June 20, 2013

Do Teacher Prep programs really prepare you to teach?

Or, What I wish my ed program had taught me...

I loved so many things about college, but some of the things I loved most (besides weekend extracurriculars...) were my elementary ed classes.  I attended a tiny liberal arts school with a reputation for high standards in central Illinois, and my el ed program had a total of 12 people in it.  We got super close during out methods classes junior year, got each other through student teaching senior year, and graduated ready and excited to teach and inspire the youth of America.  But were we really ready?
My and my El Ed BFF from college--we both graduated with teaching jobs.
Look how unsuspecting and naive we are here...
I love teaching, but the truth is that I almost didn't survive my first year.  I had an amazingly successful student teaching experience, taking control of the classroom early on in the semester and learning to plan and implement engaging, hands-on lessons.  I totally killed it in student teaching.  When I graduated with a contract to teach 5th grade in the suburbs back home, I was confident--I totally knew I was ready for this.  Then...I actually started teaching.  By the second day, I realized that not only was I not ready, but I had NO idea what I was doing or how to manage a class of unruly fifth graders.
I was so excited to set up this first classroom!
Before I knew what was happening to me, I was knee deep in the trenches of classroom reality, including dealing with extreme behavior disorders, learning disabilities, students performing grossly below grade level, and students living in poverty.  Oh, and did I mention that my undergrad experience failed to prepare me to to teach basic things like guided reading or writing workshop not to mention interventions for needy students?  I could go on and on with a list of the things I didn't know how to do, but it would be an entire post on its own.
From my blog my first year...
So there I was, having aced college and finished student teaching with glowing recommendations from my cooperating teacher and university supervisor, and I was completely failing.  I felt so defeated--not only did I not know how to teach the content in the way my district expected me to, but I just plain could NOT manage my class.  I began to think that maybe I wasn't so good at this after all.
My blog looked very different back then :)
Thankfully, I did survive that first year, learned A TON about content, management, and teaching in general, and came out the other side ready to take on a second year.  It's been three years since I finished that wretched first year, but my mind traveled back to it when I got a call from a reporter at the Washington Post Monday asking to interview me for an article about teacher preparation programs and whether or not they do a good job preparing teachers for the field.  You can read the article including my comments here.  The most frightening part of the article in my opinion is the study shared by the National Council on Teacher Quality that ranked teacher education programs in the United States--no only did no college in the US receive the top 4-star rating, the majority of programs received a rating of "mediocre" or below.  Over 100 schools even received NO STARS.  (Check out the study for yourself here.)
While this study should probably be taken with a grain of salt because students and professors were not interviewed as part of it, my own experiences would definitely support the claim that teacher preparation programs do not truly prepare you for the realities of the job.  I came out of my prestigious university knowing how to teach the content areas, but there were so many holes--so many things I didn't know.  I look back on my first year and feel bad for those students--while I CERTAINLY did the best I could, I didn't do as good of a job with them as I would have if I'd met them last year.

The interview got me thinking a lot about the things I wish I'd learned in college.  Here's my short list:

  • How to teach literacy using a reading series as a starting point--My liberal arts school was all about literature circles, novel studies, text sets, and interdisciplinary units.  Those are all beautiful and wonderful things, but they are not the reality in many districts that require use of a reading series.  I wish I'd learned how to navigate a series and supplement it with other high quality texts.
  • How to teach guided math--Many districts have been moving towards guided math in recent years, including mine.  I didn't graduate too terrible long ago, so I don't think it's unreasonable to say it would have been awesome to learn a little about guided math structures in undergrad.  This has been a tricky one to learn on the fly!
  • Different ways of structuring guided reading time--This was one of my biggest challenges early on my first year.  Like I said, we didn't learn much about guided reading itself in college, but we DEFINITELY didn't learn what to do with the rest of the class when you are doing groups.  I wish I'd learned about Debbie Diller, Daily 5, and Reading Workshop in college so I'd have been able to choose one that worked great for me and hit the ground running my first year.  It took until Thanksgiving for me to have a real Daily 5 structure in place!
  • Formal and Informal Assessment--I could have used a whole class on this.  Enough said.
  • MANAGEMENT!!!--I cannot say enough how important it is for new teachers to learn different philosophies and strategies for management.  Many universities don't teach too much about management at all, so all new teachers have to go off of is instinct and whatever systems their cooperating teacher used during student teaching.  I wish I'd have had a whole class in management where we could explore many different systems and philosophies.
So much of teaching just needs to be learned on the job through experience, but I really feel like university programs could do a far better job of preparing young teachers.  I'm sure nothing could really have prepared me for the zoo I walked into my first year, but I wonder if I'd have had a few less tears if I'd learned a few of these things in undergrad!!

What do you wish you'd learned in college before you started teaching?


  1. I wish we'd learned about how to work with ESL students. I realize I haven't started my (brand new!) teaching job yet, but I've worked with many ESL kids in the schools I volunteer at, and I've realized that we never had so much as a lecture about it.

    I also wish that my year 2 literacy course didn't suck. Usually the second year MA students in my program get this AMAZING professor and come out knowing a tonne and feeling really prepared. Unfortunately, most of what I learned about teaching literacy, I learned from practical experience, reading lots of articles on my own time, or getting advice from experienced teachers - not from my program.

    We had a whole class on formative assessment, another on teaching students with special needs, and another on proactive behaviour management strategies (which, unfortunately, don't work well with supply teaching, which is what most new grads are doing these days where I live). We also had a LOT covered about organization.

    I feel like I learned a lot. But I'm pretty sure that once I'm working, I'll still wish I'd learned more.

    Does your school do math congresses or use JUMP?

  2. When I went into my teaching prep program, I'd had a small background in early childhood education, so it wasn't all completely alien. Even so, I'm happy to have had the opportunity to sub. I think I picked up many skills (particularly classroom management) and ideas that I wouldn't have developed by going into the classroom right away. I do wish there were more positions in my area though. It looks like another tight year ahead.

  3. You're famous! Washington Post yay!
    I'm obviously not a teacher but I thought I would throw some of my thoughts out there as well. I think most careers are like this in that there is always a lot of on-the-job learning. I don't think there is ever going to be a way to teach everything you need to know in school. In the case of a teacher, it is a little scary because your skills directly affect the students you are teaching. Anyways I don't really have any solution to this but good post!

  4. Something that I think would help teachers to be better prepared is to make their first year with their own classes a year in which they have a LOT of support. Coaches, co-teachers, whatever it takes. Until you have your own class, it's hard to anticipate what you need. And it's with that first class you need a lot of guidance and support.

    With so many budget cuts, it's really tough on new teachers.

  5. After I graduated college, I began grad school and substitute teaching for two years. I thought I was all set. The next year I was hired and first taught kindergarten. It was a horrible year and I felt so under prepared. I went to excellent schools for my undergrad and grad school, but I did not feel as if I was truly prepared. I feel that I learned more about teaching literacy on my own and from my school literacy coach. Classroom management on my own also.

  6. I checked out your link. My undergrad college (Niagara University) got zero stars and my graduate college (University at Buffalo) only got one!

  7. Do you use responsive classroom? I feel that has helped with management. But I also feel some of management is instinctive and you have it or you don't. At least for starting and then you build from there. I went to school many many years ago but also didn't feel well prepared.


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