by Nick Ferentinos
I have a confession to make.
After 35 years in the classroom, which included working with many student teachers, followed by nearly eight years of mentoring new teachers and six years of teaching new mentors, I still don’t know much about what should go into a teacher training program. There’s so much disagreement about the subject, I’m left to rely on my own experience, especially since I left the classroom and became a mentor.
It’s not that I don’t have a lot of ideas about pre-service training. It’s just that we’re still not certain what works. As suggested by the article from the New York Times on this blogsite (Ed Schools’ Pedagogical Puzzle – NYTimes.com) and the letters the article garnered (A Better Way to Train Teachers? – NYTimes.com), the debate over just what constitutes the best preparation goes on.
I am certain of one addition I would make to any new teacher program. Include ample time for teacher-candidates to be in the company of children, preferably in schools. Few of the dozens of new teachers I mentored had spent time in schools observing actual classrooms at work. I commonly found new teachers were overwhelmed in their first year for a number reasons. One reason was discovering how little they knew about how students’ lives played out in classrooms, both personally and developmentally.
It’s ordinary for new teachers to feel challenged in that first year, so the more comfortable they are in the company of students, the more likely they will succeed, I’ve found.
Pre-service programs appropriately include much theory, which is vital for a teacher’s understanding of childhood development, but new teachers need to see what theory looks in real children’s behavior. Too often, we do not provide opportunities for novices to experience the world of real classrooms until they have a classroom of their own.
Teaching remains such an isolated profession, new teachers can feel adrift as they try to navigate their first years, even with the help of a mentor. Instead, we might think about ways teacher candidates could have more opportunities to see a variety of classrooms at work.
Watching videos of a classroom practice provides a limited perspective. Nothing replaces being in an actual classrooms where lessons take on lives of their own once actual children are involved. Human interactions in school are only predictable to a point. Teaching aspirants would prosper by sitting among children working with a teacher in an authentic environment, observing not only for teaching practice, but also children’s learning practice.
Of course, there should be much more to a pre-service program. I trust others posting here will have many other suggestions. My suggestion tries to address a problem I observed time and again, that of new teachers feeling unfamiliar with the world of the classroom. Instead, I would like to see new teachers walk into their first classroom with a sense of being in an accustomed setting in the company of children, a privileged and honorable place to be.
As a postscript, I would add that we continue to lose new teachers at a high rate, and given the current political atmosphere, I wouldn’t expect to see expensive changes in how we train teacher. But in a perfect world a solution to this problem is to extend pre-service by a year so first-year teachers could co-teach with a master teacher for at least part, if not all, of their day. We need some radical changes in how we bring teachers to stay in the profession. Mentoring all new teachers is one of the best ways, but it can’t be the only one.