Catherine Gilleland is currently a founding kindergarten teacher leader at KIPP Destiny Elementary, serving Oak Cliff students and families in Dallas, Texas. She has also taught for six years, with KIPP TRUTH Academy as a middle school world humanities teacher, and with Irving Independent School District in Irving, Texas as an ESL teacher, District Curriculum Writer, and District Literacy Trainer for Irving ISD elementary schools.
When I started my teaching career in a Title I school, there was no question in my mind about what to anticipate in my classroom. I was ready for things like knowing how to simultaneously eat and navigate the CPS hotline during a 15 minute lunch break, and how to stay on top of mounds of paperwork each week. I knew not to get frustrated on a Monday before asking a cranky 11-year-old if he'd eaten anything since the school's lunch last Friday. I completed my own year-long student teaching program at both a Title I school and at a suburban school, giving me the opportunity to work with two very different populations and preparing me for these sorts of challenges and much more. It wasn't until much later that I realized: I had the training I needed to be effective. Not everyone was so lucky.
I was shocked to learn about my colleagues' student teaching experiences. One of the other first-year teachers, who I'll call Marie, had student teaching that began with observations and coaching with a mentor teacher. Sure, that sounds pretty similar to mine, I thought. In spite of her mentor's willingness to participate in the program and have Marie in her classroom for an entire semester, the mentor did NOT feel comfortable relinquishing control over her students for more than 1 or 2 lessons here and there. Marie spoke to her professor in desperation, requesting a new assignment, but nothing happened. So while Marie's teacher prep program could boast that she'd received a full semester of experience in a school prior to graduation, Marie still felt unprepared as she walked across the stage that May and signed her first teaching contract.
Stories like this aren't as uncommon as we'd like to think, and with the varying experiences that define student teaching, many K-12 schools misunderstand how well-equipped their first-year teachers actually are.
Not surprisingly, re-structuring teacher preparation and improving its consistency has become a contentious debate in recent years. Will increasing the responsibilities and accountability of higher education programs solve the problem? Maybe. Will stronger partnerships between partnering K-12 schools and these programs solve the problem? Maybe.
The skeptic in me doesn't believe that a magic bullet exists. In fact, the most pervasive question that creeps into my mind as I reflect on all of the Maries out there is: how are we even measuring effectiveness of teacher training programs across the country? We're running on mostly perceptual data and assumptions, developing a cursory understanding of program quality. My hope is that NCTQ's review of teacher prep programs can spark a national wave of even more data collection and research-based studies that will finally give us something to bring to the table.