August 17, 2016

Teacher Prep Program

There was some twitter conversation today about quality teacher prep programs and the harm of alternative certification. I was quite surprised to hear that so many people didn't do a teacher prep program before they started teaching. I think it might be hard to imagine what you could stand to gain from going through a quality program if you've never experienced one. I was lucky enough to have a solid program at my undergrad institution and a stellar program for my masters which I completed during my second and third year teaching.

The biggest thing about my undergrad program (at wonderful Mount Holyoke College) was how much time I was able to (and required to) spend in high school math classrooms. My courses required observation hours at local schools. We were assigned specific things to observe for and reflect on each week. Observing during those classes meant seeing things in action. Making connections. Adjusting from my experience of adolescence to a broader array of possibilities to reference. My white, suburban, wealthy school experience is not the narrow definition of normal. For our licensure program we were required to observe in a variety of schools (urban, suburban and rural). I was lucky enough to spend a couple semesters observing at a school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. I saw that the kid who felt safest sitting in the cabinet and the kid walking laps around the room were still participating in class. And when the kid with the security stuffed animal let me hold her comfort object while zipping her coat I understood what could happen if you built a relationship over time. I was an independent child who was good at school and whose parents spoke the language of the system. Having the opportunity to learn these lessons while observing, assisting and eventually co-teaching meant I could focus my attention on the million other things happening in the classroom outside the content. It's simply not possible to devote that much energy to studying student actions and interactions when you're the responsible adult in the room leading instruction.

Another important aspect of my program: studying psychology. I took Psych, Adolescent Psych and Ed Psych. Were they repetitive? Sure. Do I need all the reminders I can get that teens are still developing their prefrontal cortex? Absolutely. I learned about brain development, ranges of normal and reactions to abnormal situations. I have taught students who have suffered trauma; knowing that the students who sucked their thumbs in high school had a (probably terrible) reason for still needing that self soothing. This knowledge prepped me to ignore such uncharacteristic behavior in the classroom (the last thing a kid who's suffered trauma needs is a teacher calling them out) and check in with the guidance counselor later. I learned about stereotype threat and behavior management techniques and attachment theory. I learned about how kids function in the world and how to read their needs from their actions (because the connection is frequently not obvious!).

I'm also thankful for formal lesson plans. Were they tedious? You bet! Do I write them now? No. Did they help? Absolutely. I've internalized the structure so I no longer need a full page of prompts to remind me to consider my students with different learning needs or to ponder possible misconceptions before class begins. And while I complain about having to post the objective on the board it's not because I don't have one, it's because the objective is for me. When I shared lessons with other students in my classes it was almost like getting more observation hours in. And, since my undergrad program was too small to be just math, I got to see strategies from different disciplines and steal from them too!

Most importantly, I had time to process all the information I was receiving and imagine how it would work in a classroom. I observed a variety of teachers. I had a variety of professors who had mostly all taught in K-12 classrooms. I learned what not to do from the sexist/racist teacher next door to my cooperating teacher. I endured the irony of a professor who lectured us for a whole semester on how important it was to not lecture our students for the entire period. By the time I reached my student teaching semester I already had a well formed teaching philosophy. And I'd written it out a few times. Yes, it's changed. Of course, there's nothing like being the only adult in the room to really test your skills. I've absolutely continued to learn by trial and error, but there were fewer errors and a lot less crying* because I was prepared before I started teaching.

*My college friend took none of the courses I listed above and then enrolled in TFA the year after we graduated. There were a lot of nights where she called me crying. And I talked her through all the things I'd learned that would help her through the next day. She was exhausted because she was teaching during the day and taking classes in the evening and then writing her lesson plans at night. There is not enough time in the day for that to be a good structure! Your brain needs time to unwind and process all the inputs.

All of the above happened before I started teaching. Then I got a job, taught for a year and immediately started my masters! My mentor my first year told me that once you stop taking classes it's really hard to start again so the best thing to do is never stop. (I've heeded his advice and am about to move to the Masters+45 column!) I did an awesome program (Boston University's Mathematics for Teaching) that included three summers of taking math classes (where I was able to experience being a student again while marveling at the well crafted problem sets and sound bites like "exams are an opportunity to review") and math education courses during the year. I learned about the history of math education around the world. I learned K-8 strategies so I could recognize the difference between a trick and a method when kids showed me techniques that were different than the ones I learned. We researched an education topic in depth - I know so much about proportional reasoning and why students find it challenging! We did independent research on a math problem of our choosing - talk about perseverance! It was a wonderful program that recognized the challenges of taking courses while teaching, the courses were from 4-6 and we were encouraged to use lesson plans from our current teaching assignment to complete homework assignments.

Do I think it's possible to become an excellent teacher without a stellar teacher prep program and follow up? Of course. But I would never recommend it. It isn't fair to the students to have a teacher who is learning so much on the job. When we hire teachers we tend to rank teachers who successfully student taught at our school the highest, followed by teachers who successfully taught elsewhere, followed by graduates of any BU program, followed by anyone else. Experience matters. Real experience in the classroom is best, but a solid teacher prep program is a pretty good start.


  1. I agree 100%! I am thankful I had a strong teacher prep program before student teaching. It was taught by adjunct professors who were still in the classroom themselves-priceless! I have had colleagues in similar programs as TFA, and I don't know how they did I it; not sure I could have...

    1. Adjunct professors still in the classroom?? Where did you go? I want to teach there when I have my mid-career crisis please.

  2. I'm glad to hear this perspective! I'm 24 and figuring out life after college, and recently decided to do a masters/licensing program in education. Everyone (including teachers) has been telling me "Just do the provisional license, it'll be fine - a masters is a big commitment". I feel like that'd be setting myself up for a stressful year, and I'm not really sure what I'd gain by doing the "trial by fire" route. I guess it works for some people.