Teacher Education: Beyond College

Originally posted on August 11, 2011 at yoteach

Re: How to improve teacher education now (and why Teach for America isn’t the answer), Arthur Levine c/o Valerie Strauss (Washington Post), 8/3/11

Recently, the GREAT Act, designed to provide incentives to improve teacher education programs in colleges and graduate schools, made it to Congress.  Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College is not a fan.  Levine believes that, rather than trying to improve teacher education programs, state governments should begin closing down sub-par programs. According to Levine, poor teacher education programs, along with alternative programs like Teach for America, have been producing all those ineffective teachers that so plague the education system.  All “we” have to do, says Levine (never defining who exactly falls under this label of “we”) is look at each teacher’s student achievement data, determine which teacher education program he or she attended, and close down programs based on how well the students of the teachers educated there performed on a state test. I won’t go in to much more depth on my feelings about Levine’s approach (but quickly: student achievement on a standardized test = caliber of graduate school programs? Hydroxycut commercials contain more feasible manipulations of data. Only first-year teachers? Do we account for how challenging it is to be a first year teacher, or does this approach only work if you close one eye?), because what struck me about Levine’s article is his belief that “teacher education” occurs in graduate school programs.  Certainly, graduate programs lay a foundation of history, theory, psychology, and even some strategy, but the education of a teacher requires so much more than can be covered in two years of classes.

Levine’s work has always appeared admirable to me, and I think that Teachers College turns out some excellent teachers. But then, statements such as, “we need to better prepare teachers for the realities of the classroom,” or, “excellence for education” are not easily disputable.  I consider how often readers encounter a headline or a news story concerning a subject outside their own fields of employment or interest, and accept those statements as fact, or at least as reliable. I have read and heard so many things about teachers in the media that are not true, and the speaker is almost never a teacher.  So, as a teacher, I think it’s important to talk about what has truly educated me.

Teacher education is teaching.

Graduate school prepared me to think deeply about teaching, and built the foundation I needed in theory, history, and psychology. But it did not teach me how to be a teacher. I learned that the way most of us learn it: by doing it. If you’ve talked to five teachers about their first years in the classroom, chances are you’ve heard my story four times: I walked into teaching with an image of how amazing my classroom would be, with desks in a circle, students thoughtfully taking notes and taking turns speaking, everyone eagerly writing to express their ideas in well-crafted, revised essays; my students and I realized after one week that I did not know how to apply the theory of teaching to actual practice, and I spent the rest of the year with my door closed, hoping to minimize the ruckus of the modern interpretation of Lord of the Flies my students performed across the desk circle.  Having just finished my fifth year, I’m not alone in saying that I’m a good teacher. I would be backed up by the constant visitors to my classroom – colleagues, administrators, district representatives, even teachers in training. The improvements that have led me here started during that first year and began manifesting as soon as I entered my second; simply knowing what I did not want, or could not allow, to happen helped me understand what I need to do to create a classroom that works for me and my students. Every day, my teacher education continues. I learn by being in the classroom, by struggling and by succeeding, by reflecting and observing. I learn from listening for my students sighs of boredom, confusion, or exhaustion, and for their side conversations about weekend visits to the library. I learn from watching a face rise up off the desk one day, emerge from a hood the next day, bend over a notebook the next day, flush with proud embarrassment the next as we read aloud the first, and sometimes last, assignment that unlocked a voice.  I learn by looking at the work my students produce, not just by picking apart the grammar and circling all the areas in need of improvement and checking off the appropriate boxes on the required standards-aligned rubric, but by really looking for the person attached to the words that tell me where he is, where she has been, and where they are ready to go next.

Teacher education is interaction, collaboration, and ventilation.

As we head further down the path of centering curriculum on high-stakes standardized testing, education (for teachers, K-12 students, and adult students alike) is becomingincreasingly isolated, a disturbing trend rarely mentioned in the national debate on What Is Wrong With Schools. Teaching and learning are by nature interactive; it is not enough to be told information, or to read it on one’s own. Knowledge is passed on and taken in by demonstration, questioning, debating, and sharing. Think of the people you love to argue with, and compare them to people you dread talking to, for fear of listening to their Fox news version of debate. Good arguments come from exchanging ideas, drawing on both evidence and inference, and often two complimentary pieces of knowledge being brought against one another. Bad arguments are closed off, with refusal to either listen or share, with the intent only to declare one opinion and drown out all others. Look at argument in our society: from YouTube comments to “debates” on news channels, we’ve pushed true argument to the fringe and given over the main stage to yelling and insulting, pitting challengers against one another like gladiators and watching eagerly for first blood.

The value of conversation, interactive projects, and choice are steadily dwindling. So, too, is the importance of understanding students as individuals. The suffocating imposition of standards and rubrics in the name of fairness and equality is killing our brain cells, much like literal asphyxiation. Collaboration and discussion have been crucial elements of education since we have documented it; the Socratic method is founded upon these values, and the one-room schoolhouse thrived on them. We continue to give lip service to the importance of sharing, cooperation, and interaction, but in a system dominated by rubrics and standards, we have found that we cannot assign values to ideas, and so they have no value (the fast-approaching new wave of standardized testing will bring exams that are both administered and graded by computer, essay portion included; rumors of this also being part of the new GRE have been circulating, although the ETS has not confirmed them).  Students and knowledge languish in this system.

Teachers are smothered, as well. Collaboration is vital to a teacher’s development, but opportunities to interact with colleagues are simultaneously discouraged and mandated, neither of which is productive for anyone. Many new teachers are advised by administrators and their training programs not to hang out with their colleagues during prep or lunch periods, especially not those older veteran teachers with many years of experience in the classroom.  Veterans are often labeled as grouchy and burnt out, determined to waste the time and dampen the spirits of energetic young teachers with bitter “venting” (a dirty word in education).  What too often goes unmentioned are the great comfort, insight, and inspiration to be found by developing relationships with colleagues, particularly those with experience. That an experienced colleague can help someone new to the job seems obvious, and so, many schools have been instructed to mandate “Common Planning Time,” bringing together assigned groups of teachers for meetings during a prep or lunch. The agendas and minutes of these meetings are expected to be detailed and regular, and the possibility of those documents being collected appears to be the main incentive for attending these meetings. But micromanaging collaboration ends up being as ineffective as trying to prevent it altogether; neither acknowledges the need for trust and willingness to share, or that we are more likely to learn from those we respect, professionally or personally or both, than from someone who is as annoyed as we are about having to give up a period of planning, running off needed photocopies, test-running the technology for the next lesson, eating lunch, calling parents, or tutoring students, to go down a checklist.  Teachers are left to find more time in an already packed day to participate in real, valuable conversation. Those of us who cannot give up another prep squeeze interaction into text messages on the bus home, hasty emails or G-chats as we grade after school, weekend phone calls, or, if we’re lucky enough to live close and not have a family to rush home to, working dinners/lunches/brunches/coffees.  There’s the reality of that 8-3 workday.  Many teachers don’t have time to make for these extra meetings, invaluable as they are; some are working second (or third) jobs, some are trying to balance their career with their spouse’s and still have time for their children, some are working on extracurricular activities, like yearbooks, newspapers, or clubs, for hours after school before their planning or grading gets done, and some are just working to do their jobs. And still we are told that we can’t have free time to talk to one another, lest we become (or continue to be) lazy.

Teacher education is furthered by interaction with colleagues you trust, either because their experiences have made them great teachers, or because you find that you have a good chemistry with them when sharing ideas and concerns. When policy forces this interaction by dictating which teachers and when, and by holding the threat of “accountability” over our heads, meaningful conversation is rare, and development is stunted.

The dreaded “venting,” the complaining about students that, apparently, no teacher is able to stop once it has begun, that threatens to turn every classroom into Mrs. Krabapple’s, can be a means of developing that trust or discovering that chemistry.  To not complain about one’s job, regardless of the job, is impossible.  Talk to a person. Any person. It will come up. Complaining does not mean that you hate your job, or that you are unfit to hold your position, or that you do not work hard enough.  It means you are a person, with nerves, and things that get on them. Venting about students has been a productive part of my practice. When a student, or a pair or group, or an entire class, has been difficult and frustrating, or rude and inconsiderate, or struggling and cranky, venting helps both teachers and students.  In addition to the stress relief, teachers gain insight from their colleagues on how to manage behavioral problems, or how to tailor instruction to ease some of the aggravation. There is also the comfort of knowing that others have dealt with similar problems, and the restoration of confidence that reinvigorates the teacher for the challenge.  Students benefit from an energized, more prepared teacher, willing to keep trying and modeling behavior they will need in their futures, when they will have to survive complaining about their own jobs.

Teacher education is many things.

Some of those things happen in a graduate school program.  In fact, I was fortunate enough to have a Methods class taught by an amazing woman, who has gone from professor to colleague to dearest friend.  With nearly 20 years of experience in the classroom, and 20 years of participating in, creating, and making the case for teacher communities, this woman represents to me and all of her students a living model of everything that teacher education truly is: continual, collaborative, and too multi-faceted to be evaluated by a percentage at the end of the year.  I agree with Levine that undergraduate and graduate teacher education programs need improvement, and I believe it starts with creating teacher community in those programs, by ensuring that the teachers of teachers are able to offer both past and present classroom experiences.  But I cannot support the claim that student achievement data, already numbers that tell us so much less than we pretend, can reflect on a teacher’s experiences in college or graduate school. To say that it does devalues the reality of teacher education, the wealth of knowledge waiting outside the programs.


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