of the application of the strategy in the classroom
4.    Face to face feedback conference from the teacher/consultant to the teacher on how the lesson went with suggestions for refinement of the strategy.
5.    A follow-up observation and conference by the teacher/consultant to see the refined lesson
6.    Further meeting time for the group of teachers to discuss implementation of the strategy and continue refinement of practice.

Obviously the models for mentoring and professional development laid out here require resources of time and money. If there is one major mistake we have made in public education it is that we have tried to do it on the cheap. If we want to have the finest possible teachers with the finest possible training, then simple answers and shortcuts won’t suffice. I would call programs of tying teacher evaluation to test scores, grading colleges of education, and hiring Teach for America recruits simple answers and shortcuts.

Back in my teacher’s union president days, I had a board negotiating team member tell me that the taxpayers he represented didn’t want to pay teachers for “free time.” He thought that two preparation periods per week was plenty. In his words, “We are paying you for your time in front of students; you can plan on your own dime.” Viewing American public education over the past 45 years, I would have to say that his is the prevailing sentiment still.

When will the so-called reformers realize that to get the best teaching, we must invest the necessary time and money?

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