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Make Teacher Prep Practical, Not Theoretical (Opinion)

(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

What do you think many teacher-credentialing programs should be teaching that they might not be doing now?

In Part One, PJ Caposey, Keisha Rembert, Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., Jasmine M. Wilhelm, and Jeffrey Wilhelm shared their responses.

In Part Two, Andrew Sharos, Tairen McCollister, Kelsey Pycior, and Wendi Pillars continued the conversation.

Stephen Katzel, Laura Robb, Shannon Jones, Marcela Falcone, Pamela Mesta, Jason Anderson, and Olga Reber finish off the series.

‘Missing Key Aspects’

Stephen Katzel is the author of Win Your First Year of Teaching Middle School: Strategies and Tools for Success. He is an educator with a passion for middle school education and helping new teachers:

Many teacher-credentialing programs throughout the country are doing a fantastic job of preparing individuals for the rigors of teaching and learning the latest pedagogy. However, some are missing key aspects of preparing individuals for the trials that educators endure daily.

Sometimes, teacher-credential programs get lost in the formulaic buzzwords that many educators use in lieu of implementing successful teaching strategies. We need a greater focus on strategies for lesson planning, establishing routines, differentiating instruction, implementing technology efficiently, and career advancement.

The realities of teaching are typically vastly different from that covered in teaching programs. Real-life scenarios are more important than discussing vocabulary words and strategies. Will pedagogy help a new teacher with a class of 35 students with varying learning needs? Will the newest buzzwords help a new teacher lesson plan and grade over 150 papers in a single day, after teaching for eight hours? These rhetorical questions show the need to better prepare new educators to the rigors of teaching and being in front of a classroom with dozens of students. Student-teaching helps prepare individuals, but it is lacking because the student-teachers are not in their own classrooms.

Teaching programs need to focus on applicable strategies that can immediately help novice teachers acclimate to teaching and organize their classroom to maximize student achievement. More conversations need to revolve around actual issues that educators face and not theoretical ones. I like to ask, “Will students know what to do when they walk into your classroom? Are there established routines for turning in work? How do students know how to participate in your class? Will students know how to ask questions?”

Too many educational programs focus on “the what” and not the “how.” The “how” refers to implementing classroom routines, establishing behavioral expectations, and, most importantly, organizing lesson plans and the classroom. Novice teachers need to be exposed to more hands-on scenarios and live teaching situations, requiring them to co-teach with a mentor teacher. The variance in student-teaching requirements across states contributes to the differing abilities of novice teachers nationwide. Some novice teachers completed an entire year of student-teaching while others taught for only eight weeks. More standardization and consistency of teaching programs will lead to stronger novice teachers and more consistency in what is being covered nationally.

Each teacher-preparation course needs to cover overarching topics that contribute to successful teaching. Long- and short-term lesson planning, differentiation, navigating salary scales, and professional-development expectations should be topics that are taught in depth. Many teacher-preparation programs discuss long-term and short-term planning but never teach how to develop either effectively. Teaching specific skills will lead to individuals choosing to stay in education longer than the current five-year burnout rate. Administrators of teacher-preparation programs need to ask themselves if they are covering topics that are actually preparing individuals to teach in front of students.

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Modeling Student-Centered Instruction

Author, teacher, consultant, Laura Robb has taught grades 4 to 8 for more than 40 years and continues to coach teachers in elementary and middle school. The author of more than 40 books on literacy, Robb writes blogs, creates podcasts with her son, Evan Robb, and speaks at national and state conferences:

Social media and communication via the internet have created challenges and issues for educators from kindergarten through college. Realities such as fake news and the bots and trolls that invent and propagate it can skew citizens’ views of election results, the criminal-justice system, and international problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic, freshwater supplies, climate change, immigration, and poverty.

When students bring these issues into classrooms, teachers often feel ill equipped to have conversations about them with students. For me, credentialing includes preservice courses, but it also includes the kinds of professional learning available for teachers in their schools. In a global society where information travels as rapidly as a blink of an eye, ongoing professional learning at the building level will keep teachers abreast of future changes and challenges as they arise, as well as how they affect teaching and learning.

Preservice Classes: Learn the Way You’ll Teach

To ensure schools move from teacher-centered to a student-centered approach to learning, preservice classes should be student-centered. For aspiring teachers to comfortably offer choice and voice to students, they need to collaborate, have choices, make decisions, discuss room arrangement, experience one-to-one and small-group conferring, as well as gain insights into readers and writers workshop and project-based learning. Moreover, being a member of a student-centered classroom where the teacher is the facilitator can lead to meaningful discussions of classroom organization and materials such as: flexible seating, culturally relevant classroom libraries and the value of independent reading, differentiation, choices in instructional reading, and book rooms that house texts for ELA and content-area units providing students with text choices of materials they can learn from and read.

These methods classes should also include how to use formative assessments to inform instructional moves and decisions and to shine a spotlight on students who might need support and interventions in order to successfully move forward. In addition, to increase preservice teachers’ knowledge of culturally relevant materials and teaching, they need to learn how to address white privilege and how to discuss racism and anti-racism with students by using books as a springboard to these challenging and courageous discussions.

Children’s and Young Adult Literature Classes

The requirement for children’s literature in many schools of education has been eliminated or reduced to a one-semester class. Since the research of Richard Allington, Steven Krashen, Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp, Laura Robb and Evan Robb, and Luz Hererra and Carla Espana point to the need for students to read culturally relevant books in all subjects, it’s crucial for preservice teachers to know the literature as well as the professional journals and websites that provide information about books.

Elementary and secondary teachers should take a yearlong class in children’s literature, but there also needs to be a class for content teachers, so they have options for moving beyond learning from a textbook to including outstanding children’s and young adult books on topics in their curriculum. The children’s literature content classes can be taught in modules for social studies, science, math, fine arts, and health and physical education, allowing preservice teachers to choose the modules relevant to what they’ll be teaching.

As preservice education students read and discuss outstanding books, they come to understand how interpretative questions, comparing and contrasting within a book and between two authors, etc., and applying literary elements, develops the analytical and critical-thinking skills that they in turn can nurture in their students. Moreover, reading and discussing books in a student-centered class not only engages preservice students in the 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking but also provides the experiences that can lead to the transfer of these skills to their lives and future students’. When students become analytical and critical thinkers, they have the tools to separate fake news and conspiracy theories from the truth.

News Literacy Class: Identifying Fake News and Conspiracy Theories

A study by Stanford University in 2016 found that a large majority of students were unable to tell the difference between fake and real news. Since the proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories continues to increase, all preservice teachers should be required to take a class in news literacy.

In this class, preservice teachers read major newspapers and watch liberal, conservative, and right-wing news media on television and on diverse social media platforms. By discussing, analyzing, and evaluating these texts, future teachers learn how to spot fake news and conspiracy theories as well as understand how fake news can undermine democratic governments. A useful resource for preservice teachers and those currently teaching is The Literacy News Project, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit. This organization provides programs for educators and has developed questions for children in grades K-6, 6-9, and 9-12 to help them sort fact from fiction in the digital age. When preservice teachers experience, understand, and develop news literacy, they’ll have the confidence to teach this important topic to their students.

Some Closing Thoughts

Two overarching goals of all preservice coursework should be: (1) to develop teachers who have the skills to think analytically and critically, problem solve, differentiate learning, and respond to the diverse needs of all children in their classes; and (2) to have the experience and expertise to prepare their students to be knowledgeable citizens in a republican democracy and productive contributors to a global society.

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Anti-Racist Work

Shannon Jones is a 15-year educator working as a K-5 focus teacher in Wheaton, Md. She can be reached at shannon.l.jones@mcpsmd.net or on Twitter @MsJonesLuvsMath:

Many teacher-credentialing programs neglect to offer courses centered on culturally responsive teaching, social justice, and equity and race. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, during the 2017-18 school year, 79 percent of public school teachers were white. This means a vast majority of students in public schools are taught by teachers who don’t look like them.

As white teachers, we have a responsibility to understand our privilege and examine our biases prior to engaging with our students. We have to be ready to do the work of anti-racists by understanding and acknowledging our privilege. We have to come to this profession ready to examine the curriculum and the materials we are putting in front of our students so that we can interrupt racism when we see it in our schools and classrooms.

We need to enter the teaching profession ready to scrutinize the curriculum and its materials for the presence of stereotypes and microaggressions. We cannot teach Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month in isolation. Teacher-credentialing courses have the ability to inform future teachers on how they can seamlessly weave deep culture into their teaching practice. There is great value in future teachers coming into the classroom already having explored their background and privilege in order to witness its effect on how they perceive the behaviors of their students.

Self-care and time management are two other important skills teacher-credential programs must offer their participants. According to a National Education Association article, “Who is the Average U.S. Teacher,” by Tim Walker, the average teacher works a 53-hour week. A teacher cannot fairly ensure the well-being of their students if they do not first ensure their own well-being. The task list of a teacher is endless. Learning to pick and choose what will have the biggest impact on student learning and well-being is crucial to improve teacher efficiency. Self-care and time-management practices are crucial to improving teacher retention and reducing burn out.

Lastly, the inclusion of courses on teaching English-language learners should be a necessity in every teacher-credential program According to an Education Week article, “The Nation’s English-Learner Population Has Surged: 3 Things to Know,” by Corey Mitchell, there are about 4.9 million English-language learners currently enrolled in U.S. public schools. Often, programs offer a course on teaching English-language learners, but they are limited and often focus on teaching them in isolation or small groups. Teachers need more robust and detailed instruction to successfully integrate strategies for English-language learners while delivering a well-rounded curriculum.

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In-Person, Virtual, and Hybrid Teaching

Marcela Falcone is in her 21st year as a 3rd grade bilingual teacher in the Brentwood school district on Long Island, N.Y. She previously taught pre-K, 1st grade, and 2nd grade. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_falcone:

There is an increased need for teacher-credentialing programs to prepare new educators to best meet the needs of students within in-person, virtual, and hybrid environments.

Throughout the history of education, there have been major events that have impacted teaching and learning. The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the way that education looked in the 2020-21 school year. In the same way that current educators have adjusted to these massive changes, it is the responsibility of teacher-credentialing programs to prepare those new to the field.

For in-person instruction, teacher-credentialing programs need to start preparing educators with the possibility of minimal interactions between individuals in the classroom setting. An increased emphasis on motivational techniques, classroom-management strategies, and direct instruction from the teacher has to be looked at in detail. Educators should develop new tools for engagement, student-centered lessons, and ongoing assessment techniques.

Virtual learning environments present many challenges in relation to technology available to families, supportive learning resources, and the ability for students to access all of the information provided by the teacher. It is important for educators to become fully immersed in programs such as Google Classroom, Google Meets, and Zoom. At the same time, new strategies related to classroom management and student engagement have to be reviewed in-depth for the virtual setting.

The hybrid setting is in many ways a juggling act for educators. It is important for teacher-credentialing programs to help educators understand ways to balance meeting the needs of the students they are seeing in person and on a screen. At the same time, teachers have to learn new ways to communicate with parents and guardians. The learning environment for each student might be different, but the goal of the educator is to provide a shared experience.

The difficult task for teacher-credentialing programs is to prepare educators for teaching students in a classroom, virtually, and within a hybrid setting. Educators need to continue reviewing concepts such as cooperative learning groups, scaffolding techniques, and higher-level questioning. But teachers now need to know how to best meet the needs of students without face-to-face interactions or with different restrictions in place. It is not and will never be easy. But educators have shown that nothing is impossible, and they are up for this challenge.

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‘Equity vs. Equality’

Pamela Mesta’s experience includes district-level administration, ESOL, bilingual, elementary, early childhood, educational technology, professional development, interpretation/translation, and higher education.

Jason Anderson’s experience includes school/district-level administration, educational publishing, and higher education.

Olga Reber’s experience includes ESOL, EFL, professional development, interpretation/translation, and higher education.

Pamela Mesta and Olga Reber are also the authors of the book: The Classroom Teacher’s Guide to Supporting English Language Learners:

One of the greatest challenges preservice teachers face is connecting theory to practice. While it is necessary to build a strong foundation rooted in theory, it is equally important to bridge that to the classroom setting. This is especially evident when it comes to teaching and assessing diverse learners.

Two Considerations for Teacher-Credentialing Programs

1-Focus on Assessment

What do my students need to know, and how will I know they got there? Who needs to be challenged and who needs additional support? Is it time to move on? These are all essential questions practicing educators must consider but can be especially challenging for preservice teachers to visualize.

Assessment is not always looking at what students have learned but, more importantly, how well the content has been taught. The meaning of assessment is to sit beside and to assess student understanding as well as the success of the instruction. We should be guiding teachers to determine the next teaching point rather than quantifying if mastery has been met, and these teaching points will look vastly different for each learner. Our future educators need time to build their capacity in selecting and analyzing different assessments and deriving insights from the findings. These insights should then inform planning and instruction. We expect a lot from our practitioners, whether they are a first-year teacher or a 30-year veteran, and assessment is no exception.

2-Explore the Needs of Diverse Learners

There are sociological aspects of the student/teacher relationship that many of our incoming teachers, as well as our veterans, don’t reference when trying to connect with our most diverse learners. We know that the majority of the time our challenges with diverse learners or those with whom we have historically been unsuccessful are not about addressing the lack of aptitude or cognition but rather our ability to understand the challenges they face. English-learners, students with learning disabilities, students who are economically disadvantaged, or students with other identifiers that would categorize them as diverse are addressed within the affectual domain. Our most diverse learners need to become “available” to learn, and our teachers need to understand approaches that focus on building meaningful relationships with them. It’s equally important that educators have empathy, not sympathy, for their students.

Equity vs. equality is huge. Equity when we reference a student with a disability or a student who is economically disadvantaged is understood by pretty much all. The challenge becomes when a student speaks another language or has other obstacles in accessing the curriculum. That’s where equity becomes contentious. Teacher-credentialing programs should provide candidates with a window into what equity vs. equality looks like in practice throughout their program of study, spending time looking at student profiles and portfolios and discussing instructional implications. This way, they will be better prepared for meeting the needs of diverse learners in both the field experience and student-teaching and, ultimately, in their future teaching positions.

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Thanks to Stephen, Laura, Shannon, Marcela, Pamela, Jason, and Olga for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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