In some ways, teacher prep programs prepare new teachers for everything and nothing at the same time. It's a delicate balance between having a broad enough lens to account for the multitude of contexts those new teachers will find themselves in, while also being specific enough to those contexts to actually be helpful. It's a difficult thing to do well, but the benefits of exploring how to prepare teachers in more relevant, context-specific ways make this worth the challenge.
Many of the lessons I've learned both from my own experience as a teacher and my work at Teaching Lab can be applied to teacher prep programs' efforts to prepare teachers for the specific contexts in which they will teach. Those lessons are captured in Teaching Lab's approach to supporting teachers and partnering with schools and districts. The model is centered on three main components we call Head, Heart, and Habits.
To ready aspiring teachers for their future classrooms, prep programs must spend more time building pedagogical content knowledge (Guskey and Yoon 2009) and a deep understanding of standards and curriculum (Darling-Hammond et al. 2009), two areas that are not explicitly focused on in teacher prep. Pedagogical content knowledge is the intersection of subject-matter expertise and the instructional practices that facilitate student learning (Schulman, 1986 as cited in Solís, 2009).
In an ideal world, these programs would spend time researching and building partnerships with the districts and schools in which their aspiring teachers will be placed. Part of that collaboration would target curriculum and instruction so that programs have the information they need to adequately prepare teachers for the content they are going to be teaching.
For example, a teacher prep program based in Baltimore should consider how to provide professional learning on the Great Minds curriculum that was adopted across the district. Teacher prep in Louisiana should include a focus on the Louisiana Guidebooks curriculum that is the primary core material across the state in grades 3-12. New teachers would build their understanding of literacy content and instructional best practices within the context of those materials and their schools. Prep programs can prepare teachers to critically consume and interrogate any curriculum that is being used and equip them with the skills to learn, internalize, adapt and implement those materials in ways that provide their students effective, high-quality instruction.
Prep programs can also help build the community and relationships that make it possible for new teachers to navigate the challenging, often-changing demands of being a classroom teacher. When teachers have relationships with high trust and frequent interaction, student achievement scores improve (Leana 2011). In the world of teacher prep, the prime opportunity to support new teachers in developing these kinds of relationships is through student teaching.
Research shows that candidates are more likely to get jobs in the districts where they student teach (Krieg et.al, 2016), so if they can start building those relationships early, they will benefit from having colleagues and mentors to guide them in the beginning of their careers. Tighter collaboration between teacher prep programs and schools and districts would allow these types of relationships to flourish and potentially create a host of mentors and host teachers that could benefit the program for years to come and contribute to the retention of teachers new to the field.
Finally, where the rubber meets the road is bringing Head and Heart together in an authentic and tangible way. New teachers need opportunities to apply what they've learned, collect evidence of the impact of their instruction on students, and analyze and reflect on that evidence in order to iterate on and improve their instruction. The vehicle for this is inquiry cycles (Jensen et al., 2016). Teacher prep programs provide some of these opportunities, with practicums and other assignments that must be completed with students, however they need to be more formally and consistently integrated into how candidates go about their coursework and student teaching.
The best learning I experienced in my teacher prep program happened at the intersection of building my general knowledge and skill in teaching and helping me navigate specific challenges related to curriculum, student needs, and the context of my school. Right now, prep programs, district leaders and other stakeholders involved in teacher prep can self-assess the structures they have in place to support new (and veteran) teachers. How many of the characteristics mentioned above are present in your program? Where do you see opportunities to grow? It's not about checking every single thing off the list as fast as you can; it's about being reflective on where you are and where you see potential to make intentional shifts in your preparation and support of the next generation of teachers.
Adrienne Williams is an NCTQ Senior Visiting Fellow. Adrienne is the Director of ELA Content Design at Teaching Lab. Prior to this role, Adrienne served as a manager of lab development at Teaching Lab and spent eight years at Center City Public Charter Schools where she taught first and third grade, designed and led district professional learning, and was a coach for curriculum and instruction.