In the last post, I talked some about teacher education or teacher training. Before flying solo, aspiring teachers need education, training, and experience. Does that mean all teacher education programs work well? Absolutely not, but that doesn't mean they should be eliminated. I say they should be mended and not ended. Furthermore, the only route to teaching does not have to be via university programs; however, alternative paths should be equally rigorous and thorough. (School finance blogger Bruce Baker offered this data-rich analysis of the current state of ed school programs.)
I completed my master's degree in Education at a well-regarded program. Overall, the program is well-regarded with good reason. Even so, some of my classes were a waste of time and some of my internship experiences could have been much better designed. Some of the courses could probably have been eliminated from the program or fused with others. Otherwise, the useless classes were primarily so due to lack of preparation on the part of their instructors. The best courses were thoughtfully designed and executed, assigning rich and varied readings, facilitating stimulating discussions, giving useful and practical assignments, and offering insightful, actionable feedback (hey look at that--I just listed some components of quality teaching!) The student teaching/intern experience, however, is the most important piece of teacher training, so important, in fact, that it should be extended to a year or two. Cooperating teachers should be better vetted and compensated and teacher candidates paid an intern's salary. Again, some unconventional internship experiences should be considered as equivalent experiences, if only in part.
Good teaching means preparing for classes, a.k.a., lesson planning, preferably in chunks called thematic units. The teacher should have a good idea of what he wants students to know and to be able to do. Lesson planning also includes being technically and logistically prepared for class: making copies, preparing power point presentations, reserving needed technology, giving feedback on student work. Teachers shouldn't necessarily have to write down and turn in lesson plans, especially if that's not how they plan best, but they should show evidence of planning in their teaching and reflections. After all, a teacher can easily write down and turn in great lesson plans without actually executing them well in the classroom. Preparation should also include on-going learning in teachers' content areas, pedagogy, management, and assessment.
Classroom management is probably the trickiest and most important part of teaching. A teacher can be very knowledgeable about their content area and pegagogy and write great lesson plans, but without appropriate, positive, and effective classroom management techniques, it will be very hard to implement instruction. Of course, the key to management is engagement, i.e., if students are engaged, classroom management is much less of a factor. Even so, teachers must think hard about factors such as seating and classroom layout, facilitating student participation, dealing with peer interactions, navigating and discouraging negative or distracting behaviors, channeling students' energy positively and keeping them on task, recognizing effort and positive behavior, and giving useful feedback.
For me, the following are key to effective classroom management (which is not to say I was always able to do them consistently):
- staying organized.
- consistent and transparent routines and lesson plans, so that students know what to expect.
- fair, limited, but consistent rules, so that students know what is expected of them.
- a focus on catching students being good rather than on catching them being bad.
- treating all students with respect and empathy.
- allowing respectful and reasonable disagreement.
- disciplining students discretely and so that their dignity stays intact.
- choosing my battles wisely.
- providing options, choices, and a sense of ownership for students whenever possible.
- acknowledging the significance of peer relationships (I taught mostly secondary school :)
- avoiding rigidity, e.g., allowing some movement and relevant chatter within the classroom.
Once lessons and units have been planned, the teacher must decide how she will present the material or demonstrate the skill she wants the students to know and be able to do. Before presenting, teachers should have or gather some idea of the students' prior knowledge of or proficiency in the topic or skill. Then, they'll need to show students why the topic is relevant or interesting. There are many ways to present (similar to what I said earlier, there are entire courses just on this aspect of teaching): traditional lecture, using exemplars, via text, using visuals, using technology, etc. Some caveats, though: teachers should avoid trying to "present" too much material or too many skills at once, nor should the "presentation" part of the lesson take too much time. While engaging and effective presentation can be and often is creative, it should avoid gimmicks. For example, I doubt the effectiveness of expecting kids to learn new material "cooperatively" without any knowledge of what it is they are supposed to know and be able to do, nor would I advise, for example, teaching map skills by way of a podcast. (For more on limitations of the learning styles theory, check out this article.) Furthermore, quality teaching is not rigid and does not get bogged down in attachment to methods that are simply part of the latest trends or ideology. Best practices and methods must be chosen and blended based on how effective they are and how particular groups or individual students respond to them.
Once the material and/or skill has been presented, the teacher must consider how students will practice and hopefully be on the road to retention or mastery, or developmentally appropriate mastery, of the material and skill. Again, the road to mastery can take many forms, but the practice should match the skill. If students, for example, are learning about osmosis and note-taking then they should probably take notes on a text, lecture, or demonstration of osmosis.
Once students have been presented with the material and skill and been given a chance to practice and work towards retention, the teacher should assess student knowledge and performance of skill. Even more so than presentation, students' learning can and should be assessed in varied ways; assessment does not necessarily mean tests. This part of teaching serves the dual purpose of assessing student knowledge and the effectiveness of the teaching. Integral to the assessment/evaluation process should be teacher and student reflection on what they've learned, how they learned it, and how it was taught. I will dedicate an entire post in this series to teacher evaluation, so stay tuned. . .
This component, similar to classroom management is not technically part of instruction, but is very important nonetheless. Quality teaching is not possible without strong and caring, but professional and appropriate, relationships between a teacher and her students. That being said, a good teacher-student relationship can fit many molds. I don't mean at all to imply that the connection should be a personal one, but there should be a connection and the student should be able to trust and respect the teacher and vice-versa. Furthermore, knowledge of students' educational background, aspirations, and family situation (without, of course, overstepping boundaries or violating students' privacy) can really help to inform teaching.
In conclusion, quality, effective teaching is thoughtful, well-planned, ordered but not rigid, clear, content-rich, respectful, applicable, engaging, and interactive. The components of teaching described above are carried out successfully by trial and error and after some experimentation. Also, how they are implemented is heavily dependent on the population and even individual students in front of the teacher. That's where the teacher education and training piece is so vital: hopefully, teacher candidates learn what has worked and has been effective from others who have already taught, from those who are currently in classrooms, and from research that has studied programs and policies BEFORE they have the immense responsibility and task of being in classrooms themselves. Of course, learning should forever continue on the job, but it's imperative to start with a strong base. Finally, these components, successfully executed, don't exist in a vacuum, that is to say, without adequate resources, support, and leadership. More on this in future posts. . .