Welcoming a New Cohort of Future Teachers

Yesterday, my program got an early chance to meet members of our incoming Class of 2018.  I had a series of hand outs with critical planning information for their next four years, but more important than reading to them action items that they can read for themselves, I and my colleagues wanted them to get to know each other and begin to see each other as people who can be relied upon.  This is not only good for them as they enter a four year program together, but also it is good for their future practice in schools.  Teachers who collaborate and seek out ideas from a variety of trusted people are more able to seek solutions to questions about teaching than teachers who close the door of their classrooms and try to not be seen.  It also helps our incoming students start to see how people with different backgrounds and reasons for being in a school can quickly come together to collaborate and learn about each other.

These new future teachers are entering their university preparation for teaching at a difficult time.  The Common Core State Standards movement was sweeping along as fait accompli until questions about its quality, purposes and the speed of implementation have hit mainstream.  New mass high stakes testing is still scheduled to roll out over the next few school years, but it is meeting with increasing teacher and parental resistance.  Communities across the country will soon see their students, teachers and school assessed by those exams, and teachers will face potential career consequences based on value added modeling of their teaching using test data.  These policies are not being tested carefully in small settings; they are being rolled out simultaneously in classrooms affecting 10s of millions of students.  Mass disruption is the order of the day.

Teaching as a profession is under higher scrutiny.  “Reformers” such as Michelle Rhee have advocated for years that the solution to nearly every problem facing education is to fire “ineffective” teachers and to use test scores to determine teacher effectiveness.  To accomplish this, they not only needed mass testing, they also needed to diminish teachers’ workplace protections and that has meant stripping away traditional union rights.  Court cases like the recently (and controversially) decided Vergara case are likely to increase in number. At the same time, traditional teacher education is coming under attack via the partisan think tank National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ) which has taken it upon itself to “rank” all teacher preparation programs in the country.

The contradictions of the self-styled education reformers are evident and troubling.  They have pushed for complicated standards and testing regimens at a time when states and school districts around the country are cutting budgets and personnel.  They have demanded that teachers be held to higher standards of performance using measures of their performance that experts in statistics say are poorly designed for that purpose.  They have demanded that teachers work with fewer protections for their employment while dramatically raising their stakes of their work.  The same “reformers” who bemoan the quality of university based teacher education are enthusiastic backers of Teach for America’s five week training model and of charter schools which are contemplating setting up their own teacher training “graduate schools” that resemble computer delivered workplace training rather than a serious professional education.

And yet, we still are able to welcome a group of young people enthusiastic about becoming teachers and eager to take up the challenges of learning to teach.

Young people have historically been attracted to teaching as a profession for various reasons.  In the early decades of the Common School movement, teaching was seen as an appropriate occupation for young, educated women until they found husbands and had children of their own.  For some portions of the teacher population, teaching was a way for a first college educated generation to take a place in a middle class profession with a reasonable salary and benefits.  As more white, middle and upper middle class women have sought careers in previously restricted fields like law and medicine, more minorities have taken up teaching (although proportions still lag behind the percentage of students who are minorities).

There are, however, reasons that teachers teach which go well beyond labor economics.  Decade after decade, talented young people seek out careers as teachers for reasons that are best labeled as affective, meaning they speak not to rational calculations of risk and reward, but that they speak to rewards that defy measurement.  Since 1975, researchers have repeated affirmed Dan Lortie’s observation that teachers rely upon “psychic rewards” rather than extrinsic compensation for affirmation of their purposes in school.   Ask a teacher about the greatest satisfactions of teaching, and you will almost certainly hear about how making a difference in child’s life matters or a specific instance of reaching a particular student with a lesson that made difficult content interesting and exciting.  Teachers consistently report that they revel in the ability to connect with students academically and personally and that a “good class” provides personal and professional satisfaction (just as a “bad class” provides personal and professional angst).  There is no external measurement of this, but it is a major part of the difference between a teacher who is happy on the job and one who is not.

Similarly, teachers tend to be people who found at least some enjoyment from school and wish to impart some of that experience to their own students.  Lortie referred to this characteristic as “continuity” meaning that teachers generally wish to continue experiencing that which was pleasant in their own education.  This can take many forms, and it should not be construed to mean that all teachers wish to be uncritical of schools and schooling.  In my years as a teacher educator, every student I have taught can point to an example of someone that he or she does NOT want to be, but the powerful visions of teaching come from those teachers they wish to emulate.  It takes time to dig down into what it actually was that made those great teachers exceptional (most of my students rely initially upon affect), but once understood, that former teacher is an even more powerful role model.

The reality is that the new class of future teachers I greeted yesterday began their teacher education many years ago when the narrative of their own education began.  That narrative is wrapped up in a 15,000 hours of time spent in classrooms from Kindergarten to 12th grade and involves all of the work done as students and impressions of work done by teachers.  Much of what they learn from this “apprenticeship of observation” is facile, and it takes a lot of hard work being introduced to the teacher’s side of the desk to understand what it means to academically and socially manage the workings of a classroom.  However, this narrative is still very precious because it contains the initial commitment a future teacher makes to her or his future students.  Without that narrative, they would not want to teach in the first place.  It is here that words like “vocation” become equally if not more important than words like “profession” when discussing how teachers learn to teach.

It is, therefore, vitally important that we keep our eyes not merely on what schools and classrooms achieve on standardized tests, but also we keep our eyes focused squarely on what kinds of places schools and classrooms are and what kinds of experiences teachers can craft for the children entrusted to them.  I know of no truly dedicated teacher who is afraid of using some data as a tool to both analyze and communicate about her or his work.  But I know many people who are rightly concerned that we have spent far too much time in the past ten year using data from high stakes standardized tests in ways that reach far beyond their utility.  I know people who are concerned that we have incentivized administrators and teachers to value test performance over genuine learning.  I know people who are concerned that the risk taking and uncertainty that accompanies real teaching is becoming too risky for teachers who are evaluated as if they are producing manufactured goods tested within tight tolerances.  I share those concerns.

We do not need to simply demand more of our teachers; we need to demand more of ourselves and of our vision for a public education.  Schools need to be places where uncertainty, risk taking and messing around with ideas is both encouraged and instructive.  Teachers need to be able to inspire their students to create meaning rather than merely fill in bubble sheets because the narrative of schooling and learning that we create for those students today does not just impact how they learn, it impacts how those among them who wish to teach will envision the role of a teacher.  How many powerful examples of passionate commitment to students, content and learning will those students encounter and incorporate into their constructs of the work and craft of teaching?  How many of them will see intangible rewards for teaching that offset the difficulty of the job and inspire them to share their love of learning with the generations that follow them?

The next generation of teachers is in our public schools right now.  We owe it to them and to the 100s of millions of students they will teach to envision schools as places of joy and passion.

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