A better way to train teachers?

I’ve made no secret in this blog that I entered teaching through an alternative certification program (Utah’s), and that for the most part   the education courses I took for this certification did not really help my performance in the classroom. But that’s not to say that teachers don’t need – that I didn’t need – training in the profession. My own inclination is to favor post-graduate training programs that admit candidates with strong undergraduate degrees and educational credentials, and then focus heavily on clinical, or experience-based, training.

So I was sad to read an article entitled “Steel City Blues,”  about the demise of what sounds like a model teacher residency program in Pittsburgh.

Raksha Kumar had rented an apartment. She had signed a lease and moved in her furniture. She had turned down several job offers from well-established programs to take a chance on an offer that, when it came right down to it, did not seem so much like a gamble at all. It was a position in her hometown of Pittsburgh, and it represented an extraordinary chance to fulfill both a personal dream and a crushing public need.

Pittsburgh Public Schools had selected Kumar and 37 other recruits last spring from among nearly 1,000 applicants to join an innovative teacher residency program that combined a master’s level education with hands-on classroom training. The competition for the program had been particularly tough. Applicants had to sit through several interviews, show their stuff in panel discussions, write a long essay, and conduct model lessons. But it was worth it, Kumar said.  Instead of sitting in a graduate school classroom getting lessons on pedagogical theory, they were going to put theory into practice in real classrooms while being guided by seasoned educators. For the privilege of learning by doing, they would receive a salary of $39,000 a year. In exchange, providing they proved competent, they had to promise to work for the Pittsburgh school system for five years.

The city killed the program. As the same article goes on to report,

The state of Pennsylvania was projecting a budget shortfall of some $4 billion, which was sure to cause painful cutbacks in education throughout the state, including layoffs in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT), which had originally endorsed the residency, was now saying that it could not support new recruits if existing teachers were going to be let go. District officials felt they had no choice but to agree. So on June 18, they announced that they were cancelling the program.

Before I field accusations that I’m union-bashing, let me just say that I sympathize entirely with the PFT. To take any other position would be to fail the organization’s primary responsibility, which is to stand up for its members. What this story demonstrates to me is how hard it will be to pursue this kind of promising experiment in our difficult budget environment. (Note that the union initially supported the program.)

So let’s get beyond the teacher union issue, please, and talk about whether this might be a promising approach for teacher training in the future.

Here’s the link: http://www.educationsector.org/publications/steel-city-blues-behind-collapse-teacher-residency

2 comments

  1. Goet

    My experience: earned degree, began working in non-teaching jobs, finished teacher training several years later.

    Looking back on my experience and currently being in a masters program along with GRL students, I’d have to say that the ideal training program would be to have teachers job-shadow from as early on as possible. Ideally this would be at the START of their program, and not toward the 2-3 year course of studies.

    Many teachers go through almost the entire teaching program without stepping in a classroom or preparing/delivering a lesson. By the time they get in the classroom they’ve already invested so much money and time, only to realize that they picked the wrong job.

    GRL students (those who continue post-grad without teaching) are not necessarily the best, in my opinion. They still lack actual work experience and are only creating a much larger problem than the one I state above. Who’s going to want to throw away 6-7 years of education?

    As to the article… it sounds like a great program. I do agree that it rated quite lower in priority vs. funding existing teachers (that would be a twisted logic, to fire one to solely afford the recruitment of a new one).

    • Mary McConnell

      I actually think that the ideal program would provide teaching experience and classes simultaneously. Encounters with real students and real classrooms provides a valuable reality check to educational theories. But I also think that I was more receptive to pedagogical theory when I had a chance to apply it right away. So, for example, the classes on developing “backwards design” curriculum did help shape my thinking about how to create more effective units. But it helped that I applied this knowledge to actual units that I would actually have to teach.

      And I agree that any program that requires districts to fire experienced teachers to gain promising new hires is not going to fly, and shouldn’t. In the long run, however, we are going to need new teachers. I’d like to see states and school districts continue to explore this clinical approach, and I hope that teacher associations will stay on board.

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