Monday, December 8, 2008

The Validity and Quality of Teacher Education Programs

Coming out of the teacher education program that provided me with my Bachelor Degree as well as the necessary credentials to be a teacher, I didn't know for sure if I was prepared for what was in front of me. Walking into the classroom that first year, I found that I was shamefully unprepared to teach, discipline, and deal with the daily struggles of being a teacher. These are things that I fully take for granted now, it has become second nature. There were times during my first year that I considered leaving, it was tough.

Like many other new teachers, I entered a situation where I was "dumped on." A veteran teacher dropped every special education and behavioral problem in my lap, which made it even worse. Coming out of college, I had dealt with some good courses and some bad. Unfortunately for me, I was coming through right when the literacy department had a major shake up. So, to make a long story short, my literacy methods classes prepared me for next to nothing, and boy did it show.

I just picked up the basal reader and ran with it, I didn't know what else to do. I was also teaching the "low" group (they ability grouped students at the time), and that made the job all the more difficult. Looking back, I was probably one of the worst reading teachers of all time that first year. My students weren't learning, their test scores were in consistent free fall all year, and I didn't know what to do to stop it. So I decided to get my masters in literacy, I decided to do something about it. To make that long story short, literacy is "kind of my thing" now, and my students are doing very well in every measure. My methods and theoretical understanding are outlined in some form or another in the pages of this blog.

I have to wonder about other teachers though. All too often, the teacher education experience slants to one extreme, usually straight method with some theoretical understanding. Occasionally you get a professor that teachers "constructively" by assigning each student to teach a chapter, something that always draws the ire of students (and is a way that I DO NOT learn anything, and that many of my co-workers have admitted doesn't work). It's one thing to assign group work and things like that to students learning math, but to teachers learning to teach, it needs to be more intensive, it's not the same learning process with scaffolded outcomes.

When my student teacher enters my classroom after Christmas, I want to make sure that he gets chances to take risks with literacy, and understand the right choices. As important as college education is, in the field of education, the popular held belief is that you learn more in student teaching than you do in four years of college. I am entering the field of higher education as we speak, and getting deeper and deeper as each semester passes. One of my long term goals is to improve the quality and preparation of teacher education programs. I'm not saying it's dismal, I am saying there's room for improvement. This is a discussion that should be happening all over the field right now and should always be ongoing, but seems to be oddly silent right now.

Are there any comments from any of you out there? Any stories, suggestions, or critiques of programs around the country. I'd love to hear them.


ecochic said...

I went through an MA program that did an equally poor job of preparing me to teach. The coursework was low on classroom management and teaching strategies and big on theory.

I remember showing up to my first day of student teaching thinking "Great, so this is where I'll finally learn how to teach!" I was really looking forward to observing my cooperating teacher and other teachers in action, getting constructive feedback on my plans, collaborating to bring about student learning and developing myself as an educator. Instead, my cooperating teacher informed me that she would be spending the semester in the library because "the only way to learn to teach is to teach" and if I wanted to observe a teacher, I should've done that earlier. So, I struggled through the semester, classroom management issues abounding until finally after I broke down in tears and begged her to watch me teach, she agreed to come in an give me some constructive feedback. She tore me apart, letting me know what a bad job I was doing - too many notes, no follow through on punishment - and told me I just needed to do better. Thankfully, since she was kind enough to identify what I was doing wrong, I was able to address those issues and things turned around. She never came back to watch me teach again, though. So much for being my "cooperating" teacher.

Now I work for Teach For America, a national non-profit organization that recruits recent outstanding college graduates to teach in low-income communities. The schools these teachers work in are plagued with problems, and our corps members (as we call them) are often criticized for not having traditional education backgrounds. What they do get, however, is an intense summer preparatory program where they focus on teaching methods, classroom managements, investing and motivating students and their influencers (parents, etc.) and support through cooperative teaching and daily observation and feedback. If I'd had such amazing support, I feel like my experience would have been much more positive and I probably would've been a better teacher to my students. Traditional teacher preparation programs have a lot of room for improvement and I think they could stand to learn from the Teach For America program.

The Buss said...


The issues (possible areas for improvement and/or review) I've noticed about teacher education programs are issues that you listed in your comment.

Theory in an undergraduate program (or a graduate program that is preparing someone TO teach, not as a masters program for those who are already teachers), should be sparse, to the point, and should only be done to show the underlying foundation for method, at least in my opinion. For theory to be the focal point, without praxis (connection to methods), is inappropriate, so I feel for you.

Your student teacher/cooperative teacher relationship, as horrible as it sounds, is more common than you'd think. My experience was better, but still left me scratching my head many times.

I will be a cooperating teacher for the first time this spring, and am working hard trying to make sure that it's a positive learning experience for my student teacher.

I have heard of Teach For America, but don't know a lot about it besides just surface level stuff. It's obviously a good program providing an important service. I do think that a lot of the issues that lie in traditional university teacher education programs come from a few areas, but again, I'm just now starting to see behind the scenes of this as well.

There are possible issues in instructor training, their level of experience in the classroom, and the understanding of the connection between method and theory. This balance must be found at individual universities, there is no "one size fits all," that's something I see.

There are definitely things that Teach For America can teach other teacher preparation programs, but the bureaucracy of traditional universities might be an underlying cause (again, that's just speculation).