Monday, February 4, 2013

Keepin’ It Real: Preparation Pathways that “Work”

Despite my alma mater’s best intentions, I was not ready to be a teacher upon graduation.  Sure I completed all my methods courses, and found my student-teaching experiences to be excellent learning opportunities.  Yes, I was lucky enough to get a job in the subject area I had been “trained” for, and for all intents and purposes, I was ready to “start” my life.

Unfortunately for me, I had no clue what I was doing.  Seriously.  I still recall a conversation I had with a colleague (who would later become a trusted friend and co-worker).  It went a little something like this:

Ray:  Hey Fred.  How was your first day?  You’re packed up and ready to go?  What, do you have an appointment or something? (Note: It was about 2:30 in the afternoon)

Me: Oh, hey Ray.  It was great.  I can’t believe how easy it was.  No appointment, I just got everything done I needed to do.

Ray: Oh.  Huh. (staring at me with one eyebrow raised)

Needless to say, from Day 2 on, it was rare for me to ever leave before 4:00 (and those were often good days).  I just didn’t get it, and while a scenario like this might be very common, the fact that I thought I understood the time commitments of my new career and yet was so off-base means that there was (and still is) a major disconnect between teacher preparation programs and the “real” world of education.  There are a number of issues we need to consider in order to make sure that folks new to the profession aren’t left picking their jaws up off the floor when they realize all that teaching involves.

Let’s prepare specialists, not generalists.  Educators new to the profession can no longer afford to be generalists (in fact, I would offer the challenge that this has always been the case).  Teacher preparation programs are often woefully short on subject matter deep-dives (particularly for elementary pathways).  When I was a middle school science teacher, there were times when I would provide misinformation because I believed I knew something that I didn’t.  But, I was secure enough in my knowledge base to write the wrong after I did further research.  Plus, I was never afraid to say, “I don’t know.  Let’s figure it out together.”  Unfortunately, it can be tough to teach a subject with little content background.  We can teach our students how to write essays, but if they have no content to write about, the process is pointless.  Preparing prospective teachers with methodology without the subject-area skeleton is much the same.  As an added bonus, this adds rigor and an air of “the serious” to the preparation program.  We all know how challenging teaching is.  We can’t afford to have those who aren’t serious about the profession enter it.

Provide certification blueprints.  I went to a university in a state I did not plan to teach in.  Yet, I never knew to ask what I would need to do to become certified to teach in the state I DID want to teach in.  Maybe that was just naïveté on my part, but I don’t think so.  It would have been nice if I knew what I would have to do to transfer my certification before I graduated, and without me having to try and navigate not just one state education department, but two (my head still hurts).  While times may have changed since I graduated college, it would be great if prospective teachers were given this information ahead of time and had the opportunity to ask the important questions about what they need to do, and why they need to do it.  While this might not have changed anything in my career progression, I will never be sure.  I ended up paying for and sitting through multiple certification exams in multiple states.  Needless to say, my initial certification in my first awarding state has long since expired.  And guess what?  It was never used.

Let’s Talk.  Considering the emphasis on college and career readiness, why aren’t colleges and universities regularly meeting with K-12 teachers (by the way, this isn’t meant to be a dig on post-secondary staff, those of us in the K-12 world can be reaching out to colleges and universities too)?  In the ten years that I taught middle school science, never once was there talk about seeing what was taking place in our area colleges and universities to prepare future science teachers.  It was almost like the two relatives in everyone’s family that refuse to acknowledge each other.  It seems to me that better preparation pathways could be designed by engaging in regional symposia that would bring K-12 and postsecondary educators together to share curricula and discuss methodology.  If nothing else, it would be a great start to opening discussion and would help provide pre-service educators with a clearer horizon to head towards.

Involve all Stakeholders.  Wouldn’t it have been helpful if one (or a few) of the courses you took in your preparation had parents and students from the area actually attend?  Stakeholders could share their thoughts and feelings about current education, and prospective teachers could role-play the types of parental and student scenarios that can be demoralizing for new teachers.  Imagine how helpful these types of interactions could be towards helping future educators meet parents and students where they are and to always move towards positive resolution. 

Begin Teacher Prep in High School.  It isn’t appropriate for post-secondary faculty to find out that a student isn’t ready to become an educator during a junior level methodology class.  Unfortunately, by this point, students have already progressed through two years of college, and in these days, have already amassed debt and are simply trying to graduate.  This may force some to enter a career that they don’t find themselves interested in, simply because they can’t spend another year or two in college with a new major.  It stands to reason, then, that we should be providing students with coursework in education earlier on in their academic careers.  Why not provide child study courses at high schools across the country?  Or, why not give juniors and seniors at the high school level the chance to pair up with teachers in their own school (or other district schools) and get a brief intro to student teaching?  This could would strengthen the prospective teacher pool by providing experience and much needed perspective, and perspective can be everything.

The future of education depends on the next generation of teachers.  They can’t be faulted for being ill-prepared.  In fact, I would even suggest that our manner of “evaluating” new teachers shouldn’t put blame on them for not necessarily knowing what to do.  In those situations, the blame should be put on the collective “us.”  If we expect new educators to become effective master teachers and learners, then we need to provide them with the path to do that, and just as importantly, join them as they progress down that road.