James Cooper: A View on Teacher Preparation

James Cooper

James Cooper, former dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, describes the school's approach to teacher education.

  1. In the 1980s, you created a task force to redesign Curry's teacher education program. What did the task force come up with?
  2. Why is it so important to get student teachers into real classrooms early?
  3. Is there a formal sequence for the classroom experience of Curry teacher candidates?
  4. Is there anything particularly unusual about the fifth year of the Curry program?
  5. Why is it important for Curry students to have teacher education courses in the undergraduate years even when there is no undergraduate education major?
  6. What is the effect on professors when students come back from working in schools and compare their university classes to what's going on in the classroom?
  7. What's the value of technology for teacher preparation specifically and for education in general?
  8. How do you get resistant faculty members to buy into the idea that technology skills for teachers are important?

1. In the 1980s, you created a task force to redesign Curry's teacher education program. What did the task force come up with?

What we ended up with was a design of a five-year teacher education program in which all students would get their bachelor's degree in an academic field and a master of teaching. We would award both of those degrees simultaneously at the end of five years. We also established the fact that we would have a lot of field experiences -- opportunities for the students to be in the schools -- to really know what teaching was about and what schooling was about.

This program offered them the opportunities to go into the field starting in their second year of college and going through the fifth year, culminating in the fifth year of a semester-long internship program, including a research effort that they had to conduct on some problem or issue they had encountered.

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2. Why is it so important to get student teachers into real classrooms early?

They need to have a real sense of what the problems are and what the situations are out there. They need to have a reality base to test their theories that they're getting here in the university practices. They need to have models of expert teachers that they can look at and observe.

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3. Is there a formal sequence for the classroom experience of Curry teacher candidates?

The first experiences they have is as observers and they have particular assignments that they're looking for to help them get a sense of what the classrooms are about, what schools are about. Then they start doing some tutoring of individual children. They teach a few classes in which the teacher allows them to do that. In their fourth year, they plan a two-week unit and teach at least one week of that in the schools. Then in the fifth year, they have a semester-long internship experience. And many of the students actually start doing substitute teaching on their own.

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4. Is there anything particularly unusual about the fifth year of the Curry program?

We also do something that isn't done in every teacher education program -- we only place for that teaching associate experience in the fall semester. The reason is that we think it's crucially important that they be there when school begins. They find out how teachers socialize children into their expectations and the norms of the classroom.

If they were placed in a student-teaching experience in the spring semester, they would walk into a classroom that had already been in operation for half a year. They would have no idea how the rules had been developed. They would have no idea about the routines that the teacher had established. They would just walk into it. So we think it's crucial that they do this in the beginning of the school year.

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5. Why is it important for Curry students to have teacher education courses in the undergraduate years even when there is no undergraduate education major?

Because they can go to a lecture in history by a professor in arts and sciences and then go out into the schools and be thinking about how they would teach that same content to a group of juniors in high school and what methods would they use to teach it. So they have that interaction and that interplay of subject-matter knowledge, real experiences in the schools, and pedagogical knowledge. And we think that creates a stronger program.

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6. What is the effect on professors when students come back from working in schools and compare their university classes to what's going on in the classroom?

That kind of interchange, I think, keeps professors on their toes and makes sure that they're not talking about theory that doesn't have any application.

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7. What's the value of technology for teacher preparation specifically and for education in general?

Technology can be used by both students and teachers to get access to new knowledge in ways that didn't occur. Students can now access primary sources -- in history, in literary works -- that they were not previously able to access. Teachers couldn't even access them in any kind of a timely fashion. But those things are available now.

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8. How do you get resistant faculty members to buy into the idea that technology skills for teachers are important?

People need to see examples of how this technology is being used by their colleagues, being used effectively, being used to provide better instruction, and being used to help students learn better. And when they see that happen, then they realize that if they don't take advantage of these technologies, their instruction is not going to be as good and their students are not going to learn as much. It's a question of providing examples, supporting people, and recognizing that everybody is not going to be on the same page at the same time.

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This article originally published on 9/1/2001

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