“Stand up…. Now, put out your arms,” the instructor stood watching us.
“OK, pull your right arm back past your body.”
This was a EDR 500 level class, a graduate course in teaching remedial reading to pre-school and elementary aged schoolchildren. On this first night, we did not know what to expect.
“Now try with the other arm.”
We waved our arms erratically in the air.
He paused for a moment, looked amused and asked, “Can you teach someone to swim like this?”
The 26 of us were standing in a very dry classroom with no water in sight.
We all shook our heads in agreement, “No”, “Not Really”, “Probably not.”
“Well, how can you learn to teach reading without actually working with students?”
We were surprised. Our instructor was admitting to the disconnect in teacher preparation programs.
“You need to be in the classroom to learn how to teach,” he admonished, “any thing else is waving your arms in the air.”
In this class, we were a mixed group in age and experience. Some of us were already employed as teachers in classrooms; others were completing degrees in order to be hired. All of us were learning how to improve student reading from 4:30-7:30 PM on a Tuesday night in a classroom. With not a student in sight, we were learning in the abstract.
Learning in the abstract is not unusual. A large percentage of learning for students in pre-K through grade12 is spent learning in the abstract. For 13 years, students practice skills they will use in college or in real world careers.
However, for those preparing to be teachers, the “real world” is the classroom. Our instructor was acknowledging that the classroom environment is the pool and prospective teachers and veterans should be immersed in that pool in order to learn how to teach. Unfortunately, the evening time slot and location of the class distanced us from authentic practice.
Accessing classrooms and students for teacher prep is largely unavailable under our current agrarian model of education. There are logistical problems for colleges and universities in scheduling, supervision, and, in today’s tense climate, security. Nevertheless,hands on classroom experience is a critically important part of undergraduate teacher preparation, and a semester or two of supervised student teaching is not enough. Teaching training programs need regular and continuous access to students. At minimum, there are must be more integration and collaboration between the teacher training programs, graduate and undergraduate, and local classrooms that are geographically located near these programs.
In addition, the professors/instructors in teacher preparation programs must be current in the practices that new teachers are expected to know. They must be current on how their state is integrating the Common Core State Standards, the surrounding controversies around the adoption of these standards, and the testing programs that have been funded to access the effectiveness of these standards.
Also professors/instructors must be current in their state’s evaluation programs and how the teacher competencies being evaluated. Information disseminated through handouts and powerpoint presentations on these topics is not sufficient; classroom practice in teaching strategies through simulations, feedback, reflection and extensive discussions on these standards and evaluation procedures are critically important at every level of teacher training.
Finally, the professors/instructors in teacher training programs must be familiar with the wide range of technologies being used in preK-grade 12 classrooms. The disconnect between college programs and the use of technology in real-life classrooms has been widening. The professors/instructors in today’s teacher preparation programs must develop proficiency with the software teachers are expected to use. They must be familiar with Google Apps for Education, Edmodo, Twitter, Quizlet, Dropbox, Khan Academy, Class Dojo, Pinterest, Evernote.
There are forces outside the education profession that are exerting pressure and changing the face of education for new and seasoned educators alike. There is political pressure from legislators designing state evaluation and curriculum standard programs combined with pressure from testing companies. The voice that is missing in response to these pressures is leadership from those who design and implement teacher training programs in colleges and universities.
Leadership is more than just an advertising slogan or an elective course offered by colleges and universities. Teacher training programs need the leadership of professors/instructors who connected with the realities of the classroom. That kind of leadership requires direct involvement and reflection on the curriculum, instruction strategies, and means of assessment in classrooms today.
Only that kind of leadership can design programs that meet the needs of the classroom today as well as anticipate the training that prepares new and veteran teachers with both pedagogy and experience for success.
In this current sea change of education, teacher training programs must become the force that exerts pressure and change, not the institutions forced to respond. Teacher training programs currently offered by colleges and universities must move from the abstract, from the practice of training on dry land, in order to move teacher preparation into deep waters of classroom experience.
Anything else is just waving arms in the air.