'If education is going to improve, we must work on improving initial teacher training'

Increased teacher contact time and observations are just two of the many strategies we should try to adopt from Finland's model for preparing new teachers, writes one former principal

Douglas Green

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As teachers, we are all concerned with improving the education our students receive. But instead of focusing on the classroom, we need to take a step back: if education is going to improve, we must work on improving initial teacher training.

I said in a previous article that education isn't rocket science, it's much more complicated, and our system for preparing new teachers is not making life any simpler or more effective.

In the US alone there are 1,500 institutions that train teachers, and approaches vary a great deal depending on state regulations and the leaders’ vision.

There are two aspects to this process.

The coursework generally covers content, methods, and psychology – newer courses also deal with technology integration and issues related to culture and diversity.

The other aspect places students in schools for observation and student teaching. Many colleges have students visit schools to observe veteran teachers in action prior to their senior years. As a senior, students are placed with a cooperating teacher for a period that averages about ten weeks.

Students start by observing and assisting the cooperating teacher then at some point they take over planning and delivering lessons. How long they get to do this varies depending on what the cooperating teacher decides and the college's requirements.

As an elementary principal, I was shocked to learn that most student teachers had only one "solo week" during which they did everything with the cooperating teacher often out of the room.

This isn't enough.

Some colleges require two student teaching placements in different schools and one needs to have a special education focus. This is better but still insufficient.

In Finland, students spend an entire year of apprenticeship in a school working with multiple teachers, and are required to complete a research-based masters degree prior to beginning their teaching career.

Finland is also much more selective when it comes to admitting students into teacher training programs. In the US, these programs are often not very selective. As a result, we graduate many more teachers than we need in disciplines like elementary education.

The task of preparing teachers is complicated further by the Common Core Standards and the associated standardized testing.

There is also the matter of the many innovative teaching strategies being rolled out in some schools and classrooms that are not included in many college programs. Such innovations include flipping learning, project-based learning, extensive student collaboration, student internships, blended learning, and one-to-one programs where every student has a laptop.

Another key issue is the selection of cooperating teachers. Colleges often require that they are experienced, effective, and possess strong mentoring skills. This severely limits the pool of possible participants.

The K-12 schools have a great deal of control here. However, in my case, I let the colleges know which of my teachers were available to take a student teacher.

The fact that teachers are often evaluated in part by student test scores limits the pool further. Who wants to turn their class over to a rookie when they will be judged on their students' performance?

Schools also get pushback from parents who don't want their kids taught by student teachers.

We should try to adopt as much of Finland's model as possible.

While teachers in training need to familiarize themselves with the Common Core standards and the associated tests, it is also vital that they observe and participate with cooperating teachers using as many innovative methods as possible for as long as possible. This can even start in high school.

For each class they visit they should be assigned one or more students to get to know. The students selected for such mentoring should include the neediest students who have disruptive tendencies.

Some observations should take place on the first day of school as many student teachers never see day one.

Visit classes where group projects are in action so future teachers can facilitate small group activity. It also makes sense to work with small groups prior to dealing with an entire class.

The most important part of new teacher training should focus on how teachers can build strong working relationships with their students. The research I do daily is convincing me that there is an emerging consensus on the primary importance of relationships.  

Extensive observations with multiple teachers in more than one school should expose student teachers to a variety of approaches for managing classrooms and redirecting undesirable behavior. This where relationships make all the difference.

It's important to see veteran teachers who don't let their egos get in the way. If you see lots of teachers in action, you can also learn from some who I call negative examples. 

If standardized testing is scaled back or ultimately eliminated, young teachers need to be ready to teach in ways they were probably never taught.

The same is true for professors preparing new teachers. Some have yet to see things like flipped classrooms or classes where every student has a laptop. 

Trainees need to be ready for innovations such as badges in place of grades, schools without grade levels, self-paced personalized learning, real-world long-term projects, and efforts to create self-directed learners.

There is also an increased emphasis on allowing students to pursue their own interests and passions and to evaluate their own work.

New methods call for a need to retrofit at least some in the professor class.

For the most part, we are dealing with people who left the classroom long ago and some have little or no direct K-12 teaching experience. Many still mostly lecture when they lead courses for new teachers; they need to model the kind of teaching they expect to see instead.

Douglas Green is a former school principal, administrator and university lecturer, who runs the drdouggreen. He tweets at @drdouggreen

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