The Most Cost Effective Approach to Improve Teacher Education
The author calls upon professors in Colleges of Education to take a radical step.
by Edward Strauser
New contributor to the Gazette
July 1, 2009
Colleges of Education across the country are under fire for inadequately preparing teachers to work in today’s schools. This is not a new phenomenon. The issue has been continuously resurfacing since college level teacher training mandates began.
Teacher education has a fairly common approach with coursework that includes an introduction/overview, developmental learning, a variety of teaching methods, insights into special education and school law, and student teaching/internship. This is a time honored approach to teacher education. However, a growing problem exists in finding the right combination of the Science of Teaching and the Art of Teaching. Many four year and master’s level universities have shifted their professor reward structure to match the emphasis on publication required by doctoral degree granting research universities. This tends to force an education professor to specialize in one or two areas.
Unfortunately, it is a rare few who can excel at both publication of articles and a full load of teaching/service/advising. Many professors who, thirty years ago, would regularly supervise student teachers and volunteer their time in the schools now will only go into the schools if they are paid consultants. That accelerates the trend for generalists to be replaced by tightly defined specialists. Students find themselves being educated by more and more teacher education professors who have lost touch with the “big picture”.
An efficient, cost effective approach to encourage education professors to keep their feet on the ground is to spend more time practicing the art of the profession they purport to pass on to the next generation of teachers. Supervision of student teachers or practicum experiences is one important way to keep education and secondary methods professors in touch with the complexity of the teaching environment their education students will face as teachers. However, it is not enough. If the goal is to significantly improve teacher education, every professor of education, including deans, should spend at least one full semester (one full year would be better) as a full time teacher of children in pre-collegiate schools. This needs to be repeated every five to ten years of teaching at the university. For universities with faculty ranks, school teaching could one of the requirements for each step of the promotion ladder from instructor to full professor.
There are personal and professional risks associated with an adventure of this type.
Returning to teach after a five to ten year absence is almost like having a recurring rookie teacher experience. One of the discomforts of being the equivalent of a beginning teacher again is putting in more twelve hour days than a typical experienced teacher does, at least for the first several weeks.
School teaching is often considered demeaning, especially from the perspective of university colleagues outside of the education department.
A professor is out of university committees for a year and committee work is part of merit pay raises. To have a chance of success, the semester or year of school teaching cannot result in a net loss of pay and benefits and will need status rewards that are highly significant in tenure and promotion decisions.
Teaching children is self rewarding. A college of education may lose good professors to the pre-collegiate schools.
The advantages are many.
Most professors of education were school teachers at one time in their lives. If a professor was a first grade teacher, he or she could take the opportunity to teach fifth grade and therefore be better at preparing elementary teachers. If a professor had taught middle school language arts with his or her secondary (grades 7-12) teacher certificate, teaching high school would result in expanded pedagogical insights. Those newly refined insights could be passed on to pre-service teachers.
Classroom management needs to part of every course in education all the way through student teaching. If the professor let that concept slip over the years, it will be reinforced strongly when he or she is in the real world.
A professor can get engulfed in the area he/she has spent years researching, especially in publish or perish universities. The real world reminds him/her that no one method works for all children. There is a reason behind the need to teach pre-service teachers a variety of approaches.
The tendency for mandating excruciating detail in the mechanics of lesson plans give professors good, quantitative areas to grade. However, time in the real world of the classroom should give these professors a more balanced view about planning content and activities for the children.
Massive graduation portfolios would cease to exist as a graduation criterion. Again, balance and moderation are an inevitable result of having extended time in the complicated world of the pre-Kindergarten through grade 12 classrooms.
There are many ways to facilitate the experience to increase the advantages to the professor and university. One approach might entail a direct exchange with a classroom teacher who had at least a Master’s degree and an enthusiasm for the profession. That would have the added benefit of giving the education students exposure to a temporary professor with extensive first hand knowledge of a local (or perhaps distant) teaching environment
In some cases, it may be valuable to learn from a more distant exchange. The professor from, say, New York State could learn from teaching in a top performing school in Wisconsin, Texas, a Department of Defense school, etc.
Professors would be very familiar with electronic grading, electronic attendance, and a whole variety of technology that is becoming increasingly available in twenty-first century schools. Five to ten years later, these skills would be upgraded yet again.
School-university partnerships will be enhanced.
If this approach is to have maximum effectiveness, the professor will need a high degree of personal input in choosing the potential grade and school. One non-negotiable requirement would to have a placement as a classroom teacher; not as an administrator, curriculum coordinator, academic coach, etc. Understandably, the school district would see advantages with the latter placements. However, it would undermine the purpose of having the professor in the schools unless, of course, that professor’s primary responsibility is preparing administrators, curriculum coordinators, etc. The classroom environment is the main focus of returning to the schools. It is perfectly acceptable to be in a more “gentle” teaching environment rather than the toughest class in the most challenging school in the area, although nothing should discourage a professor who relishes a challenge.
Temporarily placing an education professor back in the schools for a semester or two requires very little, if any, additional financial resources and will predictably result in a noticeable improvement in teacher education. Refreshed and strengthened practical classroom skills make for a better instructional leader and guide. Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, is reported to have said, "To lead people, walk beside them ... As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate ... When the best leader's work is done, the people say, ‘I did it myself!’ [and they feel personal ownership of success.]”
The professor with significant, recent real world classroom skills will likely have more practical insights to fine tune a student teachers’ classroom performance, often in a barely perceptible way. When the student teacher succeeds in his or her first teaching job they should have the internal feeling that they did it themselves.
Edward Strauser is a retired NYS teacher. He taught at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, GA, left for a year to teach high school, and returned to his present professor position in the Department of Middle and Secondary Education in Savannah, Georgia.