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Getting the Job Done: The Efficacy of Teacher Preparation

When I started teaching through the New York City Teaching Fellows program in 2003, one of the requirements for participants in the program was that in addition to teaching a full schedule during the day, we attended classes 2-3 nights week so as to get earn a masters degree in education. In the original design, this would have been paid for in its entirety by the Fellows, however, in the years that I was doing this, funding from teaching programs was diverted for the war in Iraq. (We ended up having to pay half our tuition--still a pretty good bargain, honestly.) After our school days finished, the other teaching fellows in my school and I would pile into the car that belonged to one of us (we always made sure to schedule courses on the same days, if not the exact same classes, for convenience of commuting) and drive over to the university to which we'd been assigned. We'd load up on coffee, take our classes from about 6-9pm, then head home to grade papers and prepare for the next day.

Looking back, I'm not sure how I had the energy to manage six credit hours a semester in combination with the responsibilities of my first two years of teaching. Most of it is a blur. What little I do remember of the courses I had to take, I didn't find very useful then or now. Much of the coursework was lacking in practical applications: a course in linguistics, while interesting, did not provide a lot of information that I could find uses for in my 9th grade English literature classes, and while I've come to appreciate Lev Vygotsky's contributions to the study of human development, at the time that I was reading his work, it all seemed far too theoretical and dated to inform my day-to-day instruction. These were among the better classes I took; the worst involved adjuncts with only superficial understanding of their subjects, who would spend whole class periods having us grad students talk about abstract art on post-cards or listen to the music from the musical Rent, under some thin guise of a connection unit plans we might be writing--or they'd just recount lengthy stories from their personal lives.

One professor of adolescent psychology, whose name or other identifying details I thankfully do not remember, particularly irked me. In every session of his class, we'd sit in groups and outline the chapters we'd read for homework. Then each group would discuss their outline with the other groups. This always infuriated me, because I didn't see why I was coming to class just to make an outline of what I'd read; I could do that on my own, at home (without paying several hundred dollars a credit.) He never once taught us anything other than telling us to read the textbook. I reflected that if I gave such repetitive assignments to my own students, with such a complete lack of my own input, knowledge, or creativity, they would have been in open revolt against me. Moreover, this professor--like most of his professional peers--seemed totally out of touch with the work I was doing during the day. I found that, on average, most of our professors had only taught 2-3 years before entering doctoral programs, if at all; they were out of touch with what it was to be a classroom teacher, let alone one in the type of school at which I taught.

The coursework wasn't so much rigorous as it was occasionally (annoyingly) time-consuming, usually during periods where that was extremely inconvenient, such as when we were trying to also produce marking period grades for our own students. Classes wherein we did things that seemed practical--receiving real guidance in designing syllabi, or techniques for conveying difficult concepts to the students, for instance--were unfortunately few and far in between. The resulting message my peers and I received from our masters degree was that no one really cared if we were learning anything useful. The masters degree seemed like a ticket you had to get punched to get out of a parking garage, or in this case, out of the probationary period (then called "transition B" licensing) before we became tenured teachers.

When I wrote in my last post (about lessons for new education graduates) that "nothing you learned in grad school will prepare you for this," I was referring to the fact that--truly--the skills needed to stand in front of a room of teenagers and teach are best acquired by actually doing this repeatedly. Some readers wrote in, concerned that I was denigrating teacher prep itself; they worried that I was suggesting we ought to "lower the bar" for teachers so that no training is required. In fact, that's exactly the opposite of what I would suggest: Rather, the content of courses required in masters degree programs in education should be both more rigorous, and more practically applicable to the type of work for which these programs are supposed to prepare graduates. I would recommend more time doing some sort of "practicum" (teaching as an apprentice with an experienced teacher, something that is not a component of enough programs out there), more instruction on the preparation of lessons, and better guidance about classroom management, particularly for teachers preparing to work in high-needs public schools (many of which have either byzantine or non-existent disciplinary structures in place.) Teacher preparation programs should prepare their graduates for the classroom to the fullest extent that academic coursework can, in a career that is, at times, much like being on stage--the problem is that right now, in too many cases, these programs simply don't do the job.

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