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Making Teachers

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It's been noted before, but one difference between many independent schools and the public system has to do with the development of teachers. It's an area in which some readers may believe that the vaunted world of private education has feet of clay, but it's worth talking about.

Teacher development happens to be something near and dear to me. I've written books about it, spoken about it, and been involved at various levels with the work itself. I know that systematic training is far better than the initial sort of preparation I received: faith in my college degrees, a pile of textbooks, a box of chalk, and lots of on-the-run advice.

In time, I went through the process of becoming certified, coursework I happen to look back on quite fondly as having influenced my practice in good ways. Had public schools in Massachusetts been hiring in 1978, I might be writing this from another perspective entirely.

I will also stipulate that more and more of the teacher candidates and early career teachers I encounter--in fact, virtually all of those in early childhood, elementary, and middle school classrooms--are fully certified teachers. It still seems understood that the best preparation for teaching fundamental skills to younger students is a good teacher-training course, either at the undergraduate or--for career-changers, of whom we see more than a few (why, I'm even married to one)--graduate level.

Independent school teachers of older children, however, come from more varied backgrounds and enter the profession with more diverse professional needs. Certified teachers, often ex-public school (here an ironic 'thank you' to the educational budget cutters who have put these often outstanding educators on the market) are not thin on the ground, but the preponderance, I would venture, enter the field with undergraduate majors and graduate degrees in the subjects they teach. (A few teachers land in independent schools from Teach for America, which I know will seem problematic for some readers--although these teachers have at least remained in the profession.)

The good news is that most schools are onto the needs of inexperienced teachers. Induction and orientation programs are generally longer than the half day that started me nearly 40 years back, and many schools have developed mentoring programs with real substance. Furthermore, administrators and supervisors know that assiduous hand-holding, close observation, and other kinds of personal and professional support are in order for newer teachers; increasingly, the school's responsibility to provide this is built into evaluation systems that focus on teachers in what some public schools might consider the "pre-tenure" period of employment.

One might be tempted to scoff at the apparent irony that parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars to have their children taught by teachers with little or no professional experience or training, and it's certainly a reality. Another reality, though, is that independent school teachers tend to exist within cultures that are highly immersive: in 21st-century independent schools it is hard for a new or newish teacher not to be constantly watched, engaged in conversations about practice and about kids, and otherwise offered a great deal of formal and informal on-the-job training from a number of experienced sources. Generally smaller classes and relatively small and intense school communities make it relatively easy for schools to monitor and offer essentially real-time feedback to early-career teachers.

Another phenomenon on the rise is that of regional training programs for aimed at cohorts of new teachers, ranging from pre-service bootcamps to series of formal meetings and workshops that extend throughout the school year, perhaps supplemented by a weekend retreat or two.

Also worth mentioning are the growing number of "apprenticeship" programs that couple school-based internships with formal coursework toward a teaching degree as well as certification. The oldest of these, to my knowledge, is offered by Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but similar paths are available elsewhere. The Klingenstein Center at Teachers College of Columbia University offers master's programs in educational leadership among its many programs aimed at independent school educators at all career stages.

Other programs offer training minus the state credential. Punahou School's MAP apprenticeship and the relatively new Progressive Education Lab program, a moveable feast of experiences, are two examples. Johns Hopkins and a handful of other universities offer programs leading to industry-recognized credentials in educational leadership--often tied to degree programs. Perhaps readers will share specific knowledge of other such programs in the Comments section below.

I suppose the flip side of the sometimes uneven preparation level of some independent school teachers is that we're also bombarded these days by evidence, or at least opinion couched as evidence, that many college teacher training programs leave something to be desired. I have no opinion to offer here; my own experience (as a student, a colleague, and as a parent of kids taught by certified teachers) was certainly the opposite, but I cannot generalize from that.

What I can say is that schools have a pretty good idea and are learning more every day about what it takes to develop effective teachers. Much of it goes back to fundamentals: a very good brain, a very good heart, a passion for the work, and a commitment to the success of kids. A big chunk is about fit--do the teacher's values, methods, and ambitions match those of the school and its community? All of these, I think, are universals in all sectors, and go well beyond a piece of paper in a new teacher's hand.

The most effective and successful schools understand deeply that developing outstanding teachers and faculties of lifelong professional learners is every bit as important as their work with students. I see more schools thinking ever more intentionally about the training and support of newer teachers and the ongoing professional learning of veterans. If we are to claim to be schools that have a broader and higher purpose than churning out happy graduates, attending to the skills and professionalism of our teachers must be at the center of our work.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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