How to teach the teachers?

Teacher preparation has become one of the most contentious areas in the modern school reform area, with traditional schools of education under attack (in some cases, for good reason), and alternative programs becoming popular with school reformers (in some cases, with inadequate instruction). Here’s a piece on the right way to teach the teachers, by Rachel Lotan,  professor of education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and former director of the Stanford Teacher Education Program known as STEP.

(Correction: An earlier version had the wrong author for the piece.)

By Rachel Lotan

Teacher education often comes in for regular bashing in the media. Yet year after year, graduates of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) tell me how important the training is to their success in the classroom. Just a few weeks into her first year of teaching, a former student teacher wrote to me, “I felt so prepared, not because of the lesson planning I’d done over summer, but because I had the most intense year of my life pushing me to be ready to lead my classes starting Day One.” She continued that she truly appreciated “a teacher education program that actually prepares teachers to teach.”

On regular surveys, close to 100 percent of alumni and 95 percent of their employers say STEP prepared them well or very well for the classroom. Student teachers typically have multiple job offers before they graduate, even during times when few beginners are being hired.

What is the secret sauce? There are many elements: deliberately designed, coherent coursework linked to classroom practice; a dedicated faculty who model strong pedagogical practices; and committed cooperating teachers and university supervisors. But what may be the most critical element is the engagement of candidates in a full year of student teaching consisting of a summer school led by expert teachers and continued mentoring through the full academic year. The cooperating educators who work with student teachers—like many well-prepared and experienced professionals in Bay Area schools, have made a commitment to teach all students equitably and well.

STEP has developed strong ties with teachers, schools, and district administrators because they know that the preparation of a new generation of teachers works best when these efforts are the joint work of the university and the schools. Indeed, alumni of such programs stay in the profession longer than average, assume leadership positions at their schools and in their districts, and most importantly, use effective instructional strategies in their classrooms. Teacher education programs at Stanford and at Teachers College, Columbia are two examples of such programs.

While most teachers agree that this is the right way to enter the profession, and researchers have documented the benefits to their effectiveness and retention in teaching, even advocates of strengthening teacher education such as NCTQ’s president Kate Walsh say that these efforts are difficult to pull off. She argues that a full year of student teaching is impractical because there aren’t enough high-quality master teachers who want to take on the role of being a mentor. In addition, Walsh argues that “(f)or many teachers … having a student teacher in their classrooms is disruptive to the real work at hand.” Speaking for those of us on the ground who actually work in the classroom—unlike Walsh—I strongly disagree.

At STEP, we found that experienced mentor teachers are more interested in having a student teacher for the full academic year than for the short 8-12 week clinical placement offered by other programs. This longer time period allows student teachers to stay in the classroom long enough to be helpful and function as a co-instructor, which provides many benefits for the students.

Jeff Gilbert, principal of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, CA, a school that works with Stanford to welcome a good number of student teachers each year, notes that extended student teaching is professionally beneficial for the teacher candidates and the schools. He observes, “I would estimate that new teachers who come out of Stanford’s full-year program are on average 2-3 years ahead of peers from other schools, and the cooperating teachers at our school who work with Stanford’s student teachers are consistently challenged and rewarded by the depth of the relationship they form with the new teachers.”

Students benefit the most from close and attentive relationships with their teachers. They have an increased amount of individual support from having two teachers in the classroom, and their instruction is framed by the sustained use of research-based pedagogical strategies. Paige Price, an English teacher at Mountain View High School, California, wrote to me: “Instead of one set of eyes, there are two. Instead of one set of hands, there are two. … There is no question that the quality of my teaching has risen with every mentoring experience I have had, and there is certainly no diversion from ‘the task at hand’ when the task at hand is kids.”

Student teachers who spend a whole year in classrooms get to know their students deeply, recognize and appreciate the arc of a year-long curriculum, and experience schools as workplaces. Mentored by experienced professionals, these student teachers are able to make crucial connections between what they hear, read, and talk about in their university courses and what they see and do in the classroom. Scholarship and practice are intertwined rather than disconnected or even contradictory.

Contrast these types of teacher preparation programs with those of some alternative teacher training programs. In the latter, student teachers undergo a significantly shorter program in which they are provided with scripted curricula and short video-clips on how to control disruptive behavior. They have few or no opportunities for collegial conversations or mentoring by experienced educators. Conversely, undergoing professional preparation directed by rigorous scholarship creates teachers who understand the underlying principles of crafting student-centered learning tasks and enacting productive classroom management strategies. By learning from mentors and colleagues at both their universities and in the field, these student teachers are ready to design well-planned and well-executed lessons that support students’ deep learning.

Acquiring a solid knowledge base for teaching is a pre-requisite for effective practice. STEP graduate Jane Lee, now teaching math at Life Academy in Oakland, notes that “a student teacher who only sees a few months of teaching before going in the classroom would be like a med student who only sees a few months of surgery before going in the operating room.”

Such a comparison is even more relevant when one considers that medical education programs were inconsistent a hundred years ago just as those for teacher education are now—comprised of a wide range of practices, many of which were ineffective. It wasn’t until the extent of the problems was exposed that systemic reforms were put in place so that medical students could reliably learn how to effectively care for their patients under the wing of expert physicians.

Like our medical colleagues a century ago, we need to ensure that the deep and rigorous training that will prepare new teachers to succeed is no longer the exception, but rather the norm.