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.

A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

Discussion Starter: Teachers or Technicians?

In a series of recent posts, I discussed possible future scenarios for special education teachers (Part 1 here). One of the scenarios I described involved teachers morphing from instructors to facilitators as innovations such as personalized learning software encroach. Similar changes are happening now. Special education teachers in many districts have relinquished roles closely associated with teaching: lesson planning, assessment design, and content instruction. Instead, they’re implementing scripted lessons as part of commercial direct instruction programs. General education teachers could experience a shift of their own. Some would claim they have already in an age of test preparation.

My question for readers is this: should classrooms be in the hands of teachers or technicians? I’m not asking who readers want in charge of classrooms. I’m asking who should be in charge. Do we want teachers to maintain their roles as designers and implementers of instruction, or do we want them to facilitate highly individualized learning modules that students navigate on their own? Do we want teachers creating original lessons in response to performance data, or do we want them remediating through research-based programs?

I anticipate responses being solidly on the side of teachers continuing to be teachers. What I press readers to consider is whether they would continue to want this if research would begin to indicate methodology that alters the role of the teacher is more effective than what we’ve done in the past. My position in education always will be that we should do whatever yields the best results. Research already shows the effectiveness of direct instruction remediation for students with learning disabilities, which is why schools use it. More evidence is needed regarding personalized learning, but if it works, should we not be using this, even if it reduces the role of teachers? Would opposing it be akin to preventing progress?

Implications will range from changes in teacher preparation to consideration for how much educational technicians should get paid. I invite readers to think about all this and respond with what roles teachers should have in the coming decade. This need not be an either-or. Many versions of each role and combinations of the two are probable, especially with technology still emerging and school structures varying so much. Roles for licensed professionals might change, but that doesn’t mean they’ll disappear. Share your thoughts about however you think roles should be reconciled.

Discussion Starter: Teachers or Technicians?

The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs seems to be decreasing. This has sounded a few alarms. Amid the speculation about causes and the panic about fallout, new enrollees are continuing to arrive in colleges of education. Perhaps against all reason, some of these recruits are signing up to become special education teachers. How is this still a draw?

The enrollment trickle deserves a brief look. A perception of deteriorating conditions in the field might be stopping perspective teachers before they start. Testing requirements for certification could be too much of a barrier for some candidates. States are offering alternate paths to certification, some of which lure non-traditional students who now might balk at four-year programs. At the same time, other fields might be exerting more of a pull.

These factors might have a real effect, but the drop isn’t exclusive to education. The last few years have seen a temporary dip in the number of 18-20 year olds available to enroll in any programs per a birth rate decline in the mid-90s. Also, after a few years of relaxing admission standards, some universities are tightening these, thus creating a drop in overall enrollment (or more accurately, a leveling off). The intimidating costs of any college education could be another deterrent.

Even with these influences affecting admissions, a drop in the number of new teacher candidates still appears to exist relative to decreases in other majors. Colleges of education around the country report dwindling numbers. The surface impression is that the field has lost some status among young people. This shouldn’t come as a shock, considering the steady stream of negative press about it. Sadly, much of it is accurate.

This would seem poised to affect special education disproportionately. It might be the least attractive arena of education for incoming teachers. Many districts consider special education a high-needs area, partly due to the number of students needing complex services, but partly due to relatively small number of candidates willing to be special education teachers. Special education comes with the inherent difficulty of teaching students with disabilities coupled with the most maddening bureaucracy in the field. Everyone knows this from the start.

Unsurprisingly, shortages among special educations teachers predate the current dearth of enrollees. What might be surprising is that shortages aren’t necessarily worsening under this most recent decline. Reports are mixed, as the numbers aren’t evenly distributed across states, universities, or even departments within universities. In some colleges of education, the special education programs are the only ones growing. Applicants for special education teaching jobs are still approaching districts. Certain regions can experience a glut due to the number of graduates coming from teaching programs. At least a few people continue to want to be special education teachers, possibly for reasons that defy rationality.

What draws them? Old arguments might have included somewhat permissive entrance criteria, employability and security, and pay compared with other four-year degrees. Some of these notions have taken a beating. Alternate paths to certification have been springing up just as traditional paths have become bumpier. Employability might be stable in many areas for special education teachers, but job security for all teachers has changed, as many who have been displaced by budget cuts can attest. Yes, these do hit special education teachers too sometimes, especially in districts losing seats to charter schools. Pay has never been a great incentive, but now some sharing industry jobs are creeping up on what a beginning teacher might earn in some states.

Is there anything else? What about autonomy for special education teachers? This has dissolved somewhat per inclusion and the move towards co-teaching and push-in support. How about the small number of students? Ratios still favor special education teachers, but the neediness of students has increased per the amount of service and intervention needed. Aren’t special education teachers exempt from grading? Well, sometimes, but more than half the job is now meetings and paperwork, displacing any work saved.

What could be left? One possibility is young people maintain a vision of supporting students with disabilities that hasn’t yet been tainted but the unsavory aspects of the field. This could be for the best, because it might allow for another remaining attraction to develop: the broad idea of helping others. This might be more of a specific draw in special education than in other teaching disciplines. Elementary and secondary education majors want to positively affect the lives of students as well, the aim being to do so by cultivating independence through skill and content instruction. Special education teachers certainly want to do the same, but there often is an heightened emphasis on the charitable aspects of the field. The desire to work on behalf of people who experience a disadvantage of some kind is characteristic of special education teachers. Many see themselves as being advocates as much as instructors, championing the civil rights of students. Again, this exists for other teachers, but it is deeply embedded in the motivations of many special education teachers.

This might be the root of what continues to draw candidates to the field. It isn’t about the logistics. It’s about a drive to support those who need support. This drive has a rational component, but it also is highly emotional for many. Indeed, some come to the field because of experiences with siblings who have disabilities, or because the candidates themselves have disabilities. Some second-career special education teachers become involved because they have children with disabilities. Religious reasons drive some, as do social-political reasons.

The lasting draw could be that students continue to have special needs and schools continue to need to pay people to teach them. Federal guidelines dictate certain student-to-teacher ratios, so a set number of teachers tends to remain. Still, against all the reasons not to begin a career in special education, candidates step up to do so each year. The reasons above are independent of unfavorable logistics. This could stand to make them independent of at least some of the forces acting on teacher preparation enrollment, resulting in a core of candidates that never diminishes below a particular threshold. The draw remains for those who view the field as more than a vocation.


The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers