Is there a right way to train better teachers?

The Hechinger Report’s three-part series on teacher education programs offers fascinating glimpses inside three classrooms, alongside appalling pictures of first-year teachers’ home lives. Meghan Sanchez has abandoned her teacher training program’s emphasis on ” 100 percent compliance with directions 100 percent of the time” as unrealistic for wiggly 4-year-olds who can’t always sit “criss-cross-applesauce” on command. Michael Duklewski has switched from correcting his middle-schoolers’ negative behavior to pointing out positive behavior, and finds that “I’m just happier, because I’m saying good things all the time instead of harping on bad things.”  Amit Reddy engages his eighth-grade science students in pouring liquids into a beaker to determine their density, but worries about the lagging grades of his “chatty” after-lunch class section. And all three of the featured first-year teachers get up before 6 a.m. and collapse into bed at night after working 12-15 hour days. They have little or no time for family life of their own.

That may be why, according to Hechinger Report,

“anywhere from 17 percent to 46 percent of new teachers quit within their first five years. In 1988, the typical teacher in a public school had 15 years’ experience. By 2008, the typical teacher was a rookie, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania.”

Hechinger’s three-article series looks at different models of teacher-training programs. About one-third of new teachers now come from some kind of alternative model of teacher preparation. The series describes alternative programs as focusing more on classroom experience, often pairing a teacher-in-training with an experienced teacher for full-time, year-long residency programs. Traditional teacher preparation programs focus more on academics, including both education and subject-matter coursework.

Middle-school teacher Michael Duklewski came from a traditional school of education with two years of coursework and 16 weeks of full-time student teaching. He found that classes focused on the developmental changes of the middle-school age group, both physiological and psychological, helped him in his first year in the classroom.

Eighth grade science teacher Amit Reddy already had degrees in engineering, literary nonfiction and public policy, as well as years of work experience, when he signed up for The New Teacher Project’s eight-week alternative program. After eight weeks of summer classes, TNTP teaching fellows continue to take online classes, and receive coaching throughout their first year. Hechinger describes the TNTP program and some other alternative programs as “driven by the idea that new teachers are more effective if they learn mostly by doing.”

Unlike most science teachers, Reddy already had a strong subject-area background. Coaching and collaboration with other science teachers in his middle school helped during his first year. Still,

“It was basically ‘jump in the deep end,’ ” Reddy said. “Every day is like, ‘figure it out.’ ”

Alternative programs are often faster, but still lack some of the elements needed for success, including training in effective classroom management skills. And no, that is not a code word for discipline. Classroom management that works focuses first on positives, but that’s not emphasized in teacher training.

“Of 122 programs examined by NCTQ, the majority focused on the setting up of routines and rules in classrooms, an important skill. But 74 percent did not teach teachers how to use praise in their classrooms to reinforce positive behavior or other day-to-day tricks to keep classes focused and get unruly kids under control.”

The Hechinger Report series ultimately concludes that there is “little evidence to show which kind of program produces the most successful teachers.” If that’s the case, then alternative programs are doing as well as traditional programs, and can offer a more attractive option for many prospective teachers.Traditional programs require full-time coursework and student teaching arrangements require the prospective teacher to pay tuition to a university for their student teaching time, rather than being paid for working.  Alternative programs can cost less and move prospective teachers into paying residencies in schools.

Two new Minnesota programs offer alternative teacher education to people who are already working as educational support staff. These programs can address the lack of teachers of color in Minnesota schools. Only four percent of Minnesota teachers and only 14 percent of Minneapolis teachers are teachers of color. That contrasts with 28 percent of Minnesota students and 66 percent of Minneapolis students who are students of color. People of color make up almost half of Minneapolis Public Schools education support professionals, such as education assistants, behavior specialists, substitute teachers, and others. They already have classroom experience, and commitment to students and education.

Minneapolis Public Schools, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and the University of Minnesota are working together on one such program.

“This is a program for current MPS employees who work closely with students in schools and are interested in obtaining their elementary education license.

“In 2016-2017, the Minneapolis Residency Program will include a yearlong co-teaching experience in-between intensive summers of University of Minnesota coursework for a cohort of MPS employees. Each Minneapolis Residency Program candidate will earn approximately $24,900 and benefits during the residency and pay a reduced University of Minnesota fee for the licensure program.”

The Star Tribune described a second, similar program launched in Austin, as a collaboration between the school district and Winona State University:

“Its teacher training program will offer instruction at Riverland for the first two years and at Sumner another two. Candidates will take classes taught by Winona State staff and will also spend time in the classroom, co-teaching with the school’s elementary teachers.”

The two residency programs draw on the pool of talented educators who have been blocked from teacher certification in the past. MinnPost describes the educators and the need:

“Often, support staff at MPS schools get involved initially as parents or find an entry point because they have a language skill or cultural understanding that allows them to connect with students in a meaningful way. They may not have set out to become teachers, but eventually they started to entertain the idea of taking on more responsibility as a teacher.

“Making that transition, however, simply isn’t feasible for many who are burdened with things like college debt, the need to financially support a family, and the intimidation of going back to college later in life.”

For some students, a traditional education program may be the path to a teaching career. Many other talented educators need alternatives to the traditional route. The right way to train better teachers may not be a single way, but opening up a variety of paths to teacher certification.

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