In the final installment of this series of reflections on the state of teacher education, I am lifting up just a few more comments from faculty — all comments are posted to the “comments” part of this blog on prior days, but these are thought-provoking and seem worth repeating here:
Dr. Deborah Litt adds these thoughts to the discussion:
“I would like to add some comments about the role of institutional constraints in hindering improvement in our most troubled school systems.
“Yes, there are ineffective, discouraged and burnt-out teachers. There are individuals whose insufficient knowledge or mean-spirited attitude toward young people should have disqualified them from entering the profession in the first place. And, yes, teacher education programs could and should be doing a better job preparing teachers, especially in preparing teachers for teaching in schools with high concentrations of children living in poverty. But blaming all the ills of our least effective school systems on bad teachers or the preparation they have received, not only ignores the life circumstances of so many of our children living in poverty as President McGuire stated in her blog, but ignores the powerful interaction between teachers and settings in which they are placed.
“Teacher educators across the country bemoan the fact that what future teachers, particularly middle and secondary teachers, learn in Schools of Education often attenuates–or is even summarily cast off–once the new teachers begin work in settings with high percentages of high-need students. (It is one of the paradoxes of American education that the students most in need of student-centered and individually tailored curricula are least likely to receive it.)
“Institutional constraints and the power of tradition exert an enormous influence upon new teachers. School system mandates and building norms and traditions may press against “best practice” ideas learned in Schools of Education. Taught that students need “just right” books in order to make progress in reading, the new teacher is confronted with one school board-mandated grade-level textbook for all students whether or not the children are capable of reading that text. What is the new (untenured) teacher to do when confronted with a mandatory whole class scripted (the teacher reads a script verbatim) curricula, or with pacing guides that leave some students hopelessly behind and other hopelessly bored? Or when told to devote an hour a day—an hour a day!—to test-taking practice rather than instruction and practice in core subjects.
“New teachers may feel isolated from colleagues if they try to conduct classes in a more student-centered manner than is common in their setting. Or their proposals for activities to bring families into the building may meet with a “we know better it will never happen” response. Even the students often resist new approaches, especially if they are required to work harder than they have been accustomed to. In Seymour Sarason’s seminal analysis (1971) of school reform, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change, Sarason points out that there’s an unwritten contract between the students and the teachers in most high schools—don’t challenge us intellectually and we won’t give you trouble. Most new teachers conform to the culture of the school they find themselves in, afraid to lose their jobs or uncomfortable with isolation from the community they find themselves in. (This is one reason Teach for America places more than one teacher in a building.)
“One could argue that if what new teachers learn is quickly abandoned then the Schools of Education are not doing their jobs properly. And there is something to be said for that. Maybe the Schools of Education need to find ways to influence school boards, state boards of education, and the federal Department of Education so that policies and administrative practices are not working at cross-purposes with solid classroom instruction. Certainly, Schools of Education need to equip newly minted teachers with the skills to advocate for better practices in their buildings. My colleagues here at Trinity believe we need to do more to build the capacity for advocacy among our students, but we have a long way to go.
“Longer and more intense mentorships between true master teachers and prospective teachers in schools serving high proportions of high needs students are a proven method of making new teachers more skilled and more resistant to forces undermining their good practices. But, school systems often do not want a truly collaborative relationship with a School of Education; they are often unwilling to allow Schools of Education to select the mentor teachers or to give student teachers much responsibility for fear of lower test scores. Schools of Education will need to figure out how to leverage their power to assure that their students obtain the very best apprenticeship experience possible. More Schools of Education should consider models in which support for new teachers continues during a new teacher’s first few years in the classroom.
“We must also ask if there sufficient truly master level teachers in the lowest performing school districts to mentor and nurture the many new teachers we will soon need. If not, Schools of Education have an important role to play in capacity building. But, Institutions of Higher Education have institutional constraints of their own. Universities traditionally reward faculty members for publishing and for service within the university. How would follow-up support for recent graduates or providing professional development to teachers in a public school fit the university’s vision of faculty work?
“I raise these issues because I do not believe it possible to “fix” troubled schools by working on only one element of a complex interaction.
“Finally, while acknowledging that there are some truly bad apples in any school system, there is a much larger group of teachers who are performing below their capacity because they discouraged, tired, underappreciated, playing it safe, or need some training in new approaches. These teachers can be inspired by strong leadership and ongoing professional development. Schools where teachers learn together, where their ideas and hard work are appreciated, where they work collaboratively to solve problems and make their schools exciting places to learn are rewarding and exciting places to work. Make our schools vibrant learning communities for teachers, and we will create, attract, and retain the talented, dedicated teachers we so desperately need.
“The assumption that teachers can create and maintain those conditions which make school learning and school living stimulating for children, without those same conditions existing for teachers, has no warrant in the history of man. (pp. 123-124) Seymour Sarason (1972), The Creation of Settings and the Future Societies”
For other faculty comments, including Dr. Robert Redmond, Dr. Larry Riccio, and Dr Eirini Gouleta see the comments section that accompanies Who Will Teach?
Thanks to all faculty and students for engaging in this important discussion!