Tag Archives: learning to teach

Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

Hey, New York Times, I’d like to offer a deal.  Please stop letting Frank Bruni write about school. In fact, get a clever programmer who can arrange so that any time he writes the words “school” “teacher” or “student” his keyboard gives him an electroshock.  In return, I will never again complain that you charge my family $20 a month for an electronic subscription that doesn’t include the cell phone app and which still has advertising.  I’ll even promise to refrain from leaving comments on any David Brooks column where he opines about the nature of character.

Do we have a deal?

I have good reason to want Mr. Bruni off the education beat.  In 2013, he briefly suggested that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was “impolitic” to place opposition to the Common Core State Standards upon “white, suburban moms” who don’t want to find out that their children are not brilliant — just before he jumped in and declared that Secretary Duncan was right to be concerned that “a laudable set of guidelines” would be rejected for making kids work too hard, characterized most opposition to the standards as “welling hysteria” from the right and left wing, and chided parents concerned about the increasing lack of joy in school with declarations that portions of school ought to be “relatively mirthless” while blaming stories of students breaking down from stress upon their parents. A year ago, he jumped into the teacher tenure debate with a breathtakingly one sided column that could have read as a press release from Campbell Brown’s anti-tenure lawsuit — shocking, given his personal friendship with Ms. Brown — and relied upon precisely ONE former Teach For America alum and current State Senator from Colorado as a source.  Mr. Bruni went even further in late October last year with an entirely uncritical review of former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s book on education, despite the fact that Mr. Klein is a serial misleader about his personal biography and that his record as Chancellor does not actually stand up to scrutiny.  Mr. Bruni tossed 27 words about respecting teachers into the mix while calling on them to “partner” with people like Mr. Klein who want to diminish their workplace protections and offer pay for increasing standardized test scores while completely ignoring issues like persistent and rising poverty.

So when it comes to education, and to teachers in particular, Mr. Bruni is something like William Kristol opining on foreign affairs — always wrong and frequently advocating for disasters.

Mr. Bruni was struck over the weekend by Times education reporter Motoko Rich’s story on the nationwide scramble to find credentialed teachers and the precipitous drop in college students seeking teaching degrees:

And he followed it up yesterday in his on Opinion page column, “Can We Interest You In Teaching“?  His opening laments the state of affairs in the teacher preparation pipeline and supposed competing draws for potential teachers:

When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere, to professions that promise more money, more independence, more respect.

That was one takeaway from a widely discussed story in The Times on Sunday by Motoko Rich, who charted teacher shortages so severe in certain areas of the country that teachers are being rushed into classrooms with dubious qualifications and before they’ve earned their teaching credentials.

It’s a sad, alarming state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be. Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, as Rich reported.

Keep in mind, this lamentation of the lack of “honor” given to teaching as a profession comes from someone who has repeatedly taken the standard reformer line that all of the ills in our education system can be traced back almost entirely to teachers themselves and who has advocated for policy makers who diminish teachers’ workplace protections and their autonomy and who want to tie opportunities for greater compensation to standardized test scores.  It should be no real surprise, therefore, that Mr. Bruni’s exploration of the growing teacher shortage is focused not upon what people have done to teaching over the past 15 years in the name of “reform” but upon the profession itself.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr. Bruni has expanded his usual Rolodex for this column and has consulted with people actually connected to the world of teachers and teaching.  His spoke with Randi Weingarten who is the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union with over 1.5 million members.  He also spoke with a representative of “Educators Rising,” a project of Phi Delta Kappa International seeking to help guide young people to teaching as a profession. PDK is a professional association in education which runs various programs for teachers, collaborates annually with Gallup on a poll of the nation’s education perspectives, and publishes Kappan Magazine, a forum on practice, policy, and research.  Among the members of the PDK boards advising Educators Rising is Dr. Sharon Robinson, President of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.  So Mr. Bruni actually sought input from sources that know a few things about teachers and schools (even if Educators Rising has a logo unfortunately reminiscent of Enron’s).

Sadly, he “balanced” that by seeking input from “Educators 4 Excellence,” one of those imitation grassroots outfits that all have suspiciously similar web page design and sprang up right about when Bill Gates was spreading around tons of money to promote the Common Core State Standards and assessing teachers by value added modeling.  And, sure enough, E4E’s “declaration” includes language endorsing teacher assessments using value added modeling of standardized test scores, a method which is only slightly more reliable than throwing darts randomly at a wall.  Mr. Bruni also spoke to Kate Walsh, the head of the self-appointed national “watchdog” on teachers and teacher preparation, National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization whose caliber of research into the state of American teacher preparation is so rigorous that they mostly read course catalogs and syllabi available online without bothering to visit a single campus. This “method” of “research” is so weak that it produced errors throughout their entire original rating report at such a laughable rate that the organization should be shunned by anyone who bothers to check their record.  So while Mr. Bruni actually spoke to some people who know about teachers and schools, he balanced them with the usual suspects of agenda driven and fact deprived actors.  This is a bit like writing on climate change by speaking with scientists at NOAA and then seeking “balance” from the public relations office of Exxon.

Both Walsh and Evan Stone of E4E basically reiterated very old talking points of teacher professionalization.  Stone claimed teachers are concerned they will be “doing the same thing on Day 1 as they’ll be doing 30 years in” and called for a “career ladder” in teaching while Walsh repeated her contention that most students see teacher preparation as an “easy” major and steer away from it.  Making teacher preparation more rigorous is a well trodden path now that we are 32 years past A Nation At Risk, and Walsh flatly ignores or discounts the decades of work to increase teacher preparation standards and increase clinical practice time for prospective teachers in favor of her organization’s shockingly weak research.  Stone’s contention that teachers want a gradated career ladder is not an especially strong one, and while there is validity to a career structure that places experienced teachers into mentoring and leadership roles, most of the pathways that have been proposed over the years would, of course, require significant investments of time and resources that are notably absent from many reformers’ plans.  None other than Michelle Rhee herself decided that National Board certification was something prestigious but not worth the cost while she was Chancellor in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bruni’s representative from Educators Rising, Dan Brown, suggested that teaching could use its own “Flexner Report,” the document from the early 1900s that set medicine to its current high status in society.  I am at loss to imagine what another round of report writing would do that we have not already had from the Carnegie Corporation, The Holmes Group, John Goodlad, The National Commission on Teaching and America’ Future, or the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.  For three decades, researchers and policy analysts have advocated for and demonstrated value of various ways to improve teacher preparation that reflect the necessary balance of theory, pedagogy, practice, and contact with skilled veterans who inform preparation through their own teaching.  Policy makers, however, have rarely seen fit to fund it.

The biggest disappointment of the article is Mr. Bruni’s conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT.  It was not because President Weingarten missed the important message, but that Mr. Bruni gave it so little notice.  President Weingarten stated that teachers wanted “a voice, a real voice,” and she referred Mr. Bruni to the AFT’s collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association on the Quality of Worklife Survey.  Mr. Bruni, however, given a wealth of information on teacher concerns, only mentioned being left out of decision making as source of stress.  What did Mr. Bruni miss?

  • 79% of teachers feel disrespected by public officials.
  • 77% feels disrespected by the media.
  • 73% feel their workplace is often stressful.

While stressed teachers did feel they had less decision making power, Bruni missed that:

  • 55% said negative portrayals of teachers and schools in media caused stress.
  • 71% cited adoption of new requirements without training or support as causing stress.
  • Time pressure was a major source of stress.
  • As were mandated curricula, standardized testing, and lack of administrator support.

He also failed to notice:

  • A full 30% of teachers said they have been bullied in the workplace.
  • Including, 51% of teachers with disabilities, 38% of LGBTQ teachers, 36% of ethnic minorities, and 38% of religious minorities.
  • 26% said that in the past month their mental health was not good for 9 days or more.

Having a voice in decision making is certainly an important part of treating teachers as professionals, and it may even be true that teaching could be made more attractive with certain changes to the professional environment and professional preparation of teachers.  However, it is absurd to speculate that a reported teacher shortage is truly tied to these issues when we have had a similar career structure for teachers for decades without seeing such dramatic declines in number of college students willing to become teachers.  What Frank Bruni misses entirely is that teaching is deeply wrapped up in a sense of vocation as well as professionalism.  People going into teaching have always accepted that they are giving up some economic and social status in favor of enacting a career where they believe they can make a substantial difference in people’s lives.  They are drawn to teaching by positive experiences with teachers and with learning, and they develop a fondness and respect for school and its mission.

But with the clear evidence that reform efforts of the past 15 years to place the entire burden of lifting children out of poverty upon schools and teachers have led to serious degradation of workplace life, it is hardly surprising that young people who would be normally driven by their sense of purpose towards education would look elsewhere. They are seeing fewer and fewer role models who are allowed to practice their profession and their craft to not merely raise test scores, but to inspire and ignite young minds.  The data from the Worklife Survey should scream this message to anyone who looks at it, but instead Mr. Bruni chooses to emphasize warmed over servings of 1980s and 1990s era professionalization literature.

Instead of looking to make teaching look more like medicine, we should consider how to make teaching look like teaching again, and that will begin by listening to what teachers have to say about their working conditions.

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Filed under Media, NCTQ, schools, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

The New York Times Ponders An Emerging Teacher Shortage

Motoko Rich of The New York Times wrote a feature article for today’s print edition on the looming teacher shortage and the nationwide scramble to fill available teaching positions.  Predictions of a future teacher shortage are hardly new.  Consider this Senate hearing in 1997 where the then frequently made prediction that we would need “2 million new teachers over the next 10 years” was repeated by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts:

This chart is a good summation as to what the current conditions are. This year, K-12 enrollment reached an all-time high and will continue to rise over the next 7 years. 6,000 new public schools will be needed by the year 2006 just to maintain current class sizes. We will also need to hire 2 million teachers over the next decade to accommodate rising student enrollments and massive teacher requirements. And because of the overcrowding, schools are using trailers for classrooms and teaching students in former hallways, closets, and bathrooms. Overcrowded classrooms undermine discipline and decrease student morale.

The prediction seemed a lot less dire when compared to the fact that, at the time, we credentialed about 200,000 new teachers every year — or roughly 2 million over 10 years. This time, however, it might be different.

Ms. Rich’s article cites that budget cuts following the Great Recession led to dismissals across the country, which may have led to fewer college students willing to accumulate debt for uncertain job prospects.  Further, with the economic recovery showing sustained growth over the past few years, there may be a larger array of more attractive job prospects for the college educated.  Whatever the cause, the result is that school districts are having to dig deeper into the labor barrel to find people people willing to teach or even to find people with the appropriate credential to teach.  Ms. Rich’s article pays special attention to California which had 45,000 teaching candidates seeking credentials as the recession came on in 2008, but since then the number of candidates in programs has dropped more than 50% to barely 20,000 in 2012.  The Golden State used to issue roughly 20,000 credentials a year, but by 2012 that number was 15,000 – there are currently 21,500 spots open this year.  Ms. Rich cites federal data showing a 30% decline nationwide in the number of people seeking to become teachers.

This fact, and the potential reasons behind it, makes this teacher shortage potentially very different and one to which we should pay close attention.  While it may indeed be true that we had a hiccup due to uncertain job prospects during the Great Recession and that competition from growing technology fields could be factors in this shortage, Ms. Rich did not examine another possibility that might make this shortage far harder to overcome with typical labor market responses:

We’ve made teaching suck the past 15 years.

I just wrote about the groundbreaking collaboration between the Badass Teachers Association and the American Federation of teachers on the Quality of Workplace Life survey released this Spring.  While the 30,000 respondents to the 80 question survey were not statistically sampled, their input is an important first step towards understanding the consequences of our current education reform environment.  From physical and mental health to support and respect from policy makers and administrators to workplace bullying and harassment to time and training for new curriculum demands to over testing to their general enthusiasm for their profession, teachers sent loud and clear warnings that there is a crisis in teachers’ working conditions.

It isn’t hard to imagine why.  For two 8 year Presidencies, we have, via legislation and policy, made increasing demands that our schools and school teachers raise their students to overcome inter-generational poverty with practically no additional help whatsoever and under the threat of punitive school and job level sanctions.  We have narrowed the curriculum so that non tested subjects play a smaller role in our children’s education.  We have a counter factual but extremely well funded by dark money campaign to sue away teachers’ modest workplace protections and weaken their unions.  We have state after state in the Union insisting on using value added modeling of student standardized test scores for teacher evaluation and retention despite the long known fundamental flaws with that approach.  We have prominent governors of both major political parties declaring open warfare on teachers and calling public education a “monopoly” that needs to be broken up or going on national cable news to declare that the “national teachers union” needs a “punch in the face.”

Can I say for certain that there is a causal link between these phenomena and the growing claims of a teacher shortage? Not at this time.  But the possibility did not escape journalist David Sirota:

What is especially worrying is how this time, talk of a teacher shortage could potentially become very long term unless we pivot quickly on school policy.  We have had more a full generation of students K-12 who have grown up in schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  These students are the most tested and potentially test exhausted students in our nation’s history.  The BAT/AFT survey shows that their teachers may be facing unprecedented workplace expectations and stress at a time when school budgets are only beginning to recover, if at all, from cuts made during the Great Recession.  And no matter how professional and upbeat a manner teachers strive to portray for their students, nobody can keep that up every day without fail.

We know that the decision to become a teacher is historically one that is deeply tied to a student’s experiences in school itself. A prospective teacher learns to appreciate school and develops early, usually very incomplete, ideas and ideals about what it means to be a teacher from over 13,000 hours spent with teachers teaching from Kindergarten until the end of high school.  David Hansen explains teaching as vocational work, deeply rooted the individual seeking to become a teacher:

It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

What kind of positive vocational sense can we expect young people considering teaching to develop in a school system beset by narrowed curricula and diminished teacher autonomy, by calls to eliminate poverty without any assistance whatsoever, by dishonest campaigns to break their unions, and by national politicians insulting them at every turn?

In 2006, David Berliner wrote eloquently on “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform” where he strongly questioned the “one way accountability” system set up via high stakes standardized testing:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

Our consistent failure to heed Dr. Berliner’s warning may now be resulting in a genuine shortage of teachers, not merely of teachers being credentialed but of potential teachers in the pipeline eager to join the ranks.  Things need to change.  Now.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Funding, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

Teaching: A Profession Unlike Most Others

Sarah Blaine is the author at the excellent and thoughtful Parenting the Core blog.  She recently explored the question of whether or not teaching is a profession, recounting a law professor who argued teaching was not a profession because teachers did not control entry to the profession as doctors and lawyers do.  Ms. Blaine took that observation to a very intriguing and, I think, valuable discussion of how teachers could play a bigger and, consequently, far more informed than current regulators role in how people enter teaching.  It is worth your time to read the whole piece.

It also has spurred me to ponder the ways in which teaching is a profession, but a profession unlike most others that have high status in society.  Further, I have to wonder to what degree the efforts of the late 1980s and 1990s to construct a vision of teacher professionalism that is similar to those in medicine and law has contributed, at least indirectly, to some of our current dilemmas in what passes today for education “reform.”  Beginning with the A Nation At Risk report, teacher organizations and teacher research cast for ways by which the profession can embody the elements of professionalism and professionalization that define other fields of endeavor, but in doing so, we have opened ourselves to reforms that actually debilitate teaching and learning.

The status of teaching in general and of the teaching as a discipline for study is not a new problem.  David Labaree, in his collection of essays, The Trouble With Ed Schools, traces teaching and teacher preparation’s status anxiety back to the establishment of normal schools which were under pressure to turn out large numbers of mostly working class women to teach in the growing compulsory school systems of the 1800s.  When normal schools evolved into state colleges and universities, the new education schools with their teacher training missions were marginalized by the more established and prestigious fields of classical studies who relied on education schools to bring students to the universities but who did not respect teaching as a discipline of study and who did not respect the largely female population studying it.

The public’s familiarity with teaching and with teachers also complicates questions of professional status.  Unlike most other fields with professional expertise nearly every adult in society has extensive and intensive contact with teachers practicing their profession.  Doctors and lawyers are capable of enshrouding their professions in mystery because the average citizen, thankfully, has only periodic and limited needs of their services.  The average citizen, in contrast, spends more than 13,000 hours in teachers’ classrooms during what Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” through which most people conclude that they are entirely familiar with the work of teachers and develop very strong assumptions about what it is that teachers know and do.  However, this familiarity is facile.  Students are not privy to the preparation that goes into teaching, nor do they understand what it is like to enact teaching while maintaining attention on each and every learner in the classroom, adjusting and pivoting as necessary, and taking effective opportunities when they present themselves. The result is that despite the enormous amount of time spent with teachers, very few former students see teaching as a highly complex practice that requires expertise and substantial experience.

The search for a definition of teacher professionalism may not be new, but it  began in earnest with the devastating rhetoric of the 1983 Reagan administration report A Nation At Risk which reported:

  • Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.

  • The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in “educational methods” at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.

  • The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.

  • Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped students.

  • The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere.

  • Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers.

Education leaders and policy makers rushed to respond to these criticisms. Teachers and teacher educators are familiar with the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy report A Nation Prepared, the various reports of the Holmes Group, John Goodlad’s Teachers for Our Nation’s Schools, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report What Matters Most, the development of the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium model teaching standards, increasing influence of organizations such as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and with a growing industry of educational consultants such as Charlotte Danielson providing standards based rubrics and frameworks for teacher evaluation.

This mass body of work and effort and the attending changes in state and national policies that have flowed from them work on a vision not merely of teacher professionalism, the knowledge, skills, actions, and dispositions of professional teachers, but also of teacher professionalization, efforts to more closely align teaching and teacher preparation with the standards and technical rationales of high status professions such as medicine and law.  Such efforts appeal on two fronts.  First, they attend to concerns that teachers need more rigorous preparation for the difficult work of teaching and that teachers who complete their education with strong content knowledge, deep pedagogical knowledge, substantial understanding of learning and motivation, and who have meaningful experiences in the classroom prior to student teaching will have easier transitions into the world of full time teaching and begin their careers more able to help students learn.  Second, this reconfiguration of teacher preparation and conceptualizing of teaching as a profession akin to medicine and law attempted to instill higher status upon the profession in general.  Terms like “clinical experience” and “professional development school” and “master teacher” all convey a message that learning to teach is a rational experience with technical components that can be measured and that teachers should have ongoing and mediated entry into the professional roles much doctors who master a complex body of knowledge and then move into increasingly responsible roles within practice over time.  By adopting the preparation and learning structure of high status professions, teaching was envisioned to occupy a greater level of respect more commensurate with the importance of its mission.

There is much to recommend in this approach, and such efforts have spurred genuine innovations to improve how teachers are prepared.  It is important to acknowledge that contrary to many popular beliefs teachers possess specialized knowledge far beyond their understanding of the content that they teach.  Further, much as the technical knowledge of medicine and law must be put into practice, knowledge of content, theory, and pedagogy must be practiced in order to become skilled and it must slowly improve over time with the accumulation of experience.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the teacher professionalization discussion has been the continued focus upon moving from theory to practice in a controlled and mediated fashion, allowing prospective teachers to practice and to learn from practice long before they undertake full time teaching duties.

However, while moves to make learning to teach more clinical have opened valuable efforts to increase time teaching before licensure, it is vital that teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers understand the ways in which teaching is not like those high status professions professionalization has attempted to imitate.  To begin with, while there is an important knowledge base for teaching, it is a much softer knowledge than that held by high status professions.  Before moving into technical practice of medicine, medical students learn a tremendous amount of knowledge that is well-defined and clearly delineated.  This does not mean that medical knowledge is never changing; obviously, it is.  However, those changes take place through pain-staking research and replication before it can become part of the body of knowledge for practice.  When compared to this, teachers’ knowledge is less defined, more subject to change, and subject to particular circumstances that vary day to day and class to class.  Experienced teachers know that a “best practices” teaching strategy may not be a “best practice” for a particular bit of content or with a particular group of students, and because teaching has to be enacted authentically by individual teachers, different practitioners can find that so-called “best practices” are not “best practices” for them. Teachers are constantly experimenting and tinkering with their practice, often within the act of practice itself.

Lawyers can rely upon volumes of case law, and doctors have mountains of medical research backing their choices, but there is no laparoscopic appendectomy for teaching a room of 6 year olds how to read.

This should greatly complicate our desires to present teaching as a profession that can be mapped onto the professional education of fields that employ a more technical/rational approach.  Standards based preparation and evaluation can provide important starting points and frameworks for discussing, assessing, and improving teaching, but the rubrics and evaluation scores cannot become ends unto themselves.  Preparation and evaluation do a great disservice to teachers and teaching when rubric scores become more important than discussions about students and their learning that can be prompted by the categories on the rubric.  Too much of a focus on the technical at the expense of developmental understanding of learners and their needs reduces teachers’ teaching and students’ learning to outcomes which can be superficially inflated without substance.

It is possible that the teacher professionalization movement’s efforts, as well intentioned as they have been, are responsible for some of the mess that education “reform” has made of the teacher evaluation and testing environment.  After all, if teaching is a technical/rational activity whose practices result in observable and measurable outcomes, then it was not a big sell to policy makers for figures like Michelle Rhee and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to suggest that teachers should be evaluated using supposedly “objective” results like standardized test scores.  Run through statistical formulas that claim to account for a vast number of variables that can impact students’ test score gains, reformers promise that test data, as a component of teacher evaluation, offers a fully objective view of teacher effectiveness. This slots nicely with the view of teacher professionalization that emphasizes measurement of teacher practice — even though the bulk of the evidence now says that such modeling does not work.

There are other reasons to question the teacher professionalization models or at least to insist that they be made more complex and nuanced.  To begin with, unlike high status professions, teaching is, by necessity, a vast field.  Doctors and lawyers maintain careful control on their supply and high skill specialties are even tighter, but the reality of compulsory, public, free education means that we need enough teachers, teaching specialists, and paraprofessionals to teach 50 million students in public elementary and secondary schools.  In any labor market, that means that teaching cannot claim a high status simply because supply has to be high compared to other professions requiring college education and certification.  We may value, or at least claim to value, teachers and the work they do for our society, but from the standpoint of scarcity, we cannot compare the field to others, and it would take a significant change in our society’s values to do so.  Further, the long history of low status associated with fields that are predominantly female is still with teaching, which remains a profession dominated by female practitioners.

Teacher professionalization is also complicated by the previously mentioned apprenticeship of observation.  While the long contact time with teachers and schools does not actually instruct the public about the fullness and the complexities of teaching, it does lend an extreme familiarity with teachers themselves and with the visible aspects of their practice that no other profession really has.  Hard knowledge professions carefully guard their knowledge within specialized preparation and language, effectively blocking outsiders from access without the mediation of the professional.  Teachers, from the public’s view, are in the business of giving knowledge away and making it more accessible.  While pedagogical knowledge is not readily available to non-teachers, the practice of it is visible in thousands of hours spent in teachers’ classrooms, the best of which result in students able to learn on their own.  The public may not really understand teaching, but there would be little value in the profession cloaking itself in the mystique conferred upon lawyers and doctors whose practice depends almost entirely upon their clients and patients being unable to practice for themselves.

The aura of mystery about knowledge and professional language in other fields is often accompanied by a general obligation to be distant and to minimize personal involvement with clients and patients.  Teachers, however, sit in an unusual place in terms of relationships with their “clients” and frequently need to cultivate professional but close relationships with individuals and groups of students that foster motivation and provide the affective support students need to succeed.  Many conceive of this as a mentoring relationship that helps students not only academically but also with social and emotional needs.  This stance both helps students and also comprises a significant portion of the “psychic rewards” that teachers historically report among the most gratifying aspects of their jobs.  Much like the deployment of pedagogy, such relationships and their attendant rewards will remain particular and impossible to measure in any rational sense, yet they remain among the core practices of teaching.

During the height of the teacher professionalization literature, David Hansen wrote cogently about teaching as a vocation and what that means to practitioners:

To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

This is extremely important as we continue to discuss and debate what teaching as a profession means and what it looks like in practice.  I would not suggest abandoning all of the elements of teacher professionalization as we work to develop a rich view of teachers as professionals, but it is important to recognize the limits of standards and measurement.  Standards and rubrics for evaluation should be used as means to focus conversation on practice and its continued development rather than to focus on specific score bands on evaluations themselves.  We should flatly reject continued efforts to reduce teachers’ impact to fully rational statistical outcomes that have no proper basis in research.  And we should passionately embrace those aspects of teachers’ professionalism that is immeasurable and defend them as essential to teachers’ work.  Maybe we cannot measure inspiration and passion for children and their intellectual, social, and emotional development, but without those qualities, performances on professional standards rubrics are probably meaningless.

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Filed under Data, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing

What if We Really Cared About Teacher Preparation?

Abstract

Efforts to reform teacher education in recent years have focused on demands for higher quality candidates and indicators of rigorous preparation without careful consideration of the total policy environment in which such preparation must take place.  In the era of test based accountability, efforts to recruit, prepare and induct qualified and passionate new teachers are severely hampered by contradictory and high stakes priorities enacted by state level policy makers.  In this article, I locate the different policy pressures that make thoughtful and effective teacher preparation less likely and explain what teacher preparation would look like if we took a systemic and developmental approach to teacher education that recognized how teachers learn.  Policy makers need to understand the interconnected nature of their decisions and offer policies aimed at support and growth of teachers at all experience levels and at development of capacity in universities, schools, school districts, and state offices.

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It is, of course, easy to criticize the reform plans for teacher education that are in various stages of implementation in New Jersey.  Most proposed changes exist either as evidence-free assertions that “more is better” or as potentially defensible proposals whose consequences remain unexamined.  Perhaps most importantly, they exist in tandem with other policies in both teacher preparation and education in general that seem to contradict their central premises of attracting only the best students to teacher preparation and holding them to rigorous professional standards.  Demonstrating those contradictions is an exercise that lends itself to sarcastic wit and to taking potshots at those in authority, a two for one deal that is difficult to resist.

More daunting, however, is putting forth a positive vision of what teacher preparation ought to look like if we accept the premise that all involved would favor seeing passionate and able young teachers take to our classrooms after being strongly prepared to meet the challenges of teaching.  One does not have to seek out the poorly supported declarations of agenda-driven, self-appointed “teacher quality” watchdogs to find negative assessments of teacher preparation; they are deeply embedded in the popular culture which frequently asserts that teachers are “born” rather than made.  These assertions are expertly addressed here by David Berliner, past president of the American Educational Research Association.  However, it is important to note that a belief in teaching as a craft whose knowledge cannot be learned outside of experience is common among teachers themselves and strongly related to teacher education’s continued struggles to provide meaningful contexts for practice prior to teaching (and the reality that no controlled practice environment is fully sufficient to represent full time teaching under any circumstances).

Those of us who labor in good conscience for the preparation of tomorrow’s teachers need to articulate visions of that preparation focused upon the needs of teachers and their students.  My goal here is to detail concerns and priorities that should exist at three different stages of teachers’ professional preparation: recruitment, preparation, and induction.

Recruitment

Becoming a teacher is unlike training to join most other professions in no small part due to our apparent familiarity with teaching and teachers.  Dan Lortie, in his landmark 1975 work, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, observed that a typical student spends 13,000 hours observing teachers teaching during the course of a K-12 education.  That is a remarkable level of familiarity that does not exist for professions like law, psychology, medical doctors, or nurses, and, as Lortie notes, it takes place in fairly close quarters and frequently develops interpersonal relationships as well.  A strong theme among people seeking to become teachers is a desire for continuity in the experience of school; having enjoyed school themselves and having developed meaningful relationships with teachers during the long “Apprenticeship of Observation,” many teachers enter the profession desiring not to begin anew, but rather to continue.  While the apprenticeship is lengthy, it can also be deceptive because, as Lortie notes, the student’s vantage point is substantially different from the teacher’s, and it does not lend itself to viewing teaching via pedagogy and the goal-setting orientation that drives teachers’ decision making. Regardless of the limitations of student perspectives, they do matter for future teachers, many of whom seek a teaching career based upon those perceptions and the personal value derived from them.

If future teachers develop deep seated beliefs about teachers and teaching during their prolonged experience in school, we should want that experience to convey a powerful vision of meaningful learning upon them.  Our current policy environment of “test and punish” which was instituted under the No Child Left Behind act and placed into overdrive with Race to the Top has resulted in a more narrow curriculum focused upon tested subjects and a deep decline in teacher satisfaction with their jobs.  Between 2008 and 20012, teachers who are “very satisfied” on the job declined from 62 percent to 39 percent, a 25 year low, and the percentage of teachers who report that they are “under great stress” several days each week rose to 51%. A curtailed curriculum and dissatisfied teachers who cite lack of time for professional development and collaboration with their colleagues are not ingredients for P-12 schools that will nurture the next generation of teachers.  In fact, recent evidence from the United States Department of Education shows enrollment in teacher preparation programs, including alternate route programs, dropping 10% overall nationwide with several state, such as California where applicants for teacher preparation shrunk by 53%, showing steep declines.

Policy makers need to pay especially close attention to the working conditions of teachers not merely because those conditions impact teacher satisfaction and student learning, but also because it impacts the building of professional commitment by future teachers. The idea of future teachers building their commitment throughout their long apprenticeship in P-12 education is related to the concept of teaching as vocational work, a concept that has been unwisely disregarded in this era of high stakes accountability via measurement.  David Hansen of the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote in 1994 that teachers develop a sense of their work as vocational through dispositions and through their tight connection to the very specific social context of teaching and enacting teaching.  Hansen writes that seeing teaching as a vocation…

…suggests that the person regards teaching as more than simply a choice among the array of jobs available in society.  It may even mean for such a person that there is something false about describing the desire to teach as a choice at all.  An individual who is strongly inclined toward teaching seems to be a person who is not debating whether to teach but rather is contemplating how or under what circumstances to do so.  He or she may be considering teaching in schools, in institutions of higher education, or in one of the many other social setting – from military bases to visitors’ centers – in which teaching can occur.  But it may be years before such a person takes action.  He or she may work for a long time in other lines of endeavor – business, law, parenting, the medical field – before the right conditions materialize.  This posture in fact describes may persons who are entering teaching today. To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.  (pp. 266-267)

We would do well to remember this concept for several critical reasons.  If we want young people or career switchers to become teachers, we have to accept the variety of reasons why people make the decision to teach.  Lortie’s observation that many teachers seek continuity with an experience they themselves found desirable reminds us to enable working conditions that foster teacher satisfaction, student learning, and a positive disposition towards teaching among future teachers. Excessive test preparation, teachers without time to collaborate positively with colleagues, and general stress among teachers and students act as disincentives for otherwise interested students to consider teaching and may distort vocational aspirations.

It also should caution us about the type of person who becomes interested in teaching under such circumstances, as Lortie also noted that the desire to continue in school also contributed to teacher conservatism, the impulse to replicate existing practices.  Hansen’s vocational framework deepens this dilemma because for a person to act upon a sense of vocation in a particular field there must be a field where the individual’s desire to serve and to contribute can be enacted.  Jobs incentives such as pay and benefits matter, but they will be insufficient if a potential teacher sees a field dominated by distorting policy initiatives that focus work upon aspects that detract from the sense of motivating purpose.  When accountability ceases to be a monitoring activity that reflects upon teacher effectiveness and becomes a goal in and of itself as it has in test-based accountability, we risk undermining the critical sense of self which motivates students to become teachers.

In addition to attending to the school climate that shapes potential teachers and the sense of vocation they develop prior to teacher education, policy makers need to consider what they are looking for as requirements for prospective teachers.  Many policies are aimed at driving up the academic qualifications of students seeking to become teachers, and a frequently cited “fact” about why this is important is because high performing Finland supposedly only accepts the “top 10%” of students to become teachers. While it is true that only 10% of applicants for spots in teacher training programs are accepted at Finnish universities, it is not exactly true that they are all the “top 10%”.  In fact, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and visiting professor at Harvard University, Finland’s teacher preparation programs seek applicants from across the academic spectrum in attendance at university, and they do this because “…successful education systems are more concerned about finding the right people to become career-long educators” and because the best students are not always the best teachers.  It is actually likely that students who have at least some experience struggling in school will be far more receptive to the need to differentiate their teaching and will know from experience that students can need a variety of supports in order to succeed with challenging material.  State policy makers and university based teacher preparation should look far beneath simple test scores to identify prospective teachers with genuine commitment and passion for teaching and learning.

Preparation

Situated between 13,000 hours of being a student in teachers’ classrooms and entering a profession of millions of fellow teachers are four, short, years for undergraduate teacher preparation.  Consider Lortie’s warnings about teacher sentiments.  If the long apprenticeship of observation leads prospective teachers to strong ideas about what teaching is, but those ideas cannot encompass all of the real work that makes teaching happen, and if the desire for continuity with previous school experiences leads teachers to conservatism by favoring smaller scale changes, if any, then a four year undergraduate teacher preparation experience is a necessary step to help prospective teachers enlarge not only their knowledge and teaching repertoire, but also to enlarge their vision of what teaching and learning actually are.  It stands in stark contrast to alternative pathways into teaching that rely upon teachers training on the job and without space and time to fully embrace what their work means.

Consider Maxine Greene’s warning in her 1978 essay Teaching: The Question of Personal Reality where she writes about teachers without self knowledge encountering the school system:

The problem is that, confronted with structural and political pressures, many teachers (even effectual ones) cope by becoming merely efficient, by functioning compliantly—like Kafkaesque clerks. There are many who protect themselves by remaining basically uninvolved; there are many who are so bored, so lacking in expectancy, they no longer care. I doubt that many teachers deliberately choose to act as accomplices in a system they themselves understand to be inequitable; but feelings of powerlessness, coupled with indifference, may permit the so-called “hidden curriculum” to be communicated uncritically to students. Alienated teachers, out of touch with their own existential reality, may contribute to the distancing and even to the manipulating that presumably take place in many schools….Looking back, recapturing their stories, teachers can recover their own standpoints on the social world. Reminded of the importance of biographical situation and the ways in which it conditions perspective, they may be able to understand the provisional character of their knowing, of all knowing. They may come to see that, like other living beings, they could only discern profiles, aspects of the world.

Greene’s argument points to a vital role for undergraduate teacher preparation in coaxing future teachers to understand themselves and others not merely for self reflection but also to understand that all knowledge is provisional and to value the perspectives their own students will bring with them, greatly expanding the possibilities of their own teaching. Andy Hargreaves argues that while Lortie and his successors have presented “conservatism” as a professional trait, it is actually best regarded as a “social and political ideology and power relationship,” so change “must first be needed, wanted and acknowledged” if any of the characteristics inhibiting change in teaching are to diminish.  Like Greene’s analysis, this is intensely personal and not an endeavor likely to be completed without significant time and space to challenge deeply rooted assumptions about how teachers teach and how students learn, especially students whose lives do not reflect the experiences of our mostly white, mostly middle class, teaching corps.

Gary Fenstermacher expands upon John Goodlad’s concept of teaching as practicing “stewardship” to include “a deep and thorough understanding of the nature and purpose of formal education in a free society.”   Learning to teach, then, requires a genuine commitment on the part of programs and participants to explore dispositions that allow prospective teachers to see their work not only as a continuation of their own school experience, but also as a set of experiences with potential transformative power for both their students and society.  Teacher education that does not lay that gauntlet at our students’ feet risks thoughtless replication instead of empowering improvement.

Undergraduate preparation is also an important, and sheltered, environment in which future teachers develop professional knowledge and repertoires to use in the classroom.  While popular sentiment, as mentioned previously, suggests that teachers only “know” what their students learn, that sentiment is uninformed by what it takes to transform content into something pedagogically powerful that lasts for students.  I actually sympathize with teachers who groan when someone comes along with a new “best way” to teach that is typically a repackaging of long-known ideas into a new textbook and professional development workshop series.  On the other hand, behind a lot of academic rhetoric are critically important concepts for teachers that can be effective frameworks for practice.  Linda Darling-Hammond notes that significant research demonstrates routes to teaching that lack significant pedagogical training and student teaching result in teachers who only have generic teaching skills of limited range.

Darling Hammond, however, cautions university programs against complacency, especially in critical aspects of preparation such as developing deep content and pedagogical knowledge as well as closely tying university and school based preparation together.  Many programs have extended preparation time, and a growing number of university based teacher preparation programs have expended the time and resources to develop school based partnerships where prospective teachers gain richer opportunities to practice what they are learning in environments that encourage them to learn from those experiences.  It is worth noting that when done well, such partnerships go far beyond developing teachers who can consistently check off the right ticky boxes on the Danielson framework.  Darling Hammond notes that the most promising teacher preparation practices “envision the professional teacher as one who learns from teaching rather than one who has finished learning how to teach…”  We are, in fact, talking about a stance towards professionalism as beginning with strong skills and continuously learning and developing rather than simply achieving specific point ranges on a rubric.

Sharon Feiman-Nemser characterized the central tasks of teacher preparation as “analyzing beliefs and forming new visions, developing subject matter knowledge for teaching, developing understanding of learners and learning, developing a beginning repertoire, and developing the tools to study teaching.”  To accomplish such tasks, teacher preparation programs need “conceptual coherence” meaning programs need to be organized around central principles that inform the structure, content, and assessment of courses and experiences and sequences them so that prospective teachers have the best possible chances to develop their abilities.  Articulating a conceptual vision is not simply slapping a “mission statement” on a website, then; rather, it is a core set of beliefs guiding decision making and how evidence is used for program development.

Programs also need “purposeful, integrated field experiences.”  This critical component to teacher preparation allows prospective teachers to gain practical experience applying their growing knowledge and teaching repertoire, and it allows them to test teaching theories in supported environments.  Feiman-Nemser notes that promising programs include a variety of activities for prospective teachers in the field that prompt them to think critically about their experience so that the traditional divide between theory and practice is lessened.  Kenneth Zeichner writes that the traditional disconnect can be diminished by programs creating “hybrid spaces” where the expertise and knowledge held by teachers is given equal footing with the academic knowledge housed at university campuses.  He further notes that a growing body of research demonstrates that teacher preparation programs that coordinate course activities and assignments with “carefully mentored” field experiences better prepare teachers who are able to “successfully enact complex teaching practices.”

Undergraduate programs further need to pay “attention to teachers as learners.”  Programs have to prompt their students to challenge and extend their existing assumptions about teaching and learning, and they have to actively help them challenge those assumptions “in response to students’ changing knowledge, skills, and beliefs.”  As Feiman-Nemser points out, this is not merely a disposition to be fostered in prospective teachers, but also it is one that should be modeled by program faculty who engage in teaching methods they expect of their students.  Such preparation to teach and to learn from teaching serves the interests of program graduates’ future students, and it gives the graduates skills they will need to make best use of their need to learn and develop when they enter the profession full time.

It should be noted that elements such as these in teacher preparation require more than program faculty who are conscious of these elements and conscientious about the need to make certain all teacher candidates enjoy preparation guided by these principles.  Elements of this work are entirely within the control of teacher education programs, and, notably, state level policies on the qualifications of teacher candidates have very little impact upon them except to narrow the pipeline of potential future teachers.  However, other elements depend heavily upon state and local policies, and they can be negatively impacted by them.  Zeichner notes that the kind of clinical work that is necessary for teacher education to be effective is still rarely valued at research universities, and that faculty who take the time and effort to foster genuine two-way ties with practicing teachers suffer detrimental consequences to their careers.  Further, in a time of continued cuts to state support for higher education, it is exceptionally hard for university programs to build and scale the kinds of meaningful partnerships in local schools needed to prepare prospective teachers.  If we expect teacher education to provide excellent preparation, policy makers need to facilitate the necessary elements of that preparation.

Also, we need policy makers to consider the environment that they are pushing into our public schools.  Teaching is a time consuming and demanding profession even under ideal circumstances; increased demands upon teachers with no changes in their other work requirements serves as a disincentive to accept novices in their classrooms.  The impacts of state policies on teachers is no small matter.  In New Jersey, all teachers have to submit Student Growth Objectives as part of their annual evaluation, and while the early explanation of SGOs suggested a potentially valuable process of self examination with the support of administrators, the reality is a time consuming mess for which teachers have received little training and even less time.  Page 16 of the state distributed SGO Guidebook is a textbook case of instructing people to create meaningless tables that resemble statistical analysis but bear absolutely no resemblance to statistics done with any integrity.  Teachers in subjects that are tested in the PARCC consortium exams are also evaluated using Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) which have some advantage over value added models by being relatively stable but which are also statistically correlated with the percentage of children in poverty.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers sarcastically and correctly questions the validity of SGPs since they only seem to work if we assume that, somehow, the only truly effective teachers in the state of New Jersey ended up in wealthy school districts.

Given the demands to produce laborious yet meaningless statistical analyses of themselves and given the use of questionable measures of their teaching effectiveness via student test scores, it is perhaps miraculous that any teachers at all agree to work with inexperienced undergraduates in field placements and in student teaching.  However, we might all legitimately ask policy makers what conditions they envision enabling truly deep and risky work with novices in public schools?  Are teachers enabled with the time and support to mentor?  Are principals and other administrators given the chance to be instructional leaders who foster collaboration and professional growth?  Are there incentives and funding necessary to develop actual two-way collaboration between universities and schools?

Induction

The early career phase and its steep learning curve seems more and more like an abandoned concept in today’s policy environment, yet it remains critically important.  A simple reality is that regardless of the quality of teacher preparation, there is only just so much that can be done prior to actually teaching.  It is not that high quality programs do not prepare teachers more able to take on their full time responsibilities; it is that the mediated and supported environment of teacher education and mentored field experiences cannot fully replicate the reality of full time classroom teaching with the full range of both instructional responsibilities and demands to acculturate to a new school and community.  Teachers have been, traditionally, placed into their first classroom on the exact same footing as their experienced peers and expected to perform with only those supports either in place or absent from the schools in which they work.

This is no small matter because, far from the “crisis” of tenured teachers resting on their laurels as portrayed by anti-union activists like Campbell Brown, our schools face a far more serious problem with excessive turn over and the early exit of young teachers from the profession.  Richard Ingersoll demonstrates that teacher turnover is a significant phenomenon and a substantial factor in the need for new teachers each year.  Additional research by Dr. Ingersoll for the Alliance for Excellent Education calculates that the movement of teachers from one school to another and the replacement of teachers who leave the profession entirely costs upwards of $2.2 billion each year.  Dr. Helen Ladd of Duke University reports that in 2008, more than a quarter of our nation’s teachers had five years of experience or less, and that concentrations of teachers with limited experience are found in schools serving underprivileged children.  This is especially problematic given that teachers gain in effectiveness very rapidly in the early career with a general leveling off after 15 years of experience;  Dr. Ladd’s research found that teachers with that level of experience are generally twice as effective as teachers with only two years in the classroom.  Experienced teachers provide schools and students with other advantages as well, but the general point should be clear:  we can increase requirements on teacher preparation and upon graduates of teacher preparation all we want, but if the systemic ignoring of the early teaching career continues, those changes will yield nothing.

Researchers from Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers have found that working conditions are the strongest predictor of why teachers leave a given school or the profession.  Among the school climate elements that impact teacher turnover are the level of trust and support apparent in administration, higher levels of order denoted by matters like student absenteeism and respect, and collegiality in the form of strong support and rapport among teachers.  Further, the researchers note that while policy makers can try to impact these aspects of the school environment, they are unlikely to succeed without careful attention to capacity building in the schools and in the district and state offices that seek positive change.  For example, expanded and positive collegial interaction requires serious consideration of teaching schedules and administrative duties, so that they can focus upon planning and collaboration with colleagues and curriculum experts, practices that are implemented in higher performing countries.  This is not work that can be accomplished on the cheap by rewriting regulations; it needs funding and direct support.

While such initiatives would benefit teachers across the experience levels, special attention should be paid to teachers in the early stage of their career.  Before test based accountability dominated the school landscape, we had good evidence that school culture and climate mattered significantly for the success and retention of new teachers.  According to Susan M. Kardos and associates, schools that were characterized as having “integrated” professional cultures had a blend of experience levels among teachers and new teachers found high levels of support and sustain collaboration across experience levels that was supported by administrators.  In such schools, new teachers were not expected to be polished veterans and found serious efforts taken to provide them with appropriate mentors and to regard them as learning and developing colleagues.  Making such environments work requires shared norms that are supported by administrators who work to provide the time and space necessary for productive collaboration across different experience levels of teachers with an expressed goal of improving teaching and learning.

While inspired leadership can build such environments, policy makers can assist by taking the induction period seriously and by seeing that mentoring of new teachers is not a haphazard add on to teachers’ existing work.  Feiman-Nemser makes clear that induction of new teachers will happen whether or not it is designed by policy because regardless of the quality of their preparation, new teachers must undertake the following tasks in their early career: gaining local knowledge of students, curriculum, and school context, designing responsive curriculum and instruction, enacting a beginning repertoire in purposeful ways, creating a classroom learning community, developing a professional identity, and learning in and from practice.  While quality teacher preparation can lay the groundwork for all of these tasks, they must be implemented within a specific school and community context for a new teacher to be successful, and that process can either be left to chance or policy can seek to increase the number of fruitful contexts for induction so novices are not left to rely upon luck for their specific needs to be recognized and addressed.

Formalizing induction can take different approaches, and policy makers need to carefully consider how they wish to support the matter.  Feiman-Nemser observes that promising induction policies seek mentors for new teachers who are appropriate given the context and people involved and allow reduced teaching loads so that novices and mentors can actually collaborate.  Strong induction programs also allow for novice development over a period of time, so policy should not confine mentoring and support to just the first year of teaching.  Mentors provide genuine and constructive feedback aimed at improving novice practice, and schools and districts provide regular development specific to the needs of novice teachers.  Effective mentoring and induction also embraces the dual role of assistance and assessment of novices, so mentors cannot simply confine themselves to a cheer leading role; their practice has to come with tools and dispositions aimed at improving novice teaching.  Just as we recognize that the very best students are not always destined to become the very best teachers, we recognize that the very best teachers are not always well-suited for mentoring.  Novices need “caring and competent mentors” who are well prepared for their role and given training to understand how to teach teachers.  Under ideal circumstances, the mentoring process is two way as mentor teachers, in the process of supporting and teaching novices, sharpen their abilities to observe, analyze, collaborate, assess, coach and other skills important to their improvement of teachers and schools.

It must be noted again that such work and policy does not come without cost.  Schools and districts coping with decreased state spending on education, are unlikely to afford resource and personnel intensive policies on their own.  If districts can find additional funding, it seems likely they will use it to make up for cuts to programs previously supported by the state (In New Jersey, for example, over 11,000 vulnerable students lost access to after school programs between the hours of 3 and 6pm in the 2011 budget cuts).  However, if policy makers are serious about the need for high quality teachers, and if they see the threats to teacher quality and student learning inherent in early career turnover, then they must consider legitimate efforts to create early career induction and mentoring within integrated professional cultures as the norm rather than as lucky exceptions.

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Policy makers have to consider the kinds of school environments their efforts have developed.  Just as teacher stress and job dissatisfaction are serious impediments to recruiting prospective teachers to the field, and just as evaluation requirements that force teachers to create meaningless reports of their teaching and to increase the amount of time spent on test preparation stand in the way of experienced teachers opening their classrooms to novices, those same policies are inherent barriers to instituting deliberate policies of mentoring and induction.  Test based accountability and evaluation tasks with little inherent legitimacy but high time commitments are distorting elements in today’s schools.  They absorb time and priority from even the very best teachers in our schools, and they given nothing of value in return.  Worse, they serve as a disincentive for teachers who would be genuinely accomplished mentors of preservice and early career teachers to even consider taking on the role.

Policy needs a serious realignment to consider what practices can be instituted that would shift accountability from a test and punish focus and into a support and growth focus when it comes to teacher quality.  Recruitment of students into teacher preparation can only happen in an environment when the actual rewards of teaching are evident.  Most teachers would be unlikely to turn down an offer of better salaries across the board, but by overwhelming margins, teachers want to be able to work for the best of their students and they want more time and resources to do that well.  Current policies in most jurisdictions simply pile more work on teachers with fewer resources and demand growth in test scores as the main indicator of success.

Higher demands on teacher education are not made in a vacuum.  It may be defensible to seek higher entrance requirements into teacher education and to call for more work in the field by teacher candidates, but the development of genuinely quality partnerships between schools and universities is resource and time intensive work that is difficult to accomplish simply by fiat from state capitols.  Capacity must be built at all levels of the system, and resources in the form of money and development time have to be built into the changes for work to be genuinely meaningful.  Further, experienced teachers, even those disposed to mentoring, cannot be fairly expected to participate in increased responsibilities for teacher education under current circumstances.

In the era of test based accountability, little attention has been given to the needs of novice teachers during their induction period, and that has continued the long standing and increasingly unsustainable churn in early career teaching.  Our schools lose both money and valuable experience as the unique needs in induction remain met only by haphazard circumstance rather than by a systemic focus on novices as learners, colleagues as mentors, and teachers as growing throughout their careers.  While school climate cannot be commanded from afar, policy makers ignore the circumstances that they incentivize at the peril of both teachers and students.  Induction of novice teachers will happen whether we attend to it or not, and failing to do so in any systemic way perpetuates the current “system” that has no focus or operating principles.

Becoming a teacher is frequently a lengthy journey.  Our future teachers are in our public schools right now forming their earliest, and sometimes most enduring, ideals about what purposes are served by public education and what the work of teaching and learning entails.  This time period is absolutely essential to the formation of their sense of vocation and commitment to the best ideals of education.  Entry into teacher preparation, in many senses, begins with the first desire to be like a child’s favorite teacher, but the path laid before that prospective teacher is one within the influence of policy.  If we want that path to be both effective and purposeful, then we need to understand it and use policy to enable its best possibilities.

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Ravitch, D. (2014, March 24). How New Jersey is Trying to Break its Teachers. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/03/28/teacher-how-new-jersey-is-trying-to-break-its-teachers/

Sahlberg, P. (2015, March 31). Q: What Makes Finnish Teachers So Special? A: It’s Not Brains. The Guardian. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/31/finnish-teachers-special-train-teach

Sawchuck, S. (2014, October 21). Steep Drops Seen in Teacher-Prep Enrollment Numbers. Edweek. Retrieved April 19, 2015 from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/10/22/09enroll.h34.html.

Simon, N., Moore Johnson, S. (2013). Teacher Turnover in High Poverty Schools: What We Know and Can Do. (Working Paper: Project on the Next Generation of Teachers). Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1231814.files//Teacher%20Turnover%20in%20High-Poverty%20Schools.pdf.

Taylor, A. (2011, December 14). 26 Amazing Facts About Finland’s Unorthodox Education System. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.businessinsider.com/finland-education-school-2011-12#teachers-are-selected-from-the-top-10-of-graduates-19

Zeichner, K. (2010). Rethinking the Connections Between Campus Courses and Field Experiences in College- And University-Based Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), 89-99.

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Filed under Funding, NCLB, politics, schools, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

When “Evaluation” Means “Ruin Teaching”

Observers of the budget negotiation process in Albany, N.Y. had some reasons to be hopeful over the past week.  Various reports indicated that the new Assembly Speaker, Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx, was holding firm against various education proposals from Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Backed by polling showing the public in New York dead set against the Governor’s proposals by wide margins, it looked like much of the education agenda laid out in the January budget address was at risk.  And early reports from Sunday suggested that the Assembly representatives secured significant increases in education aid and managed to trim a number of the worst proposals from the budget framework.  An aid increase between $1.4-$1.6 billion dollars is in the agreement, and Governor Cuomo’s plans to lift the charter school cap and provide a new tax credit for donations to private schools are both absent from the framework.

Teacher evaluations and tenure, however, remained problematic.  The evaluation agreement still relies upon standardized testing, outside evaluations, and principal evaluations, but at unspecified weightings.  In a tenure process extended to four years, new teachers would have to have three years rated as “effective” to earn tenure, and teachers earning “ineffective” in consecutive years would face an expedited removal process of 90 days.  Reports of these proposals reaching the budget framework obviously concerned those hoping for relief from test based accountability and an evaluation process that recognized the mounting evidence against value-added models of teacher effectiveness based on standardized tests.

Oh, what a difference 12 hours has made.

Not only are the evaluation proposals worse than originally feared, but also the desperately needed increase in school aid is contingent upon cities and towns adopting the evaluation framework and having it approved by Albany before November.  According to the Capital New York report, Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner explained the following details of the agreed upon evaluation framework in the budget negotiation:

  • Increase in state aid will not happen if a district fails to submit a new evaluation and have it approved by November 15th.
  • Tenure will be extended to a four year process, and a probationary teacher must have an “effective” or better rating for three of those four years.  A rating of “ineffective” in the fourth year will deny tenure.
  • The state Education Department will be tasked with creating a “matrix” based upon test scores, outside evaluators, and principal evaluations; districts may request an additional state examination to be developed by the NYSED, but it is unclear how many districts would want more testing in the current environment.

These conditions were on top of earlier reports that stated that the evaluation system would be designed so that a teacher who is found “ineffective” based on the testing portion of the matrix will not be able to be rated higher than “developing” overall regardless of the observation scores.  In essence, the state Education Department has until June to craft a teacher evaluation system where test scores will govern whether or not a teacher can be rated “effective,” and districts have until November to submit their plans to implement such a system or they will receive none of the budgeted aid increase.

This is not a plan to strengthen teaching.  This is a plan to use test scores to severely curtail the teaching profession in the state of New York.

The reasons not to use value-added models for teacher evaluation are numerous, but the most important ones are:

  1. Teacher input on the differences among student test scores is too low and the models used to locate that input are not reliable enough to be used to evaluate individual teachers.  This is the judgement of the American Statistical Association whose statement on using value-added models makes it clear the models have very large standard errors that make ranking teachers by them unstable.
  2. The instability of VAMs is considerable, and teachers who are deemed “irreplaceable” because of a VAM ranking in one year can be ranked very differently in subsequent years.
  3. Even teachers who are known to be excellent and teach advanced students can be found “ineffective” by VAM ranking.  Working in an excellent school with highly privileged students who score extremely well on tests is not a guarantee of an effective VAM ranking.
  4. Teachers who score well on VAM ranking do not necessarily score well when their students are tested on measures of critical thinking, suggesting that VAMs do a poor job of finding out which teachers are actually promoting meaningful learning with their students.

What possible outcome will be the result of the teacher evaluation proposals in Albany?  For starters, it will not only be much more difficult to obtain tenure, it may become impossible without converting significant portions of the curriculum into test preparation.  If teachers are held to a top ranking of “developing” if the test based portion of the evaluation is “ineffective” then it is distressingly possible that many new teachers will not be able to reach “effective” or better for three out of four years, and it will be through no fault of their own given the problems with VAM derived rankings.  Just as the No Child Left Behind act resulted in a narrowed curriculum due to pressure from high stakes testing, New York is poised to exacerbate that problem, and parents can expect their children to spend fewer hours with social studies, science, art, music, health, and physical education.  The final results of the budget negotiation may not be as bad as Governor Cuomo initially proposed, but there is still a hefty dose of poison in it that threatens to increase the replacement of our schools’ curricula with testing while gaining no actual improvement in the teacher workforce.

Noticeably absent from anyone in Albany who professes to care about the quality of teachers in the Empire State?  Support.  Meaningful professional development and education.  Mentoring and induction proposals.  While there is no “one size fits all” in helping teachers grow in their jobs, there are general principles that matter.  The Albany budget negotiations offer no support for schools to improve their working conditions and general environment, factors that research shows have impact on both teacher satisfaction and student learning independent of demographics of the school.  Supporting principals in being genuine instructional leaders within their schools and providing teachers with real opportunities to collaborate and to lead across experience levels would do far more to substantively improve student achievement than hanging yet one more Sword of Damocles over teachers’ heads.  Doing so would require an actual investment of funds and resources not tied to blackmail demands.

That might be a novel approach for Albany these days, but it is the only one that is right.

New York Assembly members can be found and contacted from this page.  Members of the Senate can be found here.  The New York State Allies for Public Education has a list of the important leaders’ offices here.  Every phone call, email, and Tweet makes a statement.

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Filed under Corruption, Funding, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, politics, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Does Anyone in Education Reform Care If Teaching is a Profession?

Bob Braun, retired veteran reporter for the New jersey Star Ledger and current independent blogger, reported earlier this month that state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson announced that Newark teachers seeking graduate education would only get district stipends if they did all of their study at the Relay “Graduate School of Education.”  For those who are unfamiliar, Relay “Graduate School of Education” was singled out as an innovator by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last November, but it is a “Graduate School of Education” that has not a single professor or doctoral level instructor or researcher affiliated with it.  In essence, it is a partnership of charter school chains Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First, and it is housed in the Uncommon Schools affiliated North Star Academy.  Relay’s “curriculum” mostly consists of taking the non-certified faculty of the charter schools, giving them computer delivered modules on classroom management (and distributing copies of Teach Like a Champion), and placing them under the auspices of the “no excuses” brand of charter school operation and teachers who already have experience with it.

In the case of North Star Academy in Newark, that means that the teachers who earn certification through Relay “Graduate School of Education” will have “instructors” who meet state requirements for faculty degrees by the school claiming “equivalency” because they are such amazing teachers who get amazing results.  In Relay’s words that is “the equivalent of the leading entrepreneur teaching in MBA programs or the leading writers and artists teaching in MFA programs.”  That’s quite a lofty claim, especially when Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University has demonstrated (repeatedly) that the “awesome” results of North Star are deeply connected to how the school has many fewer students with high needs due to poverty, language, or disabilities issues, how it suspends students at rates much higher than district schools, and how an African American male who enrolls in 5th grade has only a 40% chance to staying at the school until 12th grade.

So, there you have it: a “Graduate School of Education” without a single professor of education, offering teacher certification and degrees to the employees of the charter school in which it is housed, specializing in a curriculum that emphasizes teaching and discipline strategies that successfully drive away more than half the students whose families deliberately sought out the school in the first place. And THIS will be the sole provider of compensated continuing education for all of the teachers in the Newark Public Schools.

sheldon-throwspapers

What makes the embrace of Relay “Graduate School of Education” in Newark, Trenton, and Washington D.C. so frustrating is that university-based teacher preparation continues to have the standards for our graduates raised by the very same entities that think Relay should be allowed to call itself a graduate school and confer certification and degrees.  Trenton, in particular, is barreling ahead with proposed revisions to teacher certification rules that university-based programs will need to adhere to whether or not there is evidence that they will result in better teachers.  Currently, the young people who wish to become teachers must meet entrance criteria upon matriculating at our school.  Once in they must maintain a minimum GPA to take classes in their education major.  In addition to a full major in education courses, they must have a major in a content field within the College of Arts and Sciences, and they must take additional coursework in a liberal arts core to fulfill both university requirements and state requirements of a minimum number of credits in liberal arts courses.  Our program has extensive field work prior to student teaching that go beyond current state requirements that our students must coordinate with their full time class schedule.  The state also requires that all students seeking certification pass Praxis II examinations.  Various changes to the code requirements are under consideration in Trenton, all of which will make it more difficult for people to seek certification at universities.  Entrance requirements may be increased, or potential students can demonstrate “readiness” to begin their studies with another standardized exam.  The state is considering requiring what would amount to a year-long student teaching experience, and the next version of the state code will almost certainly require teacher candidates to submit a performance assessment to the state which, for all intents and purposes, will require most universities to adopt Pearson’s EdTPA assessment.

All of this probably sounds great if you agree uncritically with self appointed teacher quality watchdog, National Council on Teacher Quality, that declared teacher preparation an “industry of mediocrity” in a report so exhaustively researched that they failed to visit a single university campus and gleaned most of their quality “data” from online catalogs and program descriptions.  For more cautious observers, changes like these might be intriguing, but they come with questions and trade offs.  The biggest question is whether there is any evidence at all that trimming the available corps of potential teachers entering preparation and then holding those who make it in to more rigorous benchmarks will result in better learning in their eventual classrooms.  Critics of traditional teacher preparation often criticize the academic caliber of students entering teacher preparation without noting a very obvious point: if being the best student was absolutely essential to being the best teacher, then the nation’s professoriate would enjoy a much better reputation for teaching skills.

However, even beyond the question of evidence, advocates for increasing requirements on traditional teacher preparation need to acknowledge there are trade offs for increasing standards and requirements this way. Increasing the necessary test scores for entry into a program means that certain populations of students may not be able to even begin teacher preparation and prove their ability in a timely fashion and be effectively locked out of undergraduate study in the field (you can have one guess about from which communities most students who might not meet this hurdle would likely come).  A full year in the classroom for student teaching is an appealing idea  — that comes with massive logistical challenges for students trying to get all of their coursework completed in just 4 years and might make undergraduate preparation unworkable for transfer students and community college graduates.  A state required performance assessment is an idea worth exploring, but with indications that the state is willing to simply farm this out of a major testing corporation at a cost of $300 out of pocket for students, there should be a robust debate on the instrument itself and the ethics of tying up another certification requirement with a corporate revenue stream.

Assuming these issues could be resolved favorably and equitably, there is another issue to consider.  Current conditions and proposed changes all appear aimed at trying to ensure that high caliber students and high caliber students only enter and make it through traditional teacher preparation.  That goal might be defensible, but what, exactly, is Trenton, or any other state capitol for that matter, doing to make teaching an attractive prospect for such high caliber students?  Chris Christie breaking his own pension reform obligations probably isn’t a big incentive.  Despite claims to the contrary, New Jersey teacher salaries are not comparable to other professionals with similar education levels.  In my 22 years in education and higher education, I have yet to meet a single teacher who thinks the distorting stakes attached to current high stakes examinations would be a job perk.  The callous havoc unleashed upon school districts under state control by Trenton appointed superintendents cannot make many of the state’s best and brightest want to work in urban schools.  While Governor Chris Christie has not yet traveled to the New Jersey Education Association annual meeting in Atlantic City to personally beat up a teacher on the boardwalk, he has yelled at several of the state’s teachers in person and accused them of using students “like drug mules” for a Project Democracy assignment near school elections.  All of this is certainly going to entice New Jersey’s best students to accrue debt and work hard to enter a profession held in such esteem by the highest offices in the state:

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers' Public Esteem Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

The disconnect between allowing Relay “school” to operate while placing these requirements on traditional programs and leveling this much disrespect upon working teachers is staggering.  To a degree, those of us in academic teacher preparation have ourselves to blame for some of this.  As the first wave of the “failing schools narrative” took shape with the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, numerous reports and proposals were released that focused upon “professionalizing” the field of teaching, conjuring a future where the teacher workforce more closely resembled higher status professions in career trajectory and in clinical preparation.  While the wholesale transformation never happened, the clinical preparation ideology is well entrenched within different teaching standards, accreditation organizations, and among no small share of teacher educators themselves, and David Labaree of Stanford University noted in the early nineties that this focus emphasized teaching as a technical, rational, activity and potentially shut out public input the way medical fields protect their specialized knowledge.  Indeed, by accepting wide swaths of the teaching as technical/rational viewpoint, teacher education has limited the role of powerful visions of teacher development that embrace all of teaching’s complexities and, as Ruth Vinz wrote, begin “to look behind the act, the formula, the answers to the causes, conditions, and contexts.”  We have, in fact, participated in portraying teaching as technical practice whose most important aspects are measurable, so it is little wonder that policy makers are hurling a runaway train through that opening.

However, given the promotion of Relay “Graduate School of Education” and given the continuous disrespect and degradation of working conditions heaped upon teachers, I cannot accept that Trenton is really trying to elevate the profession — in either a technical manner or not.  Taken together, the current and proposed policy environment seems more geared towards greatly decreasing the number of teachers who obtain certificates via traditional teacher preparation while opening the door for many, many more to enter teaching via what amounts to on the job training without ever having studied for the job in the first place.  Trenton, intentionally or not, is engineering a shortage of teachers with credentials from undergraduate study, which will result in more schools like Relay “Graduate School of Education” being “needed” to fill in the gap by certifying their own employees.  Those who survive the “churn and burn” for which charter schools are famous would have state issued credentials to move on to fully public schools.

Or perhaps they won’t.  I find it hard to believe that today’s education “reformers” really believe that teaching is a profession at all.  If they did, the pressure to make certain only top students enter university-based teacher preparation and then to make sure those students have rigorous preparation would be coupled with similar efforts to raise the attractiveness of teaching as a lifelong career.  Instead, reformers act as if they believe that teaching is something you do in your twenties when you are idealistic and want to “give something back”  — and then you move on to a “real career” in some other sector.  If your charter school bosses like you, perhaps they will make you a school principal before you are 30, or they will set you on a path to become Commissioner of Education for the state of New York when you are only 36 years old.  But mostly, they will thank you for a few years of service and see you off to your grown up life outside of education.  After all, reformers’ favorite schools — “no excuses” charters — manage to train their students into “little test taking machines” without very many career teachers, so why should reformers really value teachers who dedicate their entire adult lives to teaching?  That people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are dedicated and developing professionals who wish to remain in the classroom must seem like an amusing and quaint anachronism to them.

The teachers I know and work with are not laughing.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, teacher learning, Testing

A New Year’s Resolution for Ed “Reformers” — Remember Our Future Teachers Are In The Schools You Are “Reforming”

About five years back, I got my first impression that our older child might potentially decide to become a teacher.  It was during what I thought was going to be a game of “Hungry Hungry Hippos” which took quite an unexpected turn when our child took all of the marbles, placed them neatly in the center of the game, and told the hippos that they all had to “wait for snack time.”  Over time and with more time in school, other hints have cropped up such as an almost immediate affinity for any teacher at the head of the classroom, a willingness to respect norms of classroom behavior, an almost obsessive love of certain stories and storytelling, a fascination with explaining acquired knowledge to others, giddy excitement at the opportunity to do a presentation for students in a lower grade, and a certain flair for the theatrical.  While this same child is also a bit of a homework resister and not a fan of rote tasks, I can see aspects of a “born teacher” growing up (even though these same traits could apply to other fields).

This lines up well with what we know about how individual students make the decision to become teachers.  It is not a process that begins simply with a sudden decision to teach.  Rather, it unfolds over time during the some 13,000 hours that students spend in contact with classroom teachers from Kindergarten to 12th grade, a period that Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” in his 1975 work, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.  Those who decide to teach have prolonged and substantial experiences with people practicing their chosen profession over the course of 13 years, and many potential teachers wish to teach because they, themselves, enjoyed being taught.  They found the study of subjects and school itself to be enjoyable.  While many of the ideas about what teaching actually is that are formed during this observational period are simplistic and need to be challenged both in teacher preparation and throughout the career, it remains true that school is the most active recruiter of future teachers.  If my older child does decide to become a teacher, like most others who choose the field, it will be out of a desire to share with future generations of students a love of learning and to make their school experiences enjoyable, joyous, and inspirational as well.

That is, if Governor Andrew Cuomo and Board of Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch manage to not ruin New York’s schools first.

That statement is not made even a little bit tongue in cheek because both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Tisch have made it abundantly clear in the past month that their dissatisfaction with New York teacher evaluations will not go unanswered and their likely “solution” will unleash a torrent of perverse incentives upon our schools.  Andrew Cuomo signaled his intentions to make teacher evaluations more “rigorous” just before the election with newspaper interviews and public statements.  The process was set in motion last month with a letter from Jim Malatras, director of state operations, to Dr. Tisch and outgoing New York State Education Department Commissioner Dr. John King.  The letter opens with the now familiar refrain that the new Common Core aligned state examinations are showing far too few of graduating seniors being “college ready” (even though the proficiency levels, which were set with cut scores pinned to the SAT scores of successful college freshmen, slightly exceed the percentage of New Yorkers over 25 with a bachelor’s degree), and then laments about the unacceptability of the situation.  Teacher and blogger Peter Greene nearly dissects the letter in this post, and among its many facets is a clear desire to make it far easier to get rid of teachers and to increase the number of teachers found ineffective and thus able to be removed from the classroom.

On December 29th, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill his office had originally drafted that would have given teachers a two year grace period from the new exams being used to remove them from the classroom, a move that starkly reversed his pre-election promises to give the new systems more time to be understood.  Questioned on his change of course, the governor raised the irrelevant specter of child abusers remaining in the classroom, “I understand the union’s issue; they don’t want anyone fired,” Cuomo said. “But we have teachers that have been found guilty of sexually abusing students who we can’t get out of the classroom.”  He did not explain himself with any specific cases of teachers actually found guilty of sexual abuse still teaching, nor did he explain how tying more of teachers’ evaluations to student test scores will get abusers out of schools faster, but he did join both Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown in trying to scare people into endorsing radical changes to teachers’ workplace protections.

Dr. Tisch responded to Mr. Malatras’ letter with her own set of priorities to tie far more of teachers’ evaluations directly to student progress in the state examinations and possibly eliminating local measures of teacher effectiveness altogether.  2013 New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris explains in this article what Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo appear to be proposing:

The system she wants to change is one that she created several years ago with former education commissioner John King, which was put into law by the New York Legislature and that was rushed into place by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who denied districts state aid if they did not adopt it. It became mandatory for teachers and principals to be evaluated in part by student standardized test scores.

The short version of what she wants to do now is this—double down on test scores and strip away the power of local school boards to negotiate the majority of the evaluation plan. Tisch would get rid of the locally selected measures of achievement, which now comprise 20 percent of the evaluation, and double the state test score portion, to 40 percent. She also recommends that the score ranges for the observation process be taken out of the hands of local districts, and be determined by Albany instead.

Principal Burris further notes that Dr. Tisch appears intent on ensuring that the predicted growth of students on standardized tests be the supreme measure of teacher effectiveness, suggesting that teachers found ineffective by those measures be found ineffective overall and removed from the classroom after two such ratings.  Such a system would provide no room for a principal to protect a teacher known locally as both effective and valued by the community, as Principal Burris relates in the story of a teacher from Great Neck who would fall victim to Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo.  Given the growing understanding that value added measures (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness rely upon tests not designed to detect teacher input, are highly unstable, and cannot account for teacher impact on variability among student scores, it is quite apt that Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley of Arizona State University and a leading researcher on value-added measures, described the proposal as going from “bad to idiotic.”

This aggressive move to double the value added portion of teacher evaluations and to override local measures in favor of standardized tests is bad for teachers, and it is potentially even worse for students.  By doubling the state examination’s role, eliminating locally chosen measures, and potentially overriding any consideration other than the state examination, Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo are proposing a system where teachers would face strong incentives to push test preparation into a central role in the curriculum.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor Schools in Washington, D.C. demonstrated the not excusable but entirely predictable results of tying people’s job security to capriciously unstable measures of their effectiveness.  Less drastic, but potentially more widely damaging for more students, is the evidence that raising the stakes on standardized tests to these extremes will result in an even narrower curriculum than under the original No Child Left Behind provisions which have already reduced time spent on non-tested content and increased teacher centered instruction.  In New York State this will be compounded by the constant gaming of state aid from the Cuomo administration that has coincided with increased demands on districts, especially struggling districts, to perform at higher levels.

It takes no powers of prognostication to see where New York schools are headed if the Governor and Chancellor get their way.

John I. Goodlad, a giant in education research in the second half of the 20th century, passed away at the age of 94 on November 29th of last year.  In his 1984 book, A Place Called School, he asked, “Boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions. … Why are our schools not places of joy?”  The Cuomo/Tisch goals for teacher evaluation are almost guaranteed to drive a huge amount of joy right out of our schools alongside art, music, civics, and health.  Teachers and students will have less room to explore, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and shared purposes for education outside of test performance will be even further diminished.

And this is where education “reformers” need to think especially carefully because it is not just the schools of today that they are impacting.  Children in Kindergarten today were born in 2009.  Several 100 thousand of them will likely be first year teachers by the year 2031-2032, and the kinds of teachers they will become will be greatly influenced by what school is like for them between now and their graduation from high school as the class of 2027.  Will their schools be places of extreme test preparation, didactic instruction, and a curriculum that is narrowed by the parameters of tests?  Will these future teachers learn that school is supposed to be emulate even a fraction of the stress and narrowness of the Chinese cram school portrayed in this recent New York Times Magazine? Will there be joy?  And if not, what kinds of future teachers will emerge from those schools to teach the generations behind them?

So, education “reformers” — a New Year’s Resolution for you just as America’s teachers are returning for the second half of the year: The next generation of teachers are currently in the schools that you are reforming. Resolve not to wipe out the joy.

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Filed under schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

What Education “Reformers” Do Not Understand About Teaching and Learning

It is often hard to understand the disconnect that seems to exist between the belief of prominent figures in education reform and the reality of teaching in America’s classrooms.  For example, at the end of September, Politico published an interview with self appointed education reformer Bill Gates, whose documented support for the Common Core State Standards, mass high stakes testing, teacher evaluations tied to testing and charter schools has greatly influenced the reform landscape of the past decade.  Gates, perhaps taking part in the efforts of reformers to have a “new conversation” to save the Common Core, treads familiar territory for himself in this interview.  Previously, he called upon teachers to defend the Common Core by appealing to its obvious utility and comparing it to industry standardization:

“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

If states use common academic standards, the quality of classroom materials and professional development will improve, Gates said. Much of that material will be digital tools that are personalized to the student, he said. “To get this innovation out, common standards will be helpful,” he said.

He sounds off on similar themes in the Politico article, stating, ““Should Georgia have a different railroad width than anybody else? Should they teach multiplication in a different way? Oh, that’s brilliant. Who came up with that idea?”  Let me pause for a moment and give the technology mogul his due.  In industry, he is correct that standardized platforms for, say, delivering useful electricity from a wall socket, help spur technological innovations that make consumers’ lives better.  However, let me also state that the question of how to teach a child multiplication or how to read is vastly more complicated and has infinitely more variables than the question of how to attach an electric motor to a hand blender.

And besides, as teacher and blogger Peter Green notes, Gates simply does not understand the parameters of his metaphor and why it does not apply to teaching and learning.  Green writes:

Railroad gauges and plug configurations are, within certain engineering requirements, fairly arbitrary choices. Had railroad gauges been set a few inches wider or a few inches, it would not matter. The purpose of setting a standard is not to impose a choice that’s a better choice for the rails, but to impose a choice that makes all the rails work as parts of a larger whole. Within certain extremes, there’s no bad choice for gauge width; the actual width of the gauge matters less than the uniformity.

Decisions about educational standards are not arbitrary. Some educational choices are better than others, and those choices matter in and of themselves. The choice of standards matters far more than the uniformity. Human children are not in school for the primary purpose of being fitted to become part of a larger whole. Imposing a bad standards choice simply to have uniformity is a disastrous choice, but that is what the Common Core has done– sacrificed good standards in order to have uniformity, which is not even a desirable goal for human children in the first place.

Green’s point here should be crystal clear to anyone who is either connected to schooling or willing to think like those involved:  standards in education have to pay far more attention to the quality and impact of the standards than the standard of railroad gauges or electrical outlets have to because while a rail car can run along a track whatever size it is or a blender can draw electricity from an outlet regardless of its organization, a bad standard, if incentivized coercively enough will flow into instructional materials, teacher planning and assessments.  At the end of that journey, it will still be a bad standard regardless of standardization.

But even good standards are not guaranteed to leverage change in the classroom unless they are approached in manners that offer genuine support, collaboration and authentic buy in from the teachers involved in implementing them.  David Cohen, writing 24 years ago about efforts to enact mathematics reforms, presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier” in which he demonstrated that even with a teacher who was sincerely enthusiastic about teaching students to understand rather than to recite mathematics, her lack of fully understanding the conceptual changes to mathematics and her lack of a community of teachers continually working on their understanding led her to very questionable “reform” of her teaching.  Change was a three-legged stool, and with only one leg, her enthusiasm, Mrs. O was unable to really change.  The Common Core  so enthusiastically embraced by Bill Gates has the exact same problem on steroids.  Rushed in development and implementation, the standards are hardly uniformly excellent, supporting materials, similarly rushed, often confuse more than assist teachers, students, and parents in understanding expectations, and teachers have had no choice but to “buy in” to the reforms as states were required to use tests aligned with common standards if they wanted to drink at the trough of Race to the Top.  Nothing about this enterprise has demonstrated the least understanding of what it means to teach and to learn to teach.

In some ways, however, this is not a surprise.  Few of the current proponents of education reform have any classroom experience, and their knowledge of teaching and learning comes from their experiences as students in K-12 education.  Over a 13 year primary and secondary education, that translates to roughly 15,000 hours spent watching teachers teach.  No other college educated profession is so visible to the public as teachers are, and after so much time spent in the company of teachers teaching, vast swaths of the public think that they know what it is that teachers do.  Dan Lortie, in his seminal 1975 book “Schoolteacher: a Sociological Study,” dubbed this the “apprenticeship of observation,” which is largely responsible for the preconceived notions about teachers and teaching that most prospective teachers bring to their preparation.  These notions, while sincerely held and personally important to future teachers, are often simplistic and owe their formation to the narrow view of teaching one can glean simply by observing its most public performances in the classroom.  Development of content mastery, knowledge of students and their individual and collective needs as learners, a richly differentiated pedagogical repertoire that assists in transforming content into something that prompts learning, effectively managing the classroom learning environment, a reflective disposition that considers quantitative and qualitative input about how well students have learned and adjusts plans accordingly — none of that is truly visible to those who sit on the student side of the classroom except in how it is enacted in 40-60 minute long performances.

Untangling those visions of teaching and learning is one of the most interesting and difficult tasks of teacher education.  Even though much of what my students have learned from their time in K-12 school is superficial, quite a lot of it is deeply precious to them.  It is built upon the experience of working with beloved and respected teachers, and it comes from their own genuine enthusiasm for the experiences they had with content in those classrooms.  Our work in teacher education has to involve respecting that, helping students deconstruct their experiences so that they can see the craft involved in teaching, and prompting them to build upon rather than to destroy the visions with which they arrive.  I love this work, but I also recognize how difficult it can be for my students to make that journey in their time with us.  For starters, I do not have 15,000 hours in which to help them critically reflect upon their time in school, build more powerful visions of teaching and learning and teach them the pedagogical knowledge they need to enact those visions.  I have 30 credit hours, four field internships and student teaching.  Nested between the apprenticeship of observation and a, hopefully, long career teaching, university teacher education is necessarily a time when we demand a lot of prospective teachers so that they may best assist their future students.  Their journey to “the other side of the desk” is complex and packed.

It is a journey that Bill Gates has never taken himself, and I think it contributes to his almost entirely mechanistic approach to education reform: make everyone use the same thing, force compliance from teachers through assessment, wait for “innovation” to flow into the classroom via third party vendors all developing products for the same standards, and assume that everyone will get a high quality product at the end of the process.  Even if his assumptions are correct, teachers, and their learning, are left out of the process.  If learning to teach is a complex and iterative process involving close examination of preexisting ideas and critical evaluation of oneself, then learning to teach a reformed set of standards is not any less complex.  Consider again David Cohen’s lessons from Mrs. Oublier: even a teacher enthusiastic about the vision of teaching and learning embodied in a new set of standards needs far more than her enthusiasm and a new set of curriculum materials, and without a complete and robust effort to relearn how she saw mathematics and a community working together to help each other in that task, she fell far short.

This is not an implementation issue, so much as it is a perspective issue.  In the Politico interview, Gates talks about how standardizing teaching of multiplication across states is as obvious as standardizing railroads, and he calls standardization of learning at each grade level merely a “technocratic issue.”  He speaks admiringly of Asian countries that have “nice, thin textbooks,” and he calls the previous education landscape a “cacophony” simply because states had various standards.  And he also says that the standards mean that all students will be taught on what they will be tested, and “we should have great curriculum material.”  This harkens back to his previously quoted March call for teachers to “defend the core” where he promised standardization would lead to better materials.  Again, the teachers and teacher learning are missing from this process.

And that is because Bill Gates has never taught nor has he ever embarked upon the journey from student to teacher.

Despite having undertaken the task of reforming American education, Bill Gates does not understand the least thing about what it takes to become a teacher, nor does he understand the least thing about promoting teacher learning throughout the teaching career.  His reform choices and the elements that he continuously talks up as “reform” make the most sense if he thinks of teaching as the enactment of materials in the classroom, without sufficient comprehension of the long process of learning to teach that only begins with observations and assumptions gleaned from lengthy contact with teachers in classrooms.  These are assumptions about practice and how to bring about meaningful and positive change that no ed reformer would presume to make about the practice of doctors or attorneys, but they make it about teachers and learning.

And it is a big part of the reason why their enterprise is faltering.  You cannot reform what you do not understand.

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Welcoming a New Generation of Teachers

My university welcomes the Class of 2018 this week which means that I will begin teaching a new class of first year students enrolled in our secondary education and secondary/special education programs.  It goes without saying that I am consistently impressed with the caliber of young person I meet each year.  They have committed themselves to a program requiring hard work from them early in their college careers, and they have committed their talents and futures to a profession that is intellectually and emotionally demanding.  These are the types of young people I have admired since I began my work in teacher education in 1997 at the beginning of graduate school, and it is genuinely exciting to know how many of them over the years have stayed in teaching, honing their craft, becoming leaders and teaching many 1000s of young people over the years. This is incredible work.

My first year students were born in 1996, when I was still a high school English teacher, and they began Kindergarten in 2001.  This means that among the myriad of things the media likes to remind us that Millennials have “never known”, this class of Millennials has never known a school system without the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization of 2001, popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Hailed by President George W. Bush as refusing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” NCLB ushered in an age when school districts, schools and teachers were to be held accountable by student results on mass standardized tests.  While President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program was billed as loosening the punitive measures of NCLB, it has further entrenched mass test-based accountability by pushing states to adopt common standards and to include the results of students’ standardized test scores into teacher evaluation.  Any current hot potato issue in elementary and secondary education, from the Common Core State Standards, to the mass standardized testing and the use of those tests to evaluate can be traced back to the premise of both of these laws:  accountability of schools for students’ annual “progress” on mass testing is an appropriate lever to effect positive school change.

The cumulative impacts of these reforms on teachers, teacher morale and schools is a subject for another blog, but suffice to say that despite recent efforts to paint the picture more rosily, overall teacher morale has suffered and has suffered more in our schools that need help the most.  It hardly helps that most high profile efforts to “improve” teaching focus solely on weeding out teachers deemed to be ineffective and placing pressure on all teachers to demonstrate effectiveness via standardized test scores.  Absent in those reforms?  Improving school working conditions, increasing teacher collaboration and leadership, emphasis on markers of student learning and accomplishment outside of mass testing, addressing community poverty impacts and looking at what opportunities actually exist in our economy.

Despite all of this, I will meet a group of young people who want to teach.  Experience tells me that all of them, despite the environment in which they grew up, believe in the transformative potential of education and are genuinely committed to inspiring future generations of students.  

But this is also where a cautionary note must be sounded.  The process of becoming a teacher is not one that actually begins with university classes.  Most people begin to make the commitment to teach many years earlier.  Talk to an elementary school teacher, and you will frequently find someone who began with make believe games set in an imaginary classroom.  Talk to a secondary school teacher, and you will often find someone whose love of subject matter set her apart from peers from middle school forward.  During their long “careers” as K-12 students, future teachers observe upwards of 15,000 hours of teachers teaching which forms the backbone of what Dan Lortie called “the apprenticeship of observation” with which all teachers enter their formal preparation.  Unlike professionals in medicine and law, most students of teaching are intimately familiar with being the recipients of teachers’ practice, and it is that familiarity that largely inspires them to enter the field and informs their deeply personal visions of what it means to teach.

Many researchers have noted to much of what future teachers learn from this apprenticeship is incomplete and fails to capture all of the work that goes on beyond teachers’ in classroom performances.  Regardless, it is a beginning, and an important one to people who want to teach — it is our job in teacher education to layer upon it, making elements of it problematic so they can be revised and adding to it the hidden pedagogical skills of teachers that are not generally learned before teacher education.

If learning to teach, if the very commitment to learning to teach begins with the process of one’s own K-12 education, then it is vitally important to the profession and its future that we are mindful of the kinds of schools in which the future’s teachers are currently enrolled.  I would argue that we have done a poor job historically, but especially in the past 15 years, of listening to what teachers themselves believe will help them be better at their profession.  According to Francie Alexander of Scholastic, INC., a survey conducted for a joint Scholastic-Gates Foundation study by the Harrison Group found the following

  1. Most teachers feel heard in their own schools, but 69% do not believe they are listened to by district, state and federal players.
  2. 71% believe they need more time to study and understand the Common Core State Standards before implementing them.
  3. Teachers value collaboration, but 51% cite a lack of time for collaboration as a challenge.
  4. 99% of teachers believe their work goes beyond academics.
  5. 88% of teachers believe the rewards of teaching outweigh the challenges.

While that survey cited high levels of teachers “enthusiastic” about the Common Core standards, more recent surveys have shown significant cratering in teacher support.  Further, the overall satisfaction reported in this survey has to be weighed in contrast with the 2013 findings of the 29th annual Metlife Survey of Teachers which found only 39% of teachers said they were “very satisfied”.

There is a lot of “churn” in the waters of education today, and it is beyond admirable that so many teachers are able to take professional satisfaction in the concept of the “small victories” many of them routinely see in their work with students and community.  It is equally admirable that young people with exceptional talents and skills seek to join the profession.

But we must be careful that reforms are not allowed to alter the aspects of schooling that make it such rewarding work.  Mass test-based accountability that reduces teachers’ work to an “effectiveness rating” tied primarily to test scores is a toxic approach.  Not only does it disrespect the fullness of the work teachers know that they do, but also it over emphasizes what can even been learned from such tests, and few current reform advocates put their efforts behind better support, collaboration and leadership.  Schools must remain humane places where teachers and students can meet as far more than average annual progress calculations, or we will lose those who wish to become teachers because they want to do good in the world.  If our vision of school tilts too heavily towards the technical/rational aspects of measurement in learning and ignores the humanistic development side, we will end up with future teachers who lack a rich and full vision of their profession.

Think of it this way:  If you have a baby born this year, she will be ready to enter high school in 2028.  Many of her potential ninth grade teachers were born in 2006 and are beginning 3rd grade this Fall, the grade where most high stakes testing begins in earnest.

What kinds of school experience do you want your child’s teachers to have?

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Filed under Common Core, Data, teacher learning, teaching, Testing, Uncategorized

Ms. Tullo — Portrait of a Great Teacher

Recently, I contemplated what it would take to really evaluate a teacher preparation program in contrast with the methods employed by the National Council of Teacher Quality.  My thoughts rested  with actual measurements of program effectiveness and quality, but they also rested with the graduates of the program and the education narratives they compose with their actual students in actual schools.  In an age when we valorize data from test scores far beyond their designed capacities, it is important to pause and see how lives are impacted by teachers in ways that affirm the aesthetic in teaching.

A number of my former students came to mind as I considered that question, and, among them, is Ms. Shaina Tullo, a member of Seton Hall’s Class of 2010 and an English teacher in the northern New Jersey area.  I taught Shaina in a number of classes from our introductory history of education and foundations course, to a course on the role of diversity in the classroom and her secondary English methods course.  From the beginning of her teacher education, it was obvious that she was sincerely dedicated both to reading and writing and to helping new generations of children learn to love them both.  Shaina always demonstrated a passion for the English language, a deep appreciation of the power that is embodied in language and genuine excitement at the thought of working with her future students born of her own discovery of what language’s power can do.  What was perhaps most impressive about Shaina as a teacher candidate was how consistently she reminded me of why I had originally become an English teacher.

Naturally, I was delighted when she agreed to let me write about her and her work in this blog, and she was very informative when answering my questions.  I will let her words speak on her behalf from this point forward:

How did you decide to become a teacher?  Which people and which experiences were most influential for that decision?

Ironically enough, I decided to be a teacher when I was in kindergarten. I actually have a photo of my kindergarten graduation with my “When I Grow Up”project which stated that I wanted to be a teacher and teach children how to read books.  Seems like quite a bit of foreshadowing, huh?  This was definitely drawn from my experiences in and outside of school.  To say I grew up from modest means would be an understatement.  School, and moreover, books became a method of escapism and wonderment that would carry me through the hardships of growing up in poverty.

Additionally, the unwavering support of my educators throughout my school years drove me to education. I have been blessed with some of the most diligent and beautiful educators throughout my school life.  Mrs. Goldenbaum, my first and third grade teacher, condoned my book habit at a young age.  Once, when crying because the librarian would not let a seven year-old me check out Joan of Arc, she marched me to the library and took it herself.  We had to renew the book about five times, but I finished it.  My eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Weissman, was an invaluable member of my life and continued to push me towards more complex texts while nurturing my love of poetry and creative writing.  He would read my stories religiously—even the horrifically bad ones—and provide meaningful feedback.  In high school, Mademoiselle Cermak and Mr. Bischoff became surrogate parents, offering life lessons and advice on everything from prom dresses to boyfriends to the philosophical ramifications of existentialism. All of these people were monumental in helping me towards teaching.  They awakened in me the need to give of myself, to strive for excellence, and to love unconditionally. So, in a sense, the decision to become an educator was never something I pondered over. It seemed to be what I was always meant to do.

What is most important to you about teaching English?  Why is this subject important?

Teaching English, to me, is more than just analyzing symbolism or parsing poetry for deeper meaning.  To teach English is to study the human condition, to examine life as it should be lived and as it has been lived across cultures and time.  There is something so remarkable about finding truth, didacticism, advice, hope, despair, and fear within the written word.  My subject is important because it teaches students how to live life well, and is an essential component in understanding our humanity.  Other subjects, mathematics, science, foreign languages, are pursuits that will undoubtedly aid those in my classroom in being intelligible, functioning members of society.  But few subjects get to help formulate identity, as is the case in an English classroom.

What do you think draws most people to become English teachers?

I truly believe that English teachers are a special breed of people. We are, for starters, a very bookish bunch, but a reader does not necessarily make an English teacher. Those of us who are driven to teach English are profoundly inspired by text, by literary culture, and by words. We seek to guide others on this path because we believe it will profoundly alter their lives for the better. And those of us who are truly devoted to the study of literature, will continue with this pursuit in the face of resistance. It is too important a task and, thus, we are not easily shaken.

Explain your education as a teacher –from being a student, to being a student of teaching to being a teacher.  What was influential and helpful at all three phases of your education?

The progression from student to teacher is a very gradual one and, perhaps, the minutia of it may be lost on the outside world.  I would say the most easily traceable difference is the progression from philosophy to practicality.  As a student in high school, most lessons are very philosophical and idea heavy.  We discuss motivation, draw inferences, and express feelings.  As I moved into being a student of education, particularly as I moved through the teacher education program at Seton Hall, more and more practical aspects are integrated into education.  No longer was I dealing with the abstract, I was creating lesson plans, units, assessments with purpose.  This is practical.  And, of course, being a teacher, comes the most practical of all the stages in which most of which I produce is utilized.

I will say that Seton Hall was a remarkable institution for guiding me through all the phases of this process.  That my field placements started much earlier than other teacher education programs was invaluable.  I was able to have tangible and meaningful experiences in classrooms, such that I never experienced the “first year jitters”when I finally had my own classroom.  At that point, it seemed as though the classroom was a natural extension of myself. To this end, the various lesson planning and assessments done throughout my program at Seton Hall were so helpful.  Not only do I frequently use many of the artifacts I produced during my undergraduate years in my own classroom, but I also have the skills required to create high quality items for my class.  Throughout my four years as a teacher, I have consistently been complimented on the quality and caliber of the artifacts I generate for class.

What are some of the most important things a future teacher should learn before entering the classroom?

First and foremost, a future teacher should master his or her content. I cannot explain how invaluable this is in preparing yourself for a classroom, for without a deep knowledge of content, real learning cannot happen.

To this end, practical components of teaching should be mastered before entering the classroom. Understanding the basic tenants of teaching pedagogy and lesson planning, methods for employing differentiated instruction, and the philosophy and justification for differing types of assessment should not necessarily be mastered, as mastery will take the sum total of many years of teaching, but any future teacher should have a good working knowledge of these concepts.

I would also say that a lot of the important things a teacher will learn (classroom management, quick-thinking, the ability to balance work and social life) can only truly be learned in a classroom. In your first year, in your first classroom, you will fail.  Lessons you thought would profoundly change the lives of your students will be met with glazed eyes and snores.  This is natural, and will help shape you into the educator you want to be.  So, in a sense, the most important thing a future teacher can learn is the ability to forgive oneself, embrace failure, and learn from mistakes.

Can you describe a “typical”day teaching?  What is most memorable to you day by day?

A typical teaching day starts with arriving early and basking in the quiet of the halls for an hour or so before the students arrive.  This gives ample time to ready myself (literally and mentally) for the day.  The actual teaching component of the day flies by. This year I taught six classes and I always felt like the most enjoyable part of the day was the actual class time I spent with my student.  Almost all of my free time (lunch, prep periods, after school) is devoted to talking with or helping the students in some capacity.  This is the blessing (though some may call it a curse) of being a popular teacher in school.  The students often want to spend time with you.  I would recommend taking this time with the students as much as possible and within reason.  It is these quiet moments outside of class where students need you most.  They come under the guise of “hanging out”at lunch, but the amount that is shared in this time period is paramount.  Consequently, it is these moments that endear the students to you and you to them.  This allows for an environment of mutual respect and understanding.  It creates a mentor/mentee relationship in which you can become a positive adult role model for the students.  For a lot of students, particularly where I work in an inner city, having a grounded adult is very important as this may be the most stable time period in their whole day. These are always my favorite moments when teaching.

One of my favorite anecdotes surrounding teaching was this year during the spring musical.  I directed our production of Little Shop of Horrors which was an amazing experience but also a very stressful one as our theater program was very new.  As a former performer myself, I really did work the students very hard throughout preparation for the play (the theater kids started the rumor that I was tougher than the basketball coach). But, on opening night, when I was backstage with the kids who were all very nervous, I told them that the most important part of the play was to have fun. This alleviated so much tension and prompted what became a traditional backstage dance party.  It was so wonderful seeing the kids loosen up and enjoy themselves at what would have otherwise been a very stressful moment.  And, as it turned out, our production was nearly flawless.

Another one of my favorite times of year involved my work at my former school where I was the yearbook adviser. Our club sponsored all the social clubs, and we would frequently put on dances as a fundraiser. Being after school with an army of children, having about two hours to transform the gym into something other than a gym was always very stressful but also the most fun we had all year. The gym was always beautifully decorated and we always had successful dances, but seeing the kids pull together to create massive pieces of decoration was always tremendously rewarding. Our post-decorating dinner of pizza always impressed upon me a feeling of family, as we would laugh about whose tape ran out or who had paint on their faces.

One of my other favorite accomplishments that actually deals with the classroom involves my juniors from this year. When I first started teaching them, I realized the students in my class had never written academic analytical papers or conducted research of any kind. To be blunt, on average, their writing skills had been far below grade level.  I spent an extraordinary amount of time after their first papers were due teaching academic writing, research, and analysis. Finally, in March, I sat down to grade a stack of Othello papers and was absolutely impressed with the body of work I had received. Not only were my students writing academically, but they were uncovering nuance of text that I myself had not considered. I actually almost cried over how far they had grown and how much they had developed. It was definitely a gradual development throughout the year, but those papers really did move me.

How important are your fellow teachers to your daily work?

My fellow teachers are very important to my daily work. I have been blessed in both schools where I have worked, in that my fellow staff members were always extremely helpful and outgoing. There has always been a support network available to share materials, collaborate with projects, or share snacks on a particularly bad day.

Cross-curricular planning is also a very vital method for improving student achievement, as it ensures students’abilities to make connections and draw upon multiple intelligences. Having a teacher to work with is very helpful in this regard. Most recent, I taught The Things They Carried as a cross-curricular component to my juniors’unit on Vietnam in US History II. A lot of students said this was their favorite unit all year, as it provided faces and emotion to what would otherwise seem like a very rigid history unit. In turn, my students brought with them a breadth of knowledge as to the context of the events in the novel.

Also, given the demographics of where I teach, I often rely heavily on the foreign language department of school to provide translations and assistance when interacting with the parents of students who are non-English speaking families. Having the interpersonal relationships with these staff members help create a classroom culture that is both accommodating and welcoming.

What is your teaching “philosophy”?  What beliefs and commitments guide your teaching?

I am actually going to copy the first paragraph of my philosophy of education as it appears in my teacher portfolio:

First and foremost, each class has a different culture and personality dependent upon their past educational experiences. This is equally true of teachers. To teach is to find a marriage of class culture and teacher philosophy. As a teacher, I find myself consistently engrossed in developing my craft of teaching, especially when done in order to better meet the needs of my classes’cultures. Thus, the philosophies represented are a testament to my current beliefs and practices. They are in no way finite. I am committed to constantly adapting and changing my beliefs and practices in light of new data or new student needs. When it pertains to the teaching reading and writing, I find that five major beliefs shape my philosophy: (1) I believe that there is an inherent and necessary need for the study of reading and writing (2) I believe in the power of reading as a method of attaining lifelong thinking skills (3) I believe in the wide-reaching and pervasive importance of writing (4) I believe that assessment of reading and writing needs to reflect true learning by emphasizing process over product (5) I believe technology and the teaching of reading and writing is not exclusive.

Is there anything you would say to one of your students who wants to teach?

I would tell one of my students who wanted to teach that this career is about sacrifice. We give of ourselves so much, and, sometimes, we do so without thanks. But, if you can endure the long hours and can commit yourself to a life where your accomplishments are often immeasurable or unknown, then you will be rewarded in profound and extraordinary ways. You will see students grow to unbelievable heights and you will shape them in ways that they themselves may never notice. It is a beautiful life with so, so many rewards, and I fully recommend it.

I have been a part of conversations between other faculty members and students who have advised students not to become teachers, “Be anything but a teacher. Be something better,” they said. I even had a professor say the same thing to me in college when she found out my major. It is a hard job, yes, and it pervades your identity. But there are few careers that offer such tremendous rewards as teaching. It may take the right type of person, but when the person is right amazing things can happen.

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Filed under Portrait of a Great Teacher, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching