Sunday, June 8, 2014
Contemplating teacher education, Part I
Years and years ago I was invited to teach a programming class. I'd been a computer programmer for quite some time and leaped at the chance. I thought it would be fun. I read the book. I made notes. I put together a lesson plan as best as I knew how because I really had no clue what I was doing.
My first night as a teacher I was terrible. Terrible. The students hung with me, though, and eventually I figured out I'd started at far too high a level for them. I had to remember what it was like to know nothing about the subject. I had to remember what it was like to hear words that were a sort of foreign language and not only learn the words, but figure out what they meant and how they went together.
I went home and started over again. But I knew nothing about assessment strategies, classroom management strategies, or any of that. Fortunately I was teaching a college class and the students were well-behaved. They were a great first group for me and I'm indebted to them for their patience, for teaching me what kind of a teacher I could be. I was lucky.
Years later I had a graduate assistantship. There were several other graduate students in a large classroom that was our "office." Most of them were earnest English majors who took assistantships to pay for graduate school. Many of them intended to teach once they had their doctorates (and I sometimes wonder how many made it to the professoriate) but it rarely seemed to occur to them that this opportunity as a mentored graduate assistant was a remarkable opportunity to learn how to teach. We had sessions during which we talked about creating assignments and grading papers; we discussed managing students in our general education and generally disliked freshman composition courses. And yet far too many of those earnest English majors took these lessons to heart, which puzzles me still. Why not learn about one's craft as well as one's content area? Why despise, and with such obvious condescension, that opportunity to learn?
Some time after that I think about teacher education programs. I was privileged to work with a number of teacher education faculty who were dedicated to making sure their pre-service teachers were as prepared for the classroom as possible. Yet, there is only so much one can do in a four-year program that requires education in the content area(s) as well as in the profession. I've been a reviewer for NCATE and hope to be for CAEP. I've seen teacher education programs with impressive goals and intentions, and worried the reach of the designers exceeded their grasp, that the program design was more hoped for than practical.
In the average liberal arts school, a specific number of hours are dedicated to a student's liberal arts education with the required general education classes. Some teacher education programs require students to declare their major in their freshman year--no messing around. Those programs have students in a practicum in the second semester of that freshman year: visiting and observing classrooms, making notes of what they see and hear. Why? Practical exposure and an opportunity to put some reality to the idealistic notions many have of teaching.
By their sophomore year, those education majors may have completed up to three observational practica. Perhaps different teachers at different schools. The question that looms large for me is what and how students are expected to learn from those practica experiences? That's a question I'll pursue in another post.
As we think about what it means to educate a teacher, we need to think about why we are educating that teacher. Sure, we hope the pre-service teacher will learn strategies for classroom management, assessment, and more. We want the pre-service teacher to learn how to design lesson plans, and we hope the pre-service teacher will develop a rich toolbox of strategies and resources.
We hope pre-service teachers learn to how to observe good teaching and to learn from teaching that might not be quite as excellent. We hope pre-service teachers learn how to observe a good activity or assessment and figure out how to make it his or her own, and appropriate for his or her students.
We hope pre-service teachers learn that much of what they see in a really good classroom is part planning, part theater, and part improv, and that the better they know themselves as educators and the better they know their content and the quicker they learn about their students, the better they will be as teachers.
I hope we also hope that pre-service teachers learn that their development as teachers doesn't ever stop. Doesn't. EVER. Stop.