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Innovations in Teacher Prep Programs

During the past couple years, teacher preparation programs have been taking a lot of heat. Everyone from the Secretary of Education to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) is concerned about the performance of colleges of education, calling for teacher education to be "turned upside down" in this country. And the National Council on Teacher Quality and U.S. News and World Report recently announced an ambitious new project to rate the teacher education offerings in all 1,400 of America's schools of education, one might assume in response to concerns about their quality.

The vast, vast majority of new teachers come through colleges of education. And to be honest, I am sure that some of those programs are not so hot. But there are others that have developed innovative strategies to prepare their students to teach in 21st century classrooms -- and we should take care not to lump all programs together in conversations about the state of teacher preparation in this country.

University/District Partnerships in Florida

A recent Blue Ribbon Panel on teacher preparation stressed the importance of grounding the pre-service teacher experience in clinical practice. The University of Florida's College of Education does just that. For over ten years they have worked in partnership with the communities they serve, developing clinical programs that meet community needs while helping their own students gain important experience. For example, in the first field experience the university offers, pre-service teachers work one-on-one with children who live in public housing communities, generally in a recreation facility or center in a public housing neighborhood.

The program was developed with the executive director of the local public housing authority and a captain from the police department as a result of their concerns for children in those neighborhoods, and as a result of feedback from university graduates who felt they lacked preparation in working with children and families from backgrounds different from their own.

The college is also working with school districts to strengthen its ESOL program. All its students graduate with ESOL endorsement from the state of Florida, with ESOL competencies woven throughout the program. But in the area where they are located, there is not a large population of students who speak English as a second language. So the college has partnered with other districts throughout the state -- districts serving a larger population of ESOL students -- to give their students more experience with the unique challenges and opportunities of educating this population so that as teachers, graduates will be better equipped to serve them.

Co-(Student) Teaching in Minnesota

Another innovative approach to teacher education comes from Minnesota's St. Cloud State University. The University's "co-teaching" model of student teaching prepares new teachers for the challenges of the job while keeping master teachers in the classroom. The rationale is two-fold. Research shows the importance of mentoring new teachers, so why not push that mentoring down into the student teaching experience? And also, why do student teaching programs take effective, experienced teachers out of the classroom while novice teachers are learning? They should always be available to work with kids.

In these co-taught classrooms, a student teacher works with a cooperating teacher. The student teacher is actively engaged with children from the first day, assisting the cooperating teacher. As the experience progresses, the roles reverse -- the cooperating teacher becomes the assistant.

The benefits are huge. Not only do student teachers have support in the classroom, but the expertise of master teachers is not "lost" for a semester while a novice teacher takes over. Plus, student teachers learn how to effectively utilize adult resources, helping them maximize the impact of a paraprofessional or parent volunteer in the classroom, for example. And they graduate knowing how to collaborate with other professionals -- a skill that is increasingly valued in educators.

The best part of this model? It benefits children. Four years of research show that students in these co-taught classrooms outperform students in classrooms using other models of student teaching. They even outperform students taught by a single experienced teacher.

The Bottom Line

Given all the negative attention that colleges of education have received over the past several months, it would be easy to write them off -- to dedicate our teacher preparation resources towards alternative (and unproven) preparation programs, rather than university-based programs. But we shouldn't do that. Again, colleges of teacher education prepare the vast majority of our new teachers -- and they are constantly developing innovative new ways to ensure these teachers are ready to be effective in the classroom.

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Bill Warters's picture
Bill Warters
Professor, manager of K-12 website on conflict resolution

Great post Anne. Another innovation that readers might be interested in is the Conflict Resolution Education in Teacher Education initiative that has been developing over the past 5 years into a nationwide network of schools of education that are incorporating Conflict Resolution skills into the preservice education experience. You can learn more here: and in this video about one aspect of the project. At the core of the initiative is a 4-day workshop that is being integrated into schools of education in various ways, but which grounds the pre-service teacher in a set of practices that help them create a conflict-competent classroom environment. There is also work being done in local schools to prepare mentor teachers and staff so that a new teacher can find other conflict resolution aware teachers and administrators in the schools they start teaching in.

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

Thanks Anne, for writing about a very important topic.
The heart of effective preparation (in any profession) seems to be two fold: one, to make it as real as possible and two, enlist the help of the most wise people.
When I was a student teacher I thought that my problems would be solved by magic when I had the title of 'teacher'. When I was a sub I thought the same thing. When I got the title of teacher, I saw how wrong I was. I realize now that attitude is everything. One of the objectives of college teacher prep has to be to educate about this know-it-all attitude that is particularly detrimental to teachers-in-training, and words will not impart this wisdom. Most teachers remember the hard knock that their first year of teaching was. Some teachers-in-training need this hard knock to adjust their attitude. It would have helped me. This is part of what 'making it real' is all about.

Kelly KJ's picture
Kelly KJ
Instructional Coach in Newport News, VA

I have to say that my teacher prep 30 years ago was exceptional! In my second year of college I was working as an intern once a week over an entire school year at an elementary school in the county near my university. I was assigned to a class for the year, where the teacher mentored me and gave me LOTS of hands-on experiences with the students. Over the next two years, I tutored students and observed students and analyzed students in local public schools, as well as in the university lab school setting. By the time I graduated, I had had experience with a great variety of students in many different school situations. My student teaching experiences also gave me experiences with students from a wide variety of backgrounds. I had a strong foundation in child development and psychology and quality teachers and university professors with whom I could debrief on a regular basis, as I worked with students, learning my craft with guides along the way.

In addition to my job as an instructional coach in an elementary school, I currently teach as an adjunct instructor part-time in a graduate program for students in a teacher prep program. Most of these students, as well as the student teachers I have worked with in the classroom over the years, are seeing a very skewed vision of what teaching is in college. The graduate students, whom I teach, work in a university lab school setting with young children. Very few of them have actually set foot in a a public school setting before their student teaching experience, so when they enter a career in a school, especially a school of high-risk students, like the one I work with, they struggle with class management and the high stress of high-stakes testing.

I would like to see programs where college students are seeing the real-world of public education on a regular basis with mentors and professors who can help them to make sense of the classroom settings way before they are ready to graduate. I would like to see them working with mentor teachers for their first few years of teaching, not just during their student teaching experience. I have seen way too many highly qualified and talented teachers burn out in their first few years, because of too few supports!

demgal's picture
teacher elementary

I'm an educator in small, urban school district in Phx, AZ. It's a Title 1 district with a high population of ELL students and very transient. For over a dozen years now, we have partnered with ASU-West to create a professional developement school district. Candidates come in as interns at the start of January and intern with mentor teachers in 4 week rotations. The rotations are split among upper, lower elementary and middle school assignments. Each 4 week cycle increases the demands and levels of participation in the classroom from walking kids in the hall, running community circles, small group tutoring to whole group instruction. These beginning teachers also take a full load of course work after their day of "interning" is done. They run summer school classes under the guidance of mentors and then student teach in the fall. It is a rigorous program indeed but it certainly preps teachers for what teaching in a high needs school is like and weeds out those individuals that may not really understand what teaching is really all about. But when the year long program is completed they are fully endorsed in elementary with an SEI label as well. And now within the last few years, the program has expanded to include special needs teachers.

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance

Bill, Thanks for sharing that great example! We often hear that one of the tops complaints of new teachers is that were not prepared to deal with classroom management. But here again some schools of ed are doing innovative things to overcome that challenge.

And ktolman, thanks for sharing the program your district offers. Another complaint I often hear about teacher prep programs is that they do not prepare students to work with low-income students and the unique challenges they can present to teachers/face themselves. But yet again, an example of a district and university that have partnered to meet real needs!

Kelly KJ and Paul, you raise some excellent (and related) points. Quality teacher education HAS to be real. It has to expose pre-service teachers to the challenges that they will face in their classrooms. And it has to be the start to a career of collaboration, allowing young teachers the chance to learn from more experienced colleagues. And the programs should impart the sense that this collaboration should be lifelong, recognizing that no matter how experienced one is, there is always more to learn from others.

And you are right, Paul, about the shock of the first year. Even with the best preparation out there, the first days, weeks and months that you go into the classroom that you are responsible for are a wake-up call for most teachers. But if we (teacher prep programs, district officials, fellow teachers) can help new teachers recognize that they do not have to be alone, that wake-up call, while still being jarring, might not be as harsh.

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