A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

I’ve been leery of teacher preparation since college. After a few years in the field, my sense of its potency diminished further. Surveying my career, I find myself struggling to completely support traditional teacher preparation. I’m not convinced it’s the only route that can send effective new teachers into classrooms.

Don’t think I absolutely deny the worth of teacher preparation. I acknowledge the need to equip incoming teachers with requisite skills and knowledge while filtering out candidates not fit for the classroom. Furthermore, I recognize that colleges of education manage this most of the time. My position is that teacher preparation as these colleges do it doesn’t work well enough to be considered the gilded route to the classroom.

I’ll start by speaking to my experiences. As an undergraduate, I got the foundations. The required battery of courses exposed me to the field’s history, a survey of the law, and the basics of child development. I learned some methodology. I learned about assessment. Somehow, this stretched across a few dozen credits and several years of schooling.

Despite this exposure, I was completely out of my depth when I hit the field. I hadn’t realized what I didn’t know until I was required to know it. Some of this was procedural knowledge my courses could have included. Much more of it involved surviving in the school that hired me. I can’t fault my program for not preparing me for the latter.

Having had the chance to examine other undergraduate programs, I think mine did about as well as any. I recently got to return to that program to serve as an adjunct. It’s still as thorough as programs at much more expensive schools. It has a reputation for sending strong candidates into schools. I’m not about to knock it.

The trouble is, nothing truly prepares a person for working in a school. Note how I phrased that. Teaching is but one element of being a school employee. It becomes an afterthought relatively quickly. Dealing with the day-to-day of working in a school is something that must be learned on the job. Something similar is reflected in many fields. Knowing the culture of an organization (or school) and its unspoken codes of protocol and procedure can be as critical as knowing the job (or pedagogy). Consequently, I’ve told undergraduates that most of what I knew in my second year of teaching, I learned in my first.

Further lessening the absolute impact of teacher preparation is what teachers possess from the start. A large part of what makes a teacher effective is internal. Personal organization, intuition, and fortitude are important to succeeding as a teacher. These aren’t taught. Throughout my career, I’ve watched student teachers coming from the same programs exhibit wildly different competencies. This has had to do with them, not their programs.

With on-the-job knowledge and internal prowess being so important, I have to wonder if everything that goes into a traditional teacher preparation program is necessary. I’ll share a counter-example. For years, I’d read rants from the education faithful about the evils of Teach for America. As I read about the program, I formed some doubts of my own about it. Then I met three teachers moving through TFA. None had any substantial pedagogy training. However, two out of three of them were among the most effective teachers I’d met in a decade. Interestingly, none wanted to be teachers. They were passing through on their way to something else, confirming a major criticism of TFA.

Why were those two so good? They were smart. That was all. They were smart enough to quickly figure out what worked and what didn’t without someone holding their hands through it. Though a microscopic sample, their effectiveness nearly drowned my confidence in the worth of four-year programs.

If intuition and problem-solving skills were enough for these TFA candidates to do well, what is the defense for teacher preparation? Could it be a costly scam? Is it a matter of intellectualizing the obvious for the sake of giving states, universities, and testing companies a stranglehold on licensure? I definitely thought all of this as an undergraduate. I still think some of it.

I can’t sweep aside what colleges of education do based on two people. They might have been exceptions. Simultaneously, some potentially great teachers might only bloom via a more traditionally structured program. I’d still contend such a program could be much shorter than what most colleges offer. I’d even support teachers getting a different Bachelor’s first and then getting certified as part of a Master’s program. This delays getting candidates to the field, but it might result in better prepared candidates, especially in specific subject areas.

My thoughts on it aside, teacher preparation is taking a hit. Consider online programs, emergency certifications, and charters that hire non-certified teachers. Whether or not these are improvements, I’m not surprised that cracks in the sanctity of traditional models have been exposed. Getting smart, dependable people into schools might be more critical than insisting they be trained a specific way. I can support unorthodox routes, so long as they work. My suspicion is the candidate is the more important variable than the route. Nudging might help, but I think teaching is something a person either can or can’t do. This might be my essential indictment of four-year programs along with the basis of my tentative approval of less traditional routes.

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A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

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