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

A Gap in Expertise

I participated in close to 300 IEP meetings in my career. For more than half of these, I acted as the IEP coordinator. I chaired the remainder as the local education agency (LEA) designee. Most of these meetings included related service providers such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech language pathologists. Something became apparent to me after the first few meetings. The therapists seemed to know their jobs better than the teachers knew theirs.

My lack of confidence accentuated this apparent imbalance. Those early IEP meetings intimidated me. Although I had ample student performance data and solid suggestions for appropriate goals, I really didn’t know what I was talking about. The reading and mathematics levels I had collected were abstract and I couldn’t offer much elaboration. I had no answers for how to improve competencies for high school students. Any interventions or strategies I recommended were generic and largely based on common sense. I had little business calling myself an expert of any kind. Roughly half the teachers around me shared my level of experience and doubt.

Meanwhile, the therapists on the IEP teams were veterans. Most had poise distinct from the teachers I knew. No matter how much data I had, they had more. Their contributions were clinical and thorough. They spoke with certainty about their methodology, findings, and recommendations. Their conversations with parents were concrete, involving treatment plans and equipment use. I tried to speak in such measurable, quantifiable terms. What I had to say sounded like filler after the therapists spoke.

Experience only solidified my sense that therapists were the more reliable experts. As the special education liaison of one school, I oversaw every piece of special education paperwork created by staff. Documents showed the contributions of teachers alongside the contributions of therapists. Nearly without fail, the teachers included less performance data than the therapists did. Typically, the data provided by teachers lacked the specificity of what the therapists submitted. Therapists routinely gave paragraphs of highly detailed information, while teachers too often gave raw performance levels and a few vague sentences about aptitude and attitude. This disparity stood out in reevaluation reports and IEPs. If I noticed it, discerning parents likely noticed it as well.

I found notable gaps in other areas. Therapists were mandated to record treatment notes. Their treatment sessions were billable, thus requiring strict documentation. When dealing with sensitive cases, I had to request anecdotal records from teachers. This could be revealing. While some teachers were fastidious, a few didn’t keep these records. Others kept piecemeal records that only undermined the school’s defense. Without mandated accountability, many teachers slacked in record keeping.

Disputes with parents further highlighted the gap. Therapists approached disputes with greater assurance than teachers did. Their treatment plans were based on medical prescriptions. They could support their positions with copious notes and detailed assessment results. Rarely did I see teachers have comparable ammunition when approaching conflicts with parents. Therapists seldom backed down (although sometimes doing so would have simplified matters). Teachers often cowered.

The difference existed across schools. Being a special education liaison at a special education center school, I sometimes presented to groups of therapists from other buildings. I did so at their professional developments and I sat in on these. The content of their sessions impressed me, as it was more clinical than similar sessions for teachers. I understood why. Reading and mathematics level tests aren’t especially precise instruments. Test-taking strategies are little more than notions of what might help. Classroom management techniques can hedge on ridiculous. In contrast, treatment models used by related service providers have a medical basis and can be highly specific. The differences between conversations in a room full of therapists versus a room full of teachers shouldn’t be surprising.

These observations reflect a broader circumstance. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech language pathologists all must have Master’s degrees before practicing. Special education teachers only need a Bachelor’s degree to teach. With alternative certifications tracks and outright desperation in some states and school districts, many teachers begin with scant credentials. Teachers must validate their certifications through continuing education in some states, but often they can use accumulated credits rather than an additional degree. A popular suggestion is that teacher-training programs should be offered only at the Master’s level, thereby forcing candidates to get a separate Bachelor’s degree first. This won’t be plausible in states with dire teacher shortages and attrition rates.

The importance of this gap is another matter. Teacher preparation, in particular for special education teachers, sends possibly ill-prepared recruits into the field. Despite this, most teachers figure out what they must do while on the job. They usually figure it out well enough to thrive. The majority of teachers I’ve known have done so. If teachers can do their jobs, then they need not be compared with other school professionals. Unfortunately, their ability to do their jobs is a matter of perception.

Parents who are paying attention may well notice differences in the quality of data and recommendations teachers and therapists provide. Closing this gap might not be possible, because most therapies by nature are more precise than teaching. The expertise gap threatens to taint the image of special education teachers to some parents. Teachers can appear to be the least knowledgeable members of IEP teams. I listened to parents point out discrepancies while reviewing documents and during meetings. When parents questioned therapists, they tended to disagree with findings. When parents questioned teachers, they tended to criticize the absence of evidence. The latter is more problematic for schools in due process cases.

Special education teachers should be specific and detailed in what they present and suggest. They should emulate the level of professional exactness demonstrated by other IEP team members. This isn’t to save face. It isn’t to provide data for the sake of data. Small actions that dignify the field raise standards for all involved. The gap I’ve described won’t close in the near future, but teachers can improve their craft via the example of their teammates.

A Gap in Expertise

A Question for Those Embarking on Their Careers

Working with student teachers was one of the highlights of my career. I served as a cooperating teacher for nearly a decade. Even after leaving the classroom, I continued my involvement with them by presenting sessions on special education protocol and holding practice interviews. I volunteered to do all of this. I’m glad I did so.

My connection with student teachers was rewarding. I felt a need to share my knowledge and insight with those entering the field. This need stemmed from my positive experience as a student teacher. I had a splendid cooperating teacher and supervisor. They were instrumental in my decision to continue with my career path. Their push was crucial, because I had doubted whether or not I wanted to teach. I didn’t commit until near the end of my assignment. The system of priming teachers turned out to be pivotal for me. As I advanced in my career, I carried a desire to give back to this system.

Giving back resulted in reciprocal relationships. I enjoyed helping them hone their craft while imparting what wisdom I could. All throughout, they helped me grow, even if they didn’t realize it. I felt I had to be at my best while they were in my classroom. Their presence improved my performance. They rejuvenated me too, as their enthusiasm helped me shake off some cynicism. Although I sometimes felt humbled by how they were able to take over my classroom with such ease, I appreciated what they brought out of me.

I’m now on the outside of the field, having essentially fled it. I maintain contact with some former students and colleagues. The colleagues include former student teachers. Despite these remaining connections, I no longer have that direct connection with those staring at the field. I might lack that connection, but I do have this platform as a way to reach prospective teachers.

I posed a question to many of the student teachers with whom I worked. I never expected any of them to answer it. In fairness, I didn’t expect them to be able to so early in their careers. The question seemed crucial, so I encouraged them to remember it and reflect on it at a future juncture. I’ll never know how many formed an answer.

As a way of continuing my connection with anyone considering special education as a career, I’m going to offer the question here. It requires some context. I’ll provide that and then I’ll pose the question directly.

By several measures, special education is a failure. If the goal is merely the provision of services to qualifying students, it more or less succeeds. If instead the goal is to engender qualifying students with the aptitude necessary to functionally participate in adulthood, evidence points to sorely disappointing results. Students with IEPs drop out at rates higher than those without. In some districts, more than half of students with learning disabilities drop out. Think about that: as many as half of the students on an elementary level special education teacher’s caseload—the students he or she gives to every day—might not go on to graduate. Worse scenarios exist. Urban districts serve students with behavior disorders who are nearly as likely to be incarcerated as they are to be employed as adults. Nationwide, unemployment is disproportionately high among all adults with disabilities. Disability benefits are the primary source of income for many former special education students. Such dire outcomes follow decades of special education legislation.

While the field struggles to help students forge independent adult lives, it costs an exorbitant fortune. Students with disabilities routinely cost two to three times more to educate than their non-disabled peers. Those requiring approved private schools or intensive health services can cost as much as a half-dozen general education students. The most disabled and vulnerable students are often the most expensive to teach. This means the students with the least potential tend to have the highest price tags. Special education employs many people, but it consumes resources like no other aspect of education. Unfortunately, it does this while infrequently making a satisfactory difference in post-secondary prospects for those receiving services.

Here is the question, posed directly to student teachers, or to any others about to enter the field: considering all of this, how do you justify the effort and expense that go into special education? Posed another way, how do you explain why schools, states, and our entire society continue with such outlays for such poor results? I’ll offer yet another phrasing: why should we bother?

Having done this for a living, I feel someone signing up to do it needs to be able to answer this question. An answer might help rebuke a critic of the field or explain a career choice to a doubter. More importantly, it might provide a sense of purpose for a new teacher. For some, the answer could veer from any supposed mission. A person simply might need a stable income. One might seek a job with built-in time off. Fine. With what awaits, I think more personal reasons to press on might be helpful.

Special education can be a bleak field. The job can drain the enthusiasm out of the most dedicated teachers. Look at rate of flight from the field if you feel I’m exaggerating. Rolling a heavy rock up a slippery hill has the potential to crush someone. To be more direct, getting up every day to fight a losing battle (or a battle in which victories are quite small) can be demoralizing to the point of driving someone to quit. Without a well-reasoned answer to the above question, I think a new special education teacher’s career could be drastically short, or worse yet, long and miserable.

Much of what new teachers will encounter can’t be taught. When I started, I didn’t realize how dealing with obstinate students who were completely resistant to being taught would feel. I didn’t realize how many parents would be outright combative and how frustrating coping with most irrational among them would be. Dealing with special education bureaucracy wasn’t yet a concern. I hadn’t figured out that I would be a service provider spending at least half of my time staring at paperwork rather than an actual teacher working with students. The desperate imbalance between efforts and results didn’t sink in until after I had started. Hence, I don’t expect incoming teachers to have the perspective to form an answer. This is an inherent problem, but I figure the earlier they can begin to contemplate one, the better.

I might be the wrong guy to ask the question I’ve posed. My aim here is to pose it to others and encourage its consideration. If I can get even one person on the brink of his or her career to pause and reflect on why it might be worthwhile, this article will have served its purpose.

A Question for Those Embarking on Their Careers