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What We Know About Teaching Teachers

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Learning the art of preparing effective teachers never ends for the teacher education community. Each day, we discover new ways to review, modify and apply the best methods that will ultimately address the learning needs of all students. But what are the core ideals and characteristics that serve as the foundation beneath this evolving knowledge? I recently asked Alison Hilsabeck, who leads a successful program at National Louis University, to answer the question, "What do we know about teaching teachers?" Her insightful response follows.

-Sharon P. Robinson, Ed.D., President and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE)

The educational research community has devoted significant energies toward the goal of codifying the research on learning and teaching, and on translating that research into effective practice. Those efforts continue a legacy of scholarly practice extending back to Plato and Aristotle. Recently, there have also been a number of substantial reports (e.g. the National Research Council's Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education's Transforming Teacher Education through Clinical Practice: A National Strategy to Prepare Effective Teachers) that have informed the national dialogue about the mechanics and organizational arrangements of educating teachers. It would be presumptuous of me to even begin to summarize all of this work.

Instead, I write from the perspective of an education school dean, working to maintain a 126-year-old institutional mission to prepare teachers who actually know what to do on their first day as the teacher-of-record. At National Louis University (NLU), we are focusing much of our work on the preparation of effective and resilient teachers for low-performing schools. This has challenged us to rethink assumptions and build stronger and deeper field partnerships. Our experience suggests the importance of some key factors with which many educators would agree. While implementing these factors can be challenging, here is a bit about what we know it takes to teach teachers effectively:

Teacher preparation has to find its center in learning and psychological development, and the emerging research in those areas. That might seem obvious, but research advances in these arenas are moving at the speed of a runaway train. Rather than focus on teaching generic strategies, we should concentrate on how to navigate the differences among learners and contexts, and how to develop high quality relationships with students while helping them to grow academically.

We need to ensure that teacher candidates have a deep knowledge of the disciplines they will go on to teach, including from the perspective of how children interact with and learn those disciplines. As Deborah Ball and others have shown us, the latter caveat increases the complexity of this effort significantly.

The development of effective teaching skills has to happen through real and extensive practice. We know that teaching practices and tools only become nuanced and adaptive when learned in real-life settings, under the auspices of outstanding coaches and mentors. However, it can be hard work to ensure those practices scale up. At NLU, for example, it has taken a decade-long partnership with the Academy for Urban School Leadership to develop and refine an intensive residency model and scale it to prepare 180 or more teachers a year.

For higher education to be effective in teacher preparation, it must erase any boundaries between university classrooms and conditions of practice in PK-12 schools. The conditions of promotion and tenure in higher education are not well matched to the rhythms and realities of school districts. As is the case in many other institutions, NLU's faculty have taken on new responsibilities for building and maintaining strong school partnerships — responsibilities some may never have anticipated when they joined the profession but that are critical to the work we do.

Teacher preparation does not stop at the point of initial certification. This is evident, but in most parts of the country there is little support at the state or regional level for creating effective, sustainable PK-12-higher education partnerships. We need policy makers to facilitate a systemic approach to partnering PK-12 schools with higher education institutions to truly bring about more effective teacher preparation and induction.  

Alison Hilsabeck, Ph.D., is dean of the National College of Education at National Louis University in Chicago, Illinois.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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