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Curmudgucation: How To Prepare High Quality Teachers

Pennsylvania has been looking at some ideas for addressing what they call the "Teacher Shortage Crisis.I'm not a fan of calling it a teacher shortage, and the actual nature of the "shortage" is debatable, but in PA, where the number of teaching certificates has plummeted from over 20,000 per year to around 6,000, we clearly have a problem.

Some folks held a big confab last fall and just issued a report with analysis and recommendations. Some of it is baloney (Hanushek's bogus "lost future earnings" baloney), and I have some side eye for some of the participants (TeachPlus), but much of it strikes me as a look in the right direction. They note, for instance, that the financial equation is now out of whack, that becoming a teacher now costs the kind of money that you will not make back easily. 

They also have a couple of excellent insights. Make policy solutions incentives rather than requirements, so that you don't encourage "compliance mentality." As Rick Hess once noted, you can make people do things, but you can't make them do those things well. The report also recommends that solutions should be systemic and address root issues. True that.

There are issues with recruitment and retention that will be hard to address, like, say, the widespread and often deliberate attempt to devalue and demonize the profession. "Be a teacher and maybe someone will accuse you of being a pedophile, groomer, and commie indoctrinator" is a lousy recruitment slogan.

The report is also on point in noting that it can't just be about upping quantity, which is the goal of various "let's lower the bar so any warm body can be put in a classroom" programs. It's not just that this puts people in the classroom who aren't very good; it's that being bad at a job makes staying in that job really unappealing. And that's doubly true in teaching, where a roomful of young humans will subject a bad teacher to immediate pain and suffering for their badness. In other words, insuring that teachers are good at their job increases the likelihood that they'll stay in the job.

There's a long list of things you can do wrong to chase people away, but let's skip over that for the moment and focus on what could be done right.

And since my invitation to the confab was somehow lost, let me add my two cents.

Here are some features that a state needs to have in place to rebuild its teacher pipeline.

Let's start with training in college teacher programs.

Putting the right people in charge of teacher prep

In my perfect world, certification of college teacher prep programs would be handled by a board of teachers. Just like they do it in the medical and legal world. 

College education departments should have a preponderance of people with actual classroom experience, preferably at least a decade (two years in Teach for America doesn't count). College education departments include too many people who are selling their imaginary version of teaching designed for an imaginary ideal classroom. 

Double bonus points for any department that requires its education professors to go do substitute work in public schools. Double points because not only does that keep them acquainted with reality, but it gets students in the schools acquainted with college education professors.

Build expertise

Future teachers should be subject area experts. Future English teachers should major in English. Future history teachers should major in history. Future elementary teachers should be experts in child development and psychology. 

It's not that the pedagogical techniquey stuff doesn't matter-- it absolutely does. But I've been arguing for years that you can't teach reading "skills" in a vacuum, that they don't exist outside of the actual content being read. I'm going to say the same thing is true of teaching techniques; they do not exist in a vacuum somewhere outside the actual things being taught. 

And if you don't know what the hell you're talking about, all the pedagogical technique in the world will not save you. More to the point, pedagogical technique without content expertise is like an uninflated balloon--you can't really do anything useful with it. When you say, "I don't teach math. I teach students," I understand what you're getting at, but I'm still going to ask, "Teaching them what?" Bonus feature: knowing what the hell you're talking about is at least 50% of good classroom management.

Also, every future teacher should spend a large number of hours working with small humans in the age range of their possible future students. Large numbers. I cannot tell you how many student teachers I have seen land in their first classroom and then react with growing horror at what a roomful of students is like. True quote from a colleagues student teacher: "Oh, I don't want to teach these kids. I just want to teach the honors classes." 

A strong student teaching experience

The Pennsylvania report got this part absolutely right. 

When I would tell my student teachers that my own experience was a supervisor seeing me once a week, often for an entire half day, while also seeing me once a week in an evening class, they are unable to imagine such a thing. Because my student teachers' experience was to be assigned to a school, and having a supervisor (in most cases, a person they had not previously met) drop in twice for part of a period. 

Student teaching needs to be done with a ton of support. Mountains of support. A Queen Mary sized pile of life preservers. Right now, some student teachers get that and some don't--it's just the luck of the assignment to a cooperating teacher. In the PA report some pull quote repeats that old chestnut "When I'm student teaching, the district should pay me." No, they shouldn't, because you are not even a baby teacher. You're a teaching fetus, and if your cooperating teacher is doing her job properly, you are making twice as much work for her. I had about fifteen student teachers in my career; only one of them was a natural who needed very little support from me. I never regretted a single one of my student teachers--the future professionals have to come from somewhere, and it was a privilege to help with that work. But it was definitely work.

The PA report raises the question of how long student teaching should last. In many programs, it has become way too short. In my region, most schools have adopted a split model in which a student teacher spends about 6-7 weeks each in two placements. I think that's a mistake-- a student teacher should be in place long enough for the newby shine to wear off, long enough for students to get tired of the student teacher so that she can start dealing with realistic management issues. Give them a full fifteen weeks in the same classroom, with at least six weeks of carrying the full load of teaching, planning, etc. (all of it checked and double checked and observed by the coop--none of this "I have a student teacher so I'm just going to spend all of this month in the lounge all day" baloney).

Strong support through beginning years

Pennsylvania requires schools to provide first year teachers with a mentor, and it's the start of a good idea. Unfortunately, in many districts mentors are assigned not based on factors like complementary teaching styles or relevant experience, but are instead based on factors like "has the same prep period." 

A first year teacher, particularly at the beginning of the year, needs the same kind of heavy duty support as a student teacher. Again, some first year teachers get lucky with either a good official mentor or a next-door teacher who takes on the job out of the goodness of her heart (and a desire not to work next door to a pit of chaos). 

Ideally there should be an official, assigned, required mentoring time scheduled, Make it a period out of the day, or make your newbies and their mentors meet biweekly after school hours (yes, you have to pay them for it). Do this because if new teachers make getting support a "when I have time" thing, they'll never do it, because first year teachers never have time for anything. 

Let students look behind the curtain

This comes both at the end and the beginning of the cycle. Nothing awakens a love for or interest in teaching like being in the classroom with a teacher who is good at the work, who makes it look exciting and fun. Good teaching awakens new teachers.

There are other things districts can do. Those include more formal steps like creating a future teachers program to help high school students look into the career. The district can also do simple things like having high school students teach mini-lessons in an elementary classroom; it's a simple thing that has educational benefits for everyone involved, but it can also provide students with their first moment of "Hey, this would be fun to do for real!"

Teaching is an excellent method for learning, and it also helps students discover if they have an aptitude for it. 

Teachers can also help by being more open about what they are doing. Our tendency is to make teaching into good theater, where all the magic happens where the audience can't see it. We could just as easily narrate our own processes so that students have a clearer idea of what is actually going on.

Sigh. There's more, but this post has already ballooned tremendously. But the bottom line is that, beyond dealing with the negative attacks on the profession, and obvious things like smaller class sizes and full funding and resources, there are positive things we can also do to build it up. Unfortunately, most of them involve money. But we could do better. We should do better. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...