Every now and then, I hear teachers express less than positive reviews of their teacher education programs and coursework. Too much theory, not enough practical advice. The result? Walking into a class full of students on the first day only to quickly realize that you don’t know anything about classroom management. Or that the lessons you planned just won’t work for the kids sitting in front of you.
I can understand some of the criticisms. The more I learn about the way most teacher education programs work, the less surprised I am at high rates of teacher attrition. It’s also true that much of teaching is learning on the job—no matter how much you prepare and no matter how much research you read, the realities of the classroom, school, and community can be overwhelming.
For me, theory and practice went hand in hand.
Still, I actually loved my teacher education program, and yes, I even loved all the theory. Some of my favorite education courses were those that some would consider less practical than most—courses that delved into the history, sociology, moral foundations, and competing philosophies of education. I appreciated the way these courses challenged me to consider—and reconsider—my personal experiences, beliefs, and assumptions about education. What also made these courses work was the fact that I was doing my student teaching at the same time I was taking them. Rather than spend several semesters studying about teaching, I was studying and teaching at the same time. My coursework and practicum were inseparable. For me, theory and practice went hand in hand.
Looking back, perhaps this is one reason reading research and pedagogy books is such an integral part of my teaching. I’m not comfortable teaching any other way. I internalized the teacher-researcher model encouraged by my graduate professors. It’s also the model that the National Writing Project emphasizes, which I’m sure is why I immediately felt so at home at my local writing project site.
In a previous post, I discussed the disconnect between the types of learning students do in school versus the learning they do outside of school. As Will Richardson pointed out in his #TCT16 keynote address—and in his 2015 TED Talk, “The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools”—there’s always been some level of disconnect between school and “the real world.” But with technological advances that allow for more opportunities to learn outside of school, this disconnect is increasingly hard to ignore.
The goal of school should be to encourage students to want to learn more. If nothing else, students should leave school every day curious and motivated to seek out information and develop new knowledge about the ideas that they encountered in our classrooms. One way to inspire this curiosity is to make sure that what students learn in the classroom—and how they learn it—is connected to the issues and problems that matter to them in the real world.
There are several reasons that this disconnect persists, not least of which are standardized testing and general institutional inertia. But I wonder if another reason has to do with the disconnect between the way teachers are trained and how they best learn outside of school. And it turns out that how most teachers best learn outside of school is similar to how most students do, too—for example, we use our smartphones to look up information, we choose what we want to read, we find how-to videos online, and we set our own pace for learning.
So when I hear teachers say that they “didn’t learn anything useful” in their teacher education programs, what they’re really taking issue with is the lack of relevance their coursework seemed to have on their classroom practices. It’s not that the coursework is unrelated—but if you take a course months or maybe even a whole year ahead of any real teaching experience, you’re not likely to see the connection between theory and practice. There’s a disconnect.
Unfortunately, this disconnect can persist even when teachers are well into their careers.
If you didn’t find any value in your teacher education courses, you’re not likely to take or seek out courses that could potentially improve your instruction. If you believe that the most valuable things you’ve learned about being a teacher are the things you learned on the job, through your own system of trial and error, then you’re not likely to subscribe to educational journals or use Twitter to search for new ways to approach your next unit.
What makes things worse is when teachers also perceive this disconnect in their professional development. It’s the teacher education program problem all over again. At a recent conference, I overheard several teachers at my table complain about in-service days at their school. No matter how well-intentioned, in-service training doesn’t always feel immediately relevant to the real issues that teachers face the next time they step into their classrooms. As I wrote in my previous post, there’s a big difference between student engagement versus compliance, and we know that compliance rarely leads to student empowerment.
I think the same can be said for teachers, too.
We also know that students benefit when they can learn at their own pace and exercise some choice over what they learn and how. The greatest growth that my students experience in reading, for example, occurs when they choose what they want to read and set their own goals. The greatest growth I’ve experienced as a professional has been when the same conditions applied. I’ve chosen which post-graduate courses to take. I’ve chosen what conferences—in-person or online—interest me. I’ve chosen my own professional development goal at the start of each year. I’ve chosen between listening to education podcasts or reading professional texts. And I’ve chosen what topics to write about here on this blog (which I’ve chosen to maintain).
If school is in danger of becoming irrelevant for our students, as Richardson suggests, then we have to also ask ourselves if how we prepare and nurture teachers—who are at the heart of those schools—is also becoming irrelevant. Fortunately, I work in a school district whose philosophy is to give teachers as much autonomy as possible—to give teachers the freedom to discover new and innovative ways to reach their students. In fact, one of our district’s key initiatives is to recognize, explore, and celebrate the “artistry of teaching” among its professional staff. Fortunately, I get to teach in a place where standardized tests don’t dictate what happens in my classroom. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s true in most other places.
I wonder what could happen if teachers had 20% time to develop their genius or adopt a maker mindset.
As schools find ways for students to explore their passions through initiatives like MakerSpaces, Genius Hour, or 20% Time, I wonder what could happen if teachers had 20% time to develop their genius or adopt a maker mindset. We know that our students benefit with differentiated instruction, and I know that how I best learn is different than how my colleagues may learn. Imagine, then, the possibilities of differentiated PD. I’m convinced that when teachers experience what it’s like to have more ownership over their own professional development—over their own learning—the more likely they are to transfer this experience to their classrooms in the service of their students.
Of course, teachers can’t wait for schools or districts to change their approach, just like our students can’t—and won’t—wait for their teachers to change the way they teach. During Richardson’s keynote, he urged teachers not to wait for the professional development or training to come to them. “Don’t wait to take a course on how to use Twitter,” he joked. Richardson then quipped, “After all, have you ever heard of a child who waited to take a course on how to play Minecraft?” No, of course not. Thanks to technology, just as students can learn nearly anything, anytime and anywhere, so too can their teachers.