Becoming a Teacher: A Never-Ending Journey

How to prepare for a career in education.

How to prepare for a career in education.
journey to teaching
Credit: George Abe

For as long as she could remember, Maria loved teaching. As a little girl, she would read to toddlers, play school with her friends, and explain the mysteries of the universe to anyone who would listen.

As a peer tutor in middle school, she discovered there was no better feeling than when someone she was working with finally grasped challenging concepts such as photosynthesis or the Pythagorean theorem. In high school, her favorite times were spent sharing with friends what she'd learned researching reports and projects on the Internet. As she faced choosing a college and career, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

The children of today who, like Maria, dream of becoming teachers have a lot to look forward to. The mysteries of how people learn are gradually being revealed through the careful scrutiny of scientists, researchers, and practicing teachers. A growing stock of new tools and strategies is enabling educators to be more effective than ever in meeting student needs. Slowly but surely, we're heading toward a time when teachers have the knowledge and freedom to help all children achieve at high levels.

For the next generation of teachers, getting there will be exciting, but it won't be easy. Education students will find that it's harder to become proficient; there's more to study, more to learn, more to practice. To get a glimpse of how best to prepare fledgling educators for this challenge, let's imagine what lies in store for Maria on her quest to become a teacher.

Learning the Basics

After lots of research, Maria settled on a five-year college program leading to a master of arts in teaching. She chose math as her major because she had always loved grappling with complex mathematical ideas and problems.

During her first years in college, Maria immersed herself in educational philosophy and research, studying the works of trailblazers such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Maria Montessori. In courses on teaching practices and curriculum development, she learned ways to engage students in experiences that allow them to integrate skills into hands-on activities and to conduct their own inquiries and experiments. She explored how technologies such as the Internet and sophisticated computer simulations can open a whole new world of possibilities for classroom learning and make the curriculum more meaningful for students.

Her professors didn't lecture from textbooks or measure learning with multiple-choice tests. Instead, they modeled the strategies Maria herself would use as a teacher; they created learning opportunities that enabled their students to apply knowledge in real teaching situations.

Maria spent a lot of time in schools observing experienced teachers and working with students. These chances to apply her classwork meant she never found studying theory to be dull or abstract. On the contrary, she found it gave her a powerful set of lenses through which to view the classroom.

During one semester, she conducted a case study of John, a seven-year-old boy she tutored at a local school. As she observed him in class and at play, either in person or on videotape, she could see what she'd learned in her classes coming to life before her eyes.

She engaged in long discussions with her professors and fellow students about how John's physical and social development affected his academic performance and talked about how these areas could be supported and stretched. She noticed that the boy was proficient in some skills, such as building models, but struggled with others, like reading.

These observations helped her understand the usefulness of studying theories on different types of intelligences, such as those of educational researcher Howard Gardner. She concluded that one of her biggest challenges as a teacher would be to discover each student's unique strengths and find ways to use them to overcome the student's weaknesses.

The Fifth Year

Maria's fifth and final year of college was an internship at a professional-development school -- a middle school committed to providing state-of-the-art teacher preparation as well as state-of-the-art education for children. There, she joined a small team of student teachers under the guidance of both university faculty and expert teachers.

In seminars and in classrooms, the team examined ways to identify and accommodate different learning styles and needs, strategies for addressing misconceptions students hold about certain subjects, and approaches to common learning problems such as dyslexia.

Her classroom work, guided by a mentor team, included observing specific children and documenting their learning, evaluating lessons, tutoring and working with small groups, and sitting in on family conferences. She also took part in school and team planning meetings, visited homes and community agencies, planned field trips and curriculum segments, and taught lessons and short units. Finally, at the end of the year, she assumed responsibility for a class for a month.

This work was supplemented by reading and discussions of case studies of teaching. Some were drawn from an electronic database compiled by teachers all over the country; others were videotaped by teachers at her professional-development school.

These case studies enabled student teachers such as Maria to look at practice from many angles, examine how situations in the classroom arise from incidents in the past, see how strategies actually turn out, and understand the thinking teachers use to make decisions about students, subjects, and curriculum goals.

The combination of classroom work, research, and seminars during her yearlong internship helped Maria learn to observe and listen to students to understand their experiences, prior knowledge, and learning strengths. She discovered how to provide emotional support and develop teaching strategies responsive to their particular needs. She found out how to create engaging tasks that would stretch and motivate students, and how to manage the learning process so they could succeed at this challenging work.

She began to better juggle and balance the competing demands between individuals and groups, between curriculum goals and student interests, and between helping students versus challenging them. She developed the skills to reach out to students who might otherwise slip past or fall through the cracks. She learned always to question what she was doing and constantly to reexamine her own teaching and that of her colleagues.

A Beginning Teacher

When Maria finished her rich, exhausting internship year, she was ready to try her hand at what she knew would be an equally demanding first year of teaching. She submitted a portfolio of her college work for review by the state professional-standards board, passed the rigorous performance examination required for an initial teaching license, and was offered a teaching position at an innovative middle school.

In her first months on the job, Maria found herself delighted and intrigued by her students. Although she found teaching challenging, she did not feel overwhelmed by classroom-management issues the way beginning teachers once had. Her extensive internship had really prepared her to establish a well-functioning classroom from the start.

She still had a lot to learn, though. She was grateful for the support from her school district that included assigning her a mentor teacher and providing time off to continue her professional studies. The mentor teacher spent several hours each week observing and assisting Maria in her classroom, helping her examine and adjust teaching strategies.

In addition, all the district's mentor teachers and beginning teachers met periodically to discuss specific problems of practice. They interacted frequently via an online network, through which they could chat, post questions, and share ideas and materials.

Thanks to team teaching and flexible scheduling that provided her with periods when she was not responsible for students, Maria was able to regularly observe in other classrooms and meet with groups of teachers at her new school. She and other math and science teachers got together weekly to discuss curriculum plans and share demonstration lessons.

Maria also consulted often with her five-member teaching team, which consisted of teachers from different subject areas. This team used its time together to discuss interdisciplinary connections and the progress of the students for whom they shared responsibility.

When a concern arose about a particular student's progress, teachers in the team held a review session to examine the student's work and behavior using their pooled experiences and insights. Maria found that these sessions helped her learn about particular students and ways to address their needs, and also helped her better understand learning in general and specific strategies that strengthened her teaching.

Maria appreciated having access to her colleagues' knowledge and thinking about both subject-matter issues and student concerns. She never felt as though she was alone in her efforts to tackle the many challenges of beginning teaching. She always had peers to turn to for advice, counsel, and support.

A Lifetime of Learning

Maria soon became aware of the rich array of ongoing professional-development courses and experiences offered teachers by local universities, school districts, and even area businesses. In her spare moments at her computer, she sometimes cruised the rich offerings of teacher-oriented Web sites or visited forums where teachers and other experts were holding lively discussions about different aspects of learning.

As she understood more about such resources, she realized that her development as a teacher would never be over. Her experiences in college and during her first year on the job were the beginning, not the end, of her quest to be a better teacher. She was just starting a lifelong learning adventure.

Linda Darling-Hammond is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Teaching and Teacher Education at Stanford University and a former member of Edutopia's National Advisory Board.

This article originally published on 7/1/1997

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