Teacher preparation that worked . . . for me

Recent comments on my blog suggest that teachers have a very wide range of experience with teacher preparation. I’d love to hear from more teachers. Anyone who would like to write a longer post about his or her experiences should feel free to send it to me, MMcconnell@desnews.com. If you read my blog with any regularity you know that I am firmly committed to the “diff’rent strokes for different folks” model of educational reform.

In that spirit, let me share my own experience with teacher preparation, which is just that — my own experience. My first and extraordinarily unrepresentative teaching experience was a single International Baccalaureate history class at West High School: a twentieth century history course that demanded the kind of content-rich, historiograpically-sophisticated preparation that I had received in my undergraduate and graduate education (six years that included not a single education course.) The students in my class were extremely bright and, for the most part, academically ambitious. The ease and pleasure of teaching this group fooled me into thinking that I knew how to manage a classroom. I assure you that I was disabused of this notion as soon as I became a full-time teacher.

Teaching technique — pedagogy — does matter, and I even think it can be (partly) taught. But as I embarked on certification I found that almost all of the educational theory classes I took were too general and too ideological to help me improve my classroom . . . something that in my first and second years of full-time teaching I was quite desperate to do.

The one outstanding exception among my alternative certification courses was a one-week intensive course in social studies teaching methods offered by the Utah State Office of Education. This was the only course that wasn’t taught by an education professor; instead, it was taught by two experienced Jordan school district middle school teachers. I still have the entire legal pad I filled with notes from this wonderful course, which presented any number of creative and practical ideas for engaging students.

Nor was this my only encounter with truly excellent teacher preparation. Most summers I took one of the week-long University of Utah institutes for Advanced Placement teachers. These courses, too, were taught by experienced classroom teachers, rather than professors. Moreover, many of the participants had taught these classes for several years. Again, I still have reams of notes (on my laptop this time) from these classes, and I corresponded with many of my classmates/fellow teachers for years.

I’m not going to try to use this experience to develop a five point plan for transforming teacher education. Frankly, I think there’s too much of this grandiose thinking going around. But I did draw some personal conclusions about teacher preparation from my own experience. First, pedagogy needs to be firmly rooted in actual classroom experience. I think that sitting in a class and asking how can I — or COULD anybody? — use this next fall or tomorrow morning makes the preparation more meaningful and also, frankly, provides a useful reality check. Second, teacher preparation is most effective when it’s closely tied to a teacher’s specific needs. An AP Institute class on teaching European History meets this standard; a very general course in curriculum design does not. Finally, I think that the best education professors are experienced, successful teachers who love the profession and infect new colleagues with their enthusiasm.

This strikes me as the model that programs such as the New Teacher Project are trying to follow. So that’s why they resonate with me

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