Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Are Teacher Prep Programs Preparing Students for the Reality of Teaching Today?

Another semester at my Alma Mater, Niagara University, has come to an end. Overall, I feel it was another successful semester with my pre-service, aspiring secondary English teachers. Located on the US/Canadian border, NU has a unique mix of American and Canadian students. In addition, my class, English Methods, also usually has a mix of both graduate and undergraduate students as well. This semester the class was evenly split by both nationality and program. Meeting the needs of all of my students presents a very unique and rewarding experience for me as a teacher.

All students in my class are required by the university program to log 30 "Learn and Serve" hours, wherein they observe an assigned area teacher in practice and then teach a minimum of one lesson. Here, I require students to videotape themselves teaching a lesson and have them watch it and write a reflection, turning in both for a grade. I do NOT score the lesson or teaching itself; rather, I assess their ability to honestly and critically assess their performance as well as provide them with both warm and cool feedback to offer suggestions for improvement. The entire semester, and the teacher prep program itself, stresses the importance of self reflection so that by the time students are in my class, they are fairly proficient at this important aspect of teaching. In addition, beyond the required reading of Integrating Differentiated Instruction + Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids, I also require that students read a text that specifically explores teaching secondary English called The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom and write Learning Log Reflections about what made sense and what they might try to use in their own classroom practice.

For the major project required for my course, students are charged with designing an entire unit plan based on the UbD model that includes many components (see unit plan link). I assign the unit plan along with the rubric for assessment and a model unit on day two of the semester and for the rest of the semester I model each piece or component along with strategies and best practices. In addition, I provide students with a variety of helpful links, tools, and my wikispace to review and pull ideas for their own unit.

Roughly halfway through the semester, students are also required to teach a lesson from their unit to their peers. This exercise allows them to try out their ideas and receive feedback from their peers as well as turn in a completed lesson plan and associated handouts to me for feedback as well. Students then have five days to email me a reflection of their teaching; I promptly assess all pieces and return to them the following class so that they can polish it and submit it as one of their required two lesson plans in the unit.

I must say that each semester I am impressed with the majority of units that students design and submit for their final grade. However, what concerns me is that some are fantastic designers of learning experiences but not so great at implementing them or developing realistic timelines for doing so and some are not so great at designing the unit but do a great job at teaching that one lesson from it. How do I address this in a way that everyone can benefit? How do I help these passionate young adults to see the importance of the parts equaling the effectiveness of the whole? Your comments and ideas are most welcome here.

Now for the BIG question...Are teacher prep programs truly preparing students for the realities of teaching today?

The final two sessions of my class address (1) designing a course syllabus and devising a grading policy and (2) discussing student teaching concerns and interview questions at a place off campus where we also have a bite to eat and a beverage. For this last class, we first discuss all their many concerns about student teaching, which seems to be very overwhelming for them. I try to offer practical advice and quell their nerves as much as possible. As for the interview questions, I provide them with an actual form from my former district used by interview panel members for a secondary English position and go through each while allowing time for students to ask questions and make notes to use in preparation for thmeselves. Then, I have a magic envelope in which are roughly 25 other likely questions they will encounter in their quest for a position. Each student is to pick a question and read it aloud, posing it to the person on their right. Here, they become so flustered and don't know where to start; it's painful to watch and I can't tell you how many interview candidates I have seen with the same reaction in the interview process. Although I offer suggestions, discuss the use of buzz words without actual examples, and a million other facets of being on "the hot seat," I still see young teachers much like my students fumble through first interviews. I completely understand that they will get better once they build confidence and a repertoire of experiences through student teaching, but somehow I feel as if I am still not preparing them for the reality of what they face in finding their first job.

What are your thoughts on this? How do we better prepare and mentor young teachers to take the reins? What can we as teachers do and what should teacher prep programs be doing differently in order to serve our students better? As a side note, beyond the required NYS teacher certification requirements, my university also gives a comprehensive exam to all students; sadly, there is over a 40% failure rate on this assessment. I have not seen it; I am not permitted. But students have told me about it and I am befuddled at what is being assessed on it.

So, this is my current classroom practice and I'm asking you, reader, how do I challenge the bureaucracy and thereby provide my students with practical and meaningful experiences that mirror the reality of teaching today?


Theresa G said...

I co-teach a course at another local college for aspiring administrators (I should say taught - I won't be doing it again this semester). Our final is a mock interview with an outside person and one of the instructors, using a portfolio they create on curriculum as a part of their final. We received a tremendous amount of push-back from students on what we believe to be an authentic assessment of their knowledge and skills. If you can't talk the talk, etc. And, as with you, most do not do well on the interview piece although all of the questions come from learning activities and discussion in class.

Are we preparing teachers for reality of teaching? I am thinking that depends upon our reality - do we teach them how to create assessments and use data, do they understand the process of formative assessment, can they integrate technology, do they possess 21st century learning skills? Most programs do not.
Maybe the real question should be - are we preparing teacher prep students for the reality of teaching tomorrow!

Kate said...

Awesome perspective on this, Theresa...thank you for your thoughtful comments. You have directed me to think of other things and I appreciate that. Much to mull over... will get back to you on this. Thanks again.

Leslie said...

A colleague and I have been discussing this topic at length lately. Our most recent observations have been around the idea that a majority of the field placements that pre-service teachers are experiencing are in classrooms that do not model 21st century skills. Pre-service teachers are observing classrooms that look similar to how they personally experienced K-12 education. Hence, a vicious cycle continues...we resort to teaching as we were taught. Then along comes the job interview with questions that pertain to 21st century education and the candidates have no relevant experiences to draw upon.

So, how do we fix this? My suggestion to my colleague (she places student teachers) is to hand-pick the placements that are in the field. We have been debating the idea of placing students in to two opposing classrooms during one of the semesters - one classroom that exemplifies 21st century learning and one that is more traditional. Then during seminar, there needs to be facilitated discussion around the comparison of both types of learning that the student teachers witnessed in each of the classrooms. Every aspect of the classrooms needs to be compared - from physical environment to instructional techniques used. An important question that needs to be posed during these types of discussions - how is the LEARNING that is occurring in these classrooms different for the students you observed as opposed to when you were a student? WHY is that learning different?

Theresa is right - we must model for pre-service teachers the process of formative assessment and we must teach them how to integrate Web 2.0 tools in to their instruction. We must also remind them of the world that they are preparing students for. We must model for them the importance of being a life-long learner.

Keep doing what you're doing, Kate! It's what's best for students (K-12 AND beyond0!

Rob Currin said...

I am currently in my third year as an English teacher at the secondary level. I did my student teaching during the Spring semester 2005. It wasn’t so long ago that I found myself sick with nervousness at the impending doom of a room full of students.

My methods program at Buffalo State was taught by Mrs. Nancy Deal. She incorporated a number of the requirements that you listed in your post. We had to videotape a lesson to our peers, create unit plans, self-reflect, observe our future cooperating teachers, and teach lessons to middle and high school students.

While all of these requirements were helpful, the lessons that have had the greatest impact on my teaching are the ones that I have taught. I don’t know that there is any substitute for actual experience. This comment may seem extremely useless in an attempt at giving feedback, for this I apologize.

Everything that takes place from undergraduate study to the first lesson taught alone can be compared to a pre-season game. While the pre-season can offer insight into raw talent and areas that need improvement, it cannot accurately assess what the player or team will do when the lights are on and the stakes are much greater. A team can go undefeated during the pre-season and not win a game during the regular season. I, perhaps, was helped out a bit in this area considering the fact that my cooperating teacher had a baby four weeks into my eight week placement.

I found that the greatest benefit from my methods class was the support that we were able to give one another. I am still in contact with a number of students from my methods course. I even married one! Our professor, like you, was extremely resourceful and caring. She modeled everything that she asked of her students and she struck the difficult balance of approachability and professionalism.

I guess what I am saying is that nothing can completely prepare a prospective teacher for the moment that all of the students have taken their seats, the bell has sounded, and the lesson is to begin. Had I not received the boost of confidence that my teacher preparation program gave to me, I would not have been able to handle my first placement and many of the obstacles that I faced during my year of limbo as a substitute/internal suspension room teacher. This confidence got me through my first experiences and by then I had something that I could talk about at an interview.

Keep giving them the tools that they will need to succeed. Your comments on reflection are right on! Give them the tools and they will learn when and how to use them. It is impossible to prepare for every possible situation with regard to teaching. All that prospective teachers can hope for is a leader that will tell them that the ball will bounce in a way that was not expected and all that matters is that they react to it.