Lighting the Fuse on Teacher Preparation 2.0

Jenny DeMonte

One of the most enduring myths about teaching is that it’s easy. Anyone can teach. We watched our own teachers for so long that we think we should be able to teach too.

The truth is that being a student doesn’t make you a teacher any more than being a patient makes you a doctor. The professional practice of teaching, and the knowledge of the subject matter that goes with it, must be learned, deeply learned. This is why we put so much stress on the quality of schools of education and other teacher-preparation organizations and on the importance of hands-on student teaching under the guidance of master teachers.

In A Million New Teachers Are Coming: Will They Be Ready to Teach?, an AIR policy brief released May 28, I suggest aspects of teacher preparation that deserve careful review by the nation’s policymakers and teacher-educators. One option is to improve the way teacher candidates learn and perform the practices that they will need every day in their classrooms. That means not just reading about what to do, but learning how to do it through mastering essential practices. Another is establishing a set of shared knowledge and competencies that all new teachers must know—and then including them in all teacher preparation.

Fortunately, these aren’t distant goals. Some of the nation’s leaders in teacher preparation are already putting them in place at their own organizations:  

1. Essential Practices. Deborah Ball, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan and director of TeachingWorks, can quickly list many situations unique to teaching. For example, what if a teacher wants her class to compare two poems? How should she begin the discussion? How should she keep it going? “These are things that we can teach people how to do using videotape, specific feedback, and practicing moves,” says Ball. “It is not simple to lead productive discussions with 30 or more students, but it is something that can be taught and learned.”

“Teacher candidates can practice launching discussions and then steering them to achieve learning goals,” says Ball. “And they can learn to manage the classroom in ways that create a respectful learning environment, to pace their teaching, and to ensure that they have enough time for the most important points, and end lessons on time with some sort of wrap-up.”  Many new teachers eventually figure out how to do all this on their own, but without coaching it can take years.

2. Immediate Feedback. In another effort, two veteran teacher-educators are launching a summer institute for new teachers focused on repeated cycles of rehearsal, teaching, and feedback. For four weeks beginning in July, candidates in Wayne State University’s new residency program, TeachDETROIT, will teach literacy and mathematics to summer school students and receive daily feedback about their teaching. Jennifer Lewis, a professor at Wayne State, and Sarah Scott Frank, founder of OpenLiteracy , have been working on the design and materials for this summer institute for nearly a decade. They see their work as responding to the need for teacher preparation to zero in more on what teachers do in their daily work. When this design was first conceived, some said that novice teachers would shy away from being observed, videotaped, and coached every day. But, says Frank, “in fact the opposite happened. Teacher candidates could see they were getting better at the work of teaching and they became more confident in their abilities.”

3. Common Knowledge/Competencies. Ben Riley, executive director of Deans for Impact, a newly formed group of 18 education school deans, says his member-deans have all seen the transformative power of classroom teachers who are well-prepared for practice. “The deans in this group believe that we can prepare teachers to be effective on their very first day in the classroom,” he says. The deans’ first step is to review the growing body of research on the science of learning and then to integrate the best scientific evidence into each dean’s program. By identifying the essential knowledge new teachers need and embedding it in all their teacher preparation programs, the deans hope to improve training across many institutions simultaneously.

These efforts, and others like them, dot the teacher-preparation landscape like tiny flames in the night. With luck, they will show results and turn into a wildfire that will fundamentally change teacher preparation across the US.

Jenny DeMonte is a senior technical assistance consultant specializing in teacher preparation and licensure who has worked on research and policy issues related to teacher quality and school improvement for more than two decades—first as a journalist and now as a researcher.