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Teacher Preparation With Strings Attached

Ariel Sacks

I'm certainly one of the lucky ones. I can proudly say that my teacher preparation included a strong background in developmental theory, curriculum design, and student-centered pedagogy at Bank Street College. I spent a year student teaching in both private and public schools under the mentorship of an experienced teacher; and through a partnership between my first school and Bank Street, I received continued mentorship through my first two years of teaching.

Still, I found my first full-time teaching position in New York City startlingly separate from the world of Bank Street. In particular, I did not know the communities of which I was now a part. The school community included teachers, counselors, administrators, and the mysterious district and state higher-ups; then, there were the families and communities of my students—and finally, the space where we all intersected, in hallways and classrooms.

I loved the complexity of these worlds, but I was frustrated to navigate them mostly alone. If I could change even the best teacher preparation program, I would add a process by which teacher candidates prepare for the specific context of their first full-time positions. After a variety of preservice exploration, teachers should be supported in making a deliberate choice about where to begin their careers.

New teachers must prepare to become members of their school communities. Coursework should include acquiring knowledge about the resources, history and people of the neighborhood where they will teach. Teachers should be incentivized to learn the language of their students' families, where applicable.

Knowledge of students' backgrounds is a key component in building relationships with students and engaging them in meaningful learning. As this understanding grows, new teachers can better reflect on the unique resources they themselves bring to their classrooms. If new hires are teaching in communities where they are already members, they should plan to leverage their knowledge in their classrooms and as members of the teaching staff for the benefit of students—and also anticipate the challenges particular to teaching in one's own community.

For all of this preparation to count, commitment matters. Three years after starting my first position, I transferred to a different school. I had no idea how much work I'd need to do, getting to know another community, and finding my role within it all over again. If I had understood the weight of this, I might have thought more carefully about the move.

I've seen clearly the devastating effects of teacher turnover on the efficacy and trust among members of a school community. While there are significant working condition factors involved, changing this cycle should begin by preparing new teachers to make a more serious, informed commitment.

Ariel Sacks teaches 8th grade English at a middle school in Brooklyn, NY, and is co-author of TEACHING 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Our Public Schools... Now and in the Future.

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