By SUSAN ENGEL | NY Times Op-Ed
Published: November 1, 2009
New Marlborough, Mass.
ARNE DUNCAN, the secretary of education, recently called for sweeping changes to the way we select and train teachers. He’s right. If we really want good schools, we need to create a critical mass of great teachers. And if we want smart, passionate people to become these great educators, we have to attract them with excellent programs and train them properly in the substance and practice of teaching.
Our best universities have, paradoxically, typically looked down their noses at education, as if it were intellectually inferior. The result is that the strongest students are often in colleges that have no interest in education, while the most inspiring professors aren’t working with students who want to teach. This means that comparatively weaker students in less intellectually rigorous programs are the ones preparing to become teachers.
So the first step is to get the best colleges to throw themselves into the fray. If education was a good enough topic for Plato, John Dewey and William James, it should be good enough for 21st-century college professors.
These new teacher programs should be selective, requiring a 3.5 undergraduate grade point average and an intensive application process. But they should also be free of charge, and admission should include a stipend for the first three years of teaching in a public school.
Once we have a better pool of graduate students, we need to train them differently from how we have in the past. Too often, teaching students spend their time studying specific instructional programs and learning how to handle mechanics like making lesson plans. These skills, while useful, are not what will transform a promising student into a good teacher.
First, future teachers should continue studying the subject they hope to teach, with outstanding professors. It makes no sense at all to stop studying the thing you want to teach at the very moment you begin to learn how.
Meanwhile, students should learn their craft the way a surgeon learns to operate: by intense supervision in a real setting with expert mentors. Student-teachers are usually observed only twice during a semester and then given a written evaluation. But young teachers, like young doctors, should work side by side with skilled mentors, getting plenty of feedback, having plenty of opportunities to observe and taking on greater and greater responsibility as they improve.
Teacher training can also learn from family therapy programs. Therapists spend a great deal of time watching videotapes of themselves in action, reflecting on their sessions and discussing the most difficult moments with senior therapists to explore other ways they might have responded. In much the same way, young teachers need to record their daily encounters with their classrooms and then, with mentors and peers, have serious, open-minded conversations about what’s working and what isn’t.
Teachers must also learn far more about children: typically, teaching students are provided with fairly static and superficial overviews of developmental stages, but learn little about how to watch children, using research and theory to understand what they are seeing. As James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale, has argued for years, if we disregard the developmental needs of our students it’s unlikely we’ll succeed in teaching them.
One more thing is required — give as many public schools as possible the financial incentives to hire these newly prepared teachers in groups of seven or more. This way, talented eager young teachers won’t languish or leave teaching because they felt bored, inept, isolated or marginalized. Instead, they will feel part of a robust community of promising professionals. They will struggle and learn together. Good teachers need good colleagues.
To fix our schools, we need teaching programs that are as rich in resources, interesting, high-reaching and thoughtful as the young people we want to attract to the profession. Show me a school where teachers are smart, well-educated, skilled and happy to be there, and I’ll show you a group of children who are getting a good education.
Susan Engel is a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College.