Training teachers the way we train doctors


I’ve fulminated before about teacher education. Ed schools don’t attract the best students and don’t teach the skills that teachers really need in the classroom. Education courses crowd out other, more meaningful and demanding college classes. Education departments are often relentlessly ideological, and if the ideology doesn’t match real world (classroom) experience, too often it’s the ideology that wins out. Worst of all, new teachers often, maybe almost always, flounder during their first year or two. I certainly did!

So I enjoyed an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, written by a teacher who describes her experience this way:

I went to a highly ranked liberal arts college and graduated with a special major in sociology, anthropology and education as well as an elementary teaching certificate. I immediately found a job teaching breathtakingly underprivileged students in a persistently failing elementary school in Prince George’s County. I wasn’t prepared to teach my students how to tie their shoes, much less to make up for years of institutional neglect, hunger, poverty, family transience, isolation and other ills. My first year was a nightmarish blur; my second was only slightly less awful. My third had its highlights but was still a daily struggle. There are stories from that time that my parents never heard.

To gain practical skills to serve the students I now understood would be in my classes, regardless of where I taught, I decided to go to graduate school for special education. I started a one-year master’s program at Teachers College, Columbia University, which has long been regarded as among the best education programs in the country.

I quickly realized that I had made a terrible mistake. My professors seemed uninterested in teaching me anything practical. At that time, in 2000, the academic hero du jour was Lev Vygotsky, with his theory of the zone of proximal development. It seemed not to matter what I did in my teaching placement as long as I wrote every paper and approached all of my lesson planning from a Vygotskian perspective.

By that December I was frustrated and bored. I decided to attempt switching programs for my second and final semester, or else I would simply drop out. Luckily for me, the chair of the anthropology and education department was happy to let me fill out my final term with anthropology classes and anything else I wanted to take. So I finished my program with no more practical teaching knowledge than I had when I started — and with the realization that I would have to look elsewhere to learn the skills I had gone to graduate school to obtain.

Sound familiar, anyone?

But what I especially liked about the article is that the author doesn’t recommend throwing in the towel on teacher training. Instead, she suggests that we look to the medical model.

To see why the teaching world need not choose between training craftspeople or professionals, look to medicine. In this country, medical students go to school for four years of highly specialized education. They spend their first two years learning the fundamentals and the theories of medicine. Their second two years are spent mainly in clinical rotations, learning the craft of patient care through observation and guided practice. Students also take the first two steps in a series of rigorous licensing exams that test their theoretical and practical knowledge. If they survive the schooling and the tests, they proceed to on-the-job learning under the tutelage of master practitioners and take more tests. Only after they have made it through the required intellectual and practical education are they considered qualified to practice medicine. No one would question that they are professionals. The hands-on portion of their training is also indispensable.

Why not adopt this model for education? Educators could be required to complete a period of schooling in which they learn the theories and ideas that will be most valuable to them as teachers and hone their skills at thinking and talking about education from an intellectual standpoint. Then, perhaps, one to two years of guided practice under the supervision of master teachers could be required, with lots of coaching and meaningful feedback. We could even throw in some rigorous exams. In a few years, it would be possible to see whether our teaching corps and our schools have improved dramatically. My guess is that we would all be pleasantly surprised.

My guess, too. What do you think?






  1. Heidi Haggard

    I totally agree with the idea of a couple of years of guided practice under the supervision of master teachers. I have a degree in elementary education, and I learned the most during student teaching, where my supervising teacher was stellar. She taught me more than all the education classes I took combined, and I would have loved more time with her or with other teachers like her. I also think it would have been helpful to have guided practice at different grade levels rather than student teaching in just one grade.

  2. Stephanie Sawyer

    I like the idea of making teacher ed more rigorous, but I fear the first two years would be very much like what the op-ed writer described at Columbia – ideological-based nonsense. I have come to the conclusion that teacher education, combined with the state-sanctioned certification that is pretty much dictated by said schools, is really just a modern version of the medieval guild system.

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