Classroom Sink or Swim: Why Teacher Prep Programs Aren't Enough

learing labs novice teachers plcs preservice teachers reading instruction teacher preparation May 02, 2023
two hands coming out of the ocean water

For years I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen that it doesn’t matter what literacy curriculum you buy if the teacher herself isn’t prepared to teach.  You can’t just toss a curriculum out with a few (let’s admit it, usually not great) sessions of training done by the publisher and expect miracles. If you don’t have a deep understanding of how to teach reading, you can’t possibly meet the varying needs of the kids in front of you. 

I went to college knowing I wanted to be a teacher. I picked a school with a good reputation for a 4-year education program. I had numerous practicum experiences and methods courses, all before I did my student teaching. And yet, did I graduate knowing all the ins and outs of teaching a kid to read and write? No.

It wasn’t until I had the support of building instructional coaches, completed a Master's degree in reading, and went through the National Board certification process in literacy instruction that I finally figured out what I should do.  I also had opportunities to get some genuinely fabulous professional development over the years, allowing me to try some things on with in-the-moment support from staff developers.

What it’s like in today’s teacher preparation

Today, colleges offer online courses to get a teaching certificate, and you don’t have much hands-on experience until your student teaching placement. Or people enter what I call “become a teacher in just one year” programs.  The result is that teacher candidates load up on coursework quickly and don’t get much time to digest and understand how to teach.  

The cooperating teacher you are placed with becomes a make-or-break situation for you.  If you are paired with someone who knows his stuff during your student teaching, that gives you a big leg up, but still, it isn’t enough time to KNOW all there is to know about teaching reading.  Especially if you did your internship in 5th grade and now got a job teaching 1st grade—that’s a BIG difference in what and how you instruct readers! 

Quote from the text: Novices come from teacher prep programs with minimal knowledge, and there aren’t enough resources to continue their learning.

Teachers need more

This is a multifaceted issue. It involves the design of teacher preparation programs, recruitment of teachers, school district funding, professional development of teachers, and retention of teaching staff. Plus, there are a plethora of equity and racial issues. We’ve heard the statistics about teachers leaving the profession and not enough teachers coming in. We need to get fresh blood.  

If you are lucky, no matter your preparation, you will get a job with an instructional coach at your school. This person can provide on-the-job training for you.  But too many school districts don’t put their money into this form of teacher support.  Novices come from teacher prep programs with minimal knowledge, and there aren’t enough resources to continue their learning. They do their best with what they have (the adopted curriculum and a basic understanding of teaching).  

We ALL can use some coaching/mentoring at any stage of our careers. (It might even decrease teacher burnout!) Even 20 years in, I am STILL learning all the time about best practices, but I’ve also been fortunate to have opportunities like I mentioned above.  Not every teacher is so lucky. 

What if you don’t have these resources?

If your district doesn’t have coaches or training that is engaging and purposeful, there are ways you can help yourself.  It will take determination and finding like-minded people, but it can be done. While you can join online communities and save money to attend high-quality training, I’m willing to bet there is a depth of knowledge within the walls of your building or in schools nearby. 

The first step is to create a professional learning community (PLC).  I’m not talking about team meetings where you review your calendars and map out when the next unit will start or the field trip will happen. I mean an actual deep dive into your teaching practice. You look at data together, ask questions of each other, study current research, work collaboratively to try on solutions, and share successes and challenges.  It’s a meeting of the minds.  Your PLC establishes norms and agreements to build trust and expectations for what your PLC will and won’t be. 

The second step is to set up learning labs.  Learning labs allow you to create job-embedded professional development without necessarily having an outside person enter your school.  You will need to figure out how to provide substitutes so that you can be released to meet and go into classrooms to try things on, but administrators are happy to spend the money when they see the value of this kind of learning.  

I’ve led a few learning labs over the years, and the power of getting to go in and try things on and debrief immediately afterward is fantastic.  Too often, teacher professional development is attending a workshop but not having the time to implement any new learning, so it ends up as just another packet in your files.  Learning labs ensure that everyone takes on the work immediately and has an opportunity to grow together. 

What are your thoughts about teacher preparation programs? Have you ever been a member of a well-run PLC or learning lab and have tips to share?  

I’d love for you to share your thoughts on Facebook or my contact page.

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