Redefining Teacher Education

I had to laugh this week after stumbling across this New York Times article detailing the overwhelmingly negative—and borderline indignant—reaction of university leaders to an attempt by US News and National Council on Teacher Quality to develop an accountability model for our nation’s colleges of education. 

“We have serious skepticism that their methodology will produce enough evidence to support the inferences they will make,” said Sharon P. Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Welcome to the club, Sharon. 

Teachers have been questioning the methodology of current accountability efforts—and the inferences being drawn from those questionable methods—for the better part of a decade now.  Your complaints are nothing new.

The thing is that despite being protective of my profession—teaching really does require unique knowledge and skill that few people outside of education actually understand—I’m ready for people to start questioning teacher preparation programs delivered by colleges of education.

Here’s why:  I didn’t learn a darn thing in five years of higher education—including the graduate work that earns me a 10% annual salary stipend here in NC—that actually prepared me to be a classroom teacher.

In fact, I think I'd go as far as to say that outside of a course on Constructivism and an adolescent psychology class taught by a professor that I still quote to this day, my degrees were essentially exercises in professional hoop-jumping—an expensive prerequisite for employment that did little to help me once I was actually employed.

Let that settle in for a moment. 

Simmer in it.

Knowing what I know now—after 17 years as a real-live classroom teacher—how would I change the programs that are preparing tomorrow’s educators?

Easy:  Start by requiring longer apprenticeships for pre-service educators.  And—as Louise mentions in a particularly insightful comment below—require that at least a part of that apprenticeship be spent working in the field that a teacher is going to be certified in.

Do you know how much actual full-time teaching I did before becoming certified as a teacher? 

About 8 weeks.

Sure—I went on a school visit here or there.  I also spent another 6-8 weeks observing my cooperating teachers in the senior year of my education program.

But I only had about 8 weeks of full-time experience with students before I was licensed for life.  The rest of my 5 YEARS of college preparation was spent strapped into seats in lecture halls listening to professors drone on about collaborative learning for hours on end. 

And do you know how much time I spent working with other geographers, journalists or scientists—the fields that I'm  supposedly qualified to prepare my students to enter?

Not one day.


What’s REALLY crazy is this shocking truth documented by my Teaching 2030 colleagues: Only 39 states even require student teaching—ranging from a low of 8 weeks in Wyoming to a high of 20 weeks in Maryland—before they’re willing to certify that someone is ready to work with our kids.


That’s nuts—and it results in a slew of under-prepared teachers rolling into classrooms every fall who are barely qualified on a good day. 

Some will persist. 

Others will adapt. 

Many will fail. 

Most will quit. 

Longer apprenticeships translates into more time working in real classrooms with real students—and more time working in real classrooms with real students is the only education that can truly prepare anyone for our profession. 

Longer apprenticeships can also provide time for teachers to actually work as professionals beyond schools, giving them insight into the kinds of skills that really are essential for "ensuring student success" in the world of work.  It's pretty hard to prepare kids for environments that you've never experienced first-hand yourself, don't you reckon?

Will longer apprenticeships and/or apprenticeships beyond education alone save our schools—and more importantly, result in increased levels of student achievement?

Nope.  Who are we kidding?  10 years from now, schools have little chance of looking like they do today.

(Read: exactly how they looked 100 years ago

Instead, “school” will be a blended experience.  Students will come to a building for shared experiences with peers and teachers, but they’ll spend even more time learning in networked digital spaces and at their own paces. 

Longer apprenticeships will, however, at least give new practitioners a fighting chance to understand what those changes look like in action. 

They’ll see experienced educators wrestling with new models for teaching and learning.  They'll see practitioners in their field adapting and changing and learning and growing.  They’ll figure out how educational policies and new developments in their areas of 'expertise' translate into practice—and learn first-hand how to innovate within a system that doesn’t generally like innovation. 

Now, I won’t pretend to know everything there is to know about preparing teachers.  It’s been a long while since I set foot in a college of education.  More importantly, I trust a bunch of the university minds that I’ve met in the past few years on Twitter. 

Guys like Jon Becker are brilliant, giving me hope that Higher Ed can change itself.

But make no mistake:  Teacher preparation NEEDS to change—and longer apprenticeships will give new practitioners meaningful experiences with students AND with professionals in their chosen fields.

How is that a bad thing?

7 thoughts on “Redefining Teacher Education

  1. Deb

    Yes! Great to know I am not alone. I actually recently proposed that Teacher Certification can be earned via an Apprenticeship instead of a degree for folks who have already demonstrated they are subject matter experts. This could be demonstrated in a wide range of ways.
    The above comments have described the how under-prepared our young, new teachers are I could not agree more. But another unfortunate consequence of the current teacher education pathway is the number of industry and subject matter experts who are interested in teaching as a second or retirement career who are not willing to put in all the time and jump through all the hoops (that bill described above). Many of these folks are subject matter experts and many involved on industry training and professional development and are gifted individuals whom would be great teachers (many area already great teachers) but it would take them years and years to earn teacher certification, and not to mention the cost.
    I teach at a Career and Technical Ed Center (postsecondary) and we prepare many of our students to enter industry apprenticeships and I always thought we should develop an alternative certification method built around this model.
    I would love to pursue this. Unfortunately the University has such powerful lobbyist I fear it would never have a chance.
    Thanks for the great dialogue!

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Mr. Borders wrote:
    The methods of the classroom (which go back hundreds of years) are still
    with us, and I expect will be still with us 50 years from now.
    Im with you, Mr. Borders—-but heres the thing: The methods that you talk about—-engaging conversations, managing information, learning to persuade and influence—-arent classroom dependent anymore. All of those behaviors and skills can take place in virtual spaces ALMOST as easily as they can in physical spaces.
    And while Id never want my child to go to school without ever entering a physical space—that social connection to the community matters to me and always will—-I would happily embrace a more blended model of learning if it gave her opportunities that she otherwise wouldnt have. The example that Clayton Christensen uses in Disrupting Class is a good one: If she can take Arabic in a virtual space with the 5 other kids in the county who are interested, Im in—especially if the local district would never think to offer it in every school because affording a teacher for 5 kids would be a fiscal nightmare.
    I really think that the current budget crunch were facing is going to cause schools and districts to start looking at these kinds of blended options in a far more serious way than ever before—and once they take hold, I cant see us ever going back to a physical space only option for every child in every grade level.
    Any of this makes sense?

  3. gasstationwithoutpumps

    “0 years from now, schools have little chance of looking like they do today.
    (Read: exactly how they looked 100 years ago)
    Instead, “school” will be a blended experience. Students will come to a building for shared experiences with peers and teachers, but they’ll spend even more time learning in networked digital spaces and at their own paces.”
    I don’t know if you are being optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the profession here, but I think you are being unrealistic. Futurists have been predicting the imminent demise of the classroom for at least the past 40 years. The methods of the classroom (which go back hundreds of years) are still with us, and I expect will be still with us 50 years from now.

  4. Carl

    I appreciate Louise’s comment, and share her regard for experience outside the world of teaching (I have eight years in hi-tech and consultancy myself, and now teach English in a high school), and I agree that teachers should learn what it’s like not to be in school.
    That said, I do think that grad school was valuable to me. It made me think about pedagogy. We need concentrated time to think and reflect; I don’t think one can teach well just by coming in to Do It. (This is why I so disdain canned curriculum: every teacher worth his or her salt re-imagines the arc of his or her curriculum every year. Informed reflection and reconsideration and conceptualization are what permit us to lunge above the perfunctory.)
    I agree with Bill, then: we need time as apprentices, as members of reflective cohorts, and as active intellectuals.

  5. Pete Rodrigues

    Good stuff. I wrote about a great year long teacher apprenticeship program in Boston. (Sorry to self-promote, but I love the program)
    If we don’t make the student teacher experience more like real teaching, we’ll never succeed en-mass with new teachers. Been concocting ways to bring this longer model to my own district.

  6. Kevin

    Another great and timely post. I had the exact same experience with my education classes. I did not get a masters in education because I knew what a joke most of the programs are. I agree the preparation of teachers needs to change.
    Interestingly a small local college is advertising for a position as the student teaching coordinator. It would be a significant cut in pay, but we have a union busting bill in the state legislature that will lead to pay cuts, and most likely terrible working conditions.
    Bill, how are the working conditions in NC? I would appreciate your input on the position I mentioned.

  7. louise

    Wow – 8 weeks! I already had degrees in physics, and I did an alternative cert course. We had September to April in the classroom, going from 1 to 4 classes as our own, and taking the useless classes in the evening.
    I learned lots in college. How to work in math and science. How to work in groups to get things done. I cannot think of anything less like working in research and development than being a student in high school. Students who are capable are just getting interested in something when we make them move to a completely different subject and place. What craziness is this? Then teachers who have never worked outside of school tell students what it will be like to work outside of school. I worked outside of school for 20 years, and I can tell you they have no clue. It is completely untrue that “most people have to do homework.” I never saw a brain surgeon take work home – here’s the brain, fix it, and bring it back in the morning. Even McDonalds requires you to go to work, you can’t take the burgers home and bring them back next day.
    I guess the #1 thing I’d like teachers to learn is what it’s like to NOT be in a school.

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