From Adversaries to Partners
For more than 20 years I shared responsibilities for hiring and supervising teachers in public schools. During that time I worried about the quality of the preparation of the teacher candidates who applied to the schools. In some instances I was skeptical that the universities were doing an adequate job in preparing teachers.
Now I work at a university in a teacher certification program. I teach methods classes and supervise student teachers. My worries have shifted to concerns about how schools will help new teachers to sustain the strengths of the preparation they received at the university. At a time when powerful partnerships are what we need to provide the highest quality preparation and to help teachers to advance the quality of their craft across a career, I'm afraid that the schools and the teacher preparation programs are often at odds.
Recently I collected survey responses from a group of 20 student teachers on the verge of beginning their student teaching assignments. The survey asked these emerging teachers to respond to a set of 38 statements by judging their confidence in meeting the various demands of teaching English language arts in middle school or high school. One survey item invited the respondents to indicate the areas where they felt that the university failed to prepare them adequately. The responses revealed significant uneasiness about beginning student teaching. Many members of the group were nervous, and a couple even questioned their decisions to go into teaching.
I suppose such trepidation is to be expected any time young people take on enormous responsibility and assume a role that they have only viewed and have not assumed for themselves. But the uneasiness makes the new teachers vulnerable in many ways. They question their career choice and express doubt about being able to perform with the proficiency they understand that the job requires. At this vulnerable time, they need to sense some success and experience the excitement of students learning in a highly supportive and engaging environment.
I am afraid that a lot of bad things happen when a new teacher begins to labor under significant doubt and misgivings. The basic doubt is in forming an appropriate teacher identity, a public persona that they have never adopted before. Several researchers (e.g., Lortie; Kennedy; Smagorinsky, Wilson, and Moore) have documented that the new teachers in this vulnerable state begin to teach defensively. To feel comfortable in the role they are assuming, they imitate the teachers they have experienced when they were students; and the models they recall might be more illusions than substance. The shaky newcomers also attempt to conform to what seems to be the standard in the local school.
All this would be good news if all the teachers they have observed for many years represent a highly proficient standard, or if the new colleagues in the local school serve as exemplary models. But in instances in which the new teachers’ recall is hazy, the teachers from the past were mediocre, or the colleagues around them were far from exemplary, the beginners regress by imitating these models.
I have viewed the entry into teaching English from two perspectives. When I held leadership positions in schools, I sometimes wondered if new teachers learned much at all in their teacher preparation programs, and I did my best to help to train them for the job they had to do in the school. Now I see beginners with vast potential leaving the university with great energy and progressive vision, only to backslide into a defensive posture that will protect their confidence, reduce their workload and obligations, and push back parents.
Ideally, the university and the schools serve as a strong and consistent partnership, beginning with the communication that will allow the leaders in schools to understand the nature of the university preparation and the university faculty immersing themselves in the schools to understand contemporary experience in the classroom. I realize more than ever that much depends on distinguished cooperating teachers who serve as exemplary models and can extend the university preparation without diverting the emerging teachers from a progressive path.
The idea of sustained partnerships between teacher preparation and the schools is an obvious direction, but a challenge to accomplish. When everyone is laboring under increasingly diminishing resources and is squeezed for time, it is obviously difficult to sustain dialogue and design the structures that would promote supportive partnerships. But I judge that such partnerships are critical if we care not just about delivering viable instruction in methods classes, but also about inducting, mentoring, and sustaining teachers as they practice their craft over several years.
I hope to say more about the potential for partnerships in later blog entries. I welcome comments from readers on these thoughts, as well as their insights about how to initiate, nurture, and maintain strong school/university partnerships, even when conditions threaten to sabotage the effort.
Kennedy, Mary M. Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. Print.
Lortie, Dan C. Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975/2002. Print.
Smagorinsky, Peter, Amy Alexandra Wilson, and Cynthia Moore. “Teaching Grammar and Writing: A Beginning Teacher’s Dilemma.” English Education 42.3 (April 2011): 262-292. Print.