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Teaching teachers

Posted By: Doug Monroe · 7/26/2011 12:00:00 AM
I started teaching in a Brooklyn middle school near Coney Island in September 2007, after six weeks of training. On my first day as a real teacher, a paraprofessional with a Panamanian accent stood in the door of my classroom, crossed himself, and called out, "The power of Christ compels you!"  I recognized the line from The Exorcist. He stepped aside to let a class of wild seventh-grade boys boil into the room and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I still wonder.
It's fair to say that six weeks did not prepare me to teach in an inner-city school. But it was the deal I signed up for when I became a New York City Teaching Fellow. Over the next two years I earned a master's degree in special education, attending class at night while teaching all day. Going back to college at age sixty was one of the hardest—and best—things I've ever done. I cherish my M.S. in Education for Urban Adolescents with Disabilities.

However, in the heat of the chase, I was going to night class with a bunch of other people much younger than I was. We all clamored for fewer courses in educational theory and more courses in the nuts and bolts of teaching, such as lesson planning and classroom management. Our thought was: To hell with theory—help me survive tomorrow.

Sunday’s New York Times had a fascinating article about the Relay Graduate School of Education that does precisely that: It teaches teachers how to teach. It's practical, not academic. But it comes with strings. Grad students have to cough up numbers to prove their students achieved a year's worth of progress. That means relying on the corporate-inspired and government-imposed mania for testing that school reformers contend provides "accountability" for educators.    

Not everybody buys into Relay's approach. One of the most respected master's degrees in education comes from Teachers College at Columbia University. Lin Goodwin, the associate dean there, told the Times that what Relay is doing "is teacher training, to follow a protocol, to be able to perform in a particular context, to know how to work in this way. And I think that what that does is it dumbs down teaching, and takes us back a few steps, in terms of our struggle in the profession for teachers to be seen as professionals." Columbia combines academic rigor with extensive student teaching.
What really fascinated me about the Times article was that it makes clear that nobody really knows how to prepare people to teach: "There is little research into what kind of training is most likely to produce a successful teacher, a fact that social scientists are now working to remedy through long-term study," wrote education reporter Sharon Otterman.   
Wait a minute. Every "expert" in the country is deciding how teachers are to be scientifically measured and judged, yet we don't know for sure how best to prepare them? In 2011? Hello!

Teachers do a lot more than teach. Depending on the situation, we are disciplinarians, psychologists, communicators, counselors, ersatz parents, and of course statisticians. We report to assistant principals, principals, and parents. We must continue our education through professional development. We are expected to be up to date on the latest technological innovations. We spend hundreds of dollars of our own money to stock our classrooms with everything from posters to pencils to tissues for runny noses. We are watched and written up.

Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher education at Stanford University, told the Times: "As with anything else, we should have a high standard for it to be done responsibly . . . Just as doctors must have extensive training before they can work independently, so should teachers . . . Otherwise, we risk learning on other people's kids."

Public education is in shambles. Many of today’s students will grow up to become the incompetent employees we all encounter everywhere, from stores to nursing homes. And still the experts can't agree on how to prepare the teachers that everyone seems so eager to fire.

Doug Monroe was a senior editor, columnist, and blogger for
Atlanta magazine. He moved to Brooklyn in 2007 as a New York City Teaching Fellow and earned a master's degree in education from Long Island University. 
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