Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teach Your Teachers Well: New Hot Topic -Teacher Education

I know that a number of the readers of this blog are professors who teach future teachers. I know a bunch of them, and they are really good at what they do. They are enthusiastic and dedicated to their students and those children whom their students will be teaching. But the way we train teachers is suddenly in the news- big time. I suspect that the following comments don't pertain so much to the institutions where my friends work, but a national debate has begun and we need to discuss it here.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently unleashed a firestorm when he suggested that the overall quality of teacher preparation programs in America is 'mediocre." Citing studies that over 60% of new teachers feel unprepared and his own discussions with teachers who feel that they did not receive enough practical classroom training and that they were not ready for behavior issues and dealing with poor children, Duncan stated his case. He called for revolutionary change in our methods of teacher preparation and stated that one million new teachers will be neede

A teacher writing on a blackboard.Image via Wikipedia

d in the next five years. Here is the New York Times story on Duncan's speech.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Susan Engel, director of the teaching program at Williams College, took this point a step further. Here is the article. She suggests that teachers should be trained much like surgeons; working side by side with a very skilled mentor, getting plenty of feedback and taking on more and more responsibility as they improve as a teacher. She also suggests that student teachers and their mentors review videotapes of themselves in action to help them improve. She argues that student teachers should continue to study the subject that they will be teaching as well as education techniques; she strongly emphasizes the need for more training on the developmental needs of children. Finally she argues that school districts should be given the resources to hire new teachers in groups of seven to help develop more camaraderie.

These are some intriguing thoughts. I really like the surgeon-method idea. Teachers are important. Special education teachers are included within this group of important people. I think that one could easily make an argument that teachers, of general or special ed, are at least as important to our society and its future as surgeons. But if we train them like surgeons, shouldn't we also pay them like surgeons?

Also making recommendations for changes in teacher preparation and recruitment, as well as radical changes in teacher pay and evaluation methods, is the report issued Tuesday by the think tank called the Strategic Management of Human Capital. Scrolling down this link will lead you to the full report. I understand that the teacher unions fell that the committee that prepared their report ignored their input.

One of the problems that I have with the whole No Child Left Behind analysis is that it seems to blame the entire education problem on bad teachers. There are bad teachers; as a public school system product, I can say without equivocation that there are bad teachers. But really, there have always also been plenty of great teachers. I have a hard time believing that some bad teachers are the only thing wrong with the education system. Also the merit pay concept sounds like a good idea, but only if the evaluation system can be designed fairly- so that it truly identifies good teachers and not just the principal's pet or the popular kid!

What are your ideas on this topic? Do we need to make changes in the teacher preparation system? Are there other reasons that the education system is having problems?


  1. As a graduate student, I went thru a great training program in teaching English as a second languge (ESL). In addition to theoretical and practical coursework was a requirement to observe veteran ESL teachers in action, and write up observations and critiques. I observed in public schools, adult schools, and college programs. Those observations were valuable preparation for the next requirement: student teaching.

    I got an apprenticeship at my university's language institute for foreign students. Apprentices were matched with an experienced instructor. Apprentices would spend a few weeks teaching different kinds of classes (pronunciation, grammar, and writing, for example) at beginning to advanced levels. We'd observe for a period or two, then teach a mini-lesson, perhaps only 10 minutes at first, then take on increasingly longer lessons, being guided and critiqued each day by the master teacher. When we could comfortably and capably handle the full hour class, we'd be assigned to a different teacher and different subject. It was a very nurturing environment.

    After a semester, apprentices got their own classes, and in another semester or two they themselves might be mentoring an apprentice. It was a great way to learn and gain skills. Graduates with teaching experience at that particular language institute never had trouble landing jobs — we were in high demand. Thanks to a couple of years of varied teaching practice, we were prepared to step into "real world" teaching jobs with confidence.

    One thing I hadn't anticipated that I would learn in the classroom was the student part of it all: the kinds of mistakes students made and the kinds of questions they asked taught me a LOT about English through the eyes of a language learner. Student questions taught me that even though I speak English perfectly, there was a lot I didn't know — things native speakers and high school teachers never need to think about. After teaching a subject a few times, I could anticipate questions or even head them off by better planning. I've always felt sorry for my first students. I don't know what they learned from me, but I'm grateful to them for teaching me what I needed to learn about them.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Excellent blog here. Keep up the great work!


  3. Hi Daunna,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It sounds like a good training.


  4. Thanks Melinda,

    I'm a big fan of your blog too.

    Great to hear from you.


  5. I direct a teacher preparation program for 2nd career people. Since they have usually succedded in another area, their learning curve is much faster. However, I would welcome the opportunity to establish a "surgeon" type training program. It makes perfect sense and the related cousework would then have direct application.
    Alan Markowitz, ED.D

  6. Thanks Alan,

    The surgeon training idea may have some merit.