I just finished reading Dana Goldstein’s “The teacher wars“. I found the book to offer an even-handed and deep evaluation of educator performance and public opinion of teachers and the teaching profession. Much of the book takes an historical perspective which may bore some readers. The author takes this approach to explain how the public understanding of education, expectations of teachers, and the politicization of attitudes directed toward education in contrast to other areas of public service has come to be. I know that groups of educators sometimes engage in “book studies” and am aware of many of the books that are selected. I recommend such groups consider this book – it is complex and may not paint a “feel good” picture, but I think it is realistic and takes on specific issues that will continue to shape education. My concern about practicing educators is that they avoid issues that really end up having significant impact on their lives and the lives of students. Perhaps they feel these issues cannot be changed. Perhaps they feel that these issues are too political. I would encourage both deeper understanding and greater advocacy.
My intent here is to identify one of several topics from the book I thought might resonate with practitioners. The author describes teaching as having a “steep learning curve” that beginners encounter with limited practical preparation. There are multiple sub-topics. One target was teacher preparation. It seems college programs do not offer future teachers enough experience in developing what I call “tactical” skills. There seems too much emphasis on abstraction and not enough on practice. I used to teach one of the “abstraction” courses (educational psychology) and I have mixed reactions to such concerns. Recipes for practice have their own limitations and knowing why things work as they do can inform the constant decision making that is required in an applied setting. I suppose the point is when in a career is deeper understanding helpful and what can be done when there is limited access at different points in a career path. Knowing that future teachers had micro teaching, methods and field experiences of various types, I could conveniently assume that teaching tactics were up to someone else. I would suggest that the quality of supervised practice varies greatly from situation to situation and is a great preparatory challenge. Teacher education programs must pretty much take what they can get when placing students and I think realize that many opportunities offer little in the way of mentoring or quality models. So often it seems a money game. Programs operate on tuition dollars. More students mean more tuition. Running an elite program focused on fewer students generates insufficient funds. Educators believe student skills can be improved (students in this case are college students) and the public (e.g., parents) assume this as well. It is complicated when you are in the middle of such situations.
Whether because new teachers are missing important skills or because there is much to learn, it is clear that the learning curve is steep. A very high proportion of new teachers quit after a year or two. In undesirable settings this churn is the greatest and this lack of stability adds to other problems specific to such schools. One thing I know from my study of technology usage in K-12 settings is that new teachers tend not to generate what we have hoped to see. It may appear that this implies poor preparation. However, if one waits just a few years, newer teachers are more creative in their use of technology. This is a classic case of a learning curve and priorities. It is not necessarily that the new teacher has a poor background, it is that thess skills and knowledge do not materialize until the teacher develops a sense of the environment and likely finds classroom management skills that are effective.
Goldstein points to the value of what I would describe as “on the job training” as particularly important in the development of new teachers. Are administrators and other teachers willing and capable of offering specific suggestions. Do new teachers have opportunities to observe effective peers? Are new teachers offered additional time for planning? Are a greater number of “problem children” dumped on the new guy?
Goldstein suggests that experienced and new teachers likely have things to teach each other. Practicing teachers have concrete suggestions related to classroom situations. New teachers likely have new ideas – things they know but may not apply until the basics are under control. I wonder about the potential of technology to bring these two knowledge sources together. Are present means of interacting specific enough to be beneficial?