BUSTED: Myths Exposed for New Teachers – Myth #2: College Prepared You to be a Successful TeacherBy Betsy Weigle
No, not the one where you put on your new clothes, slung your new backpack over your shoulder and trotted off to make elementary-school friends. I’m talking about the one where you stepped up in front of your first class as a new teacher and looked at 25 children looking back, expecting you to be a real-live, knows-exactly-what-to-do educator.
That’s a tough position, as we all know, and the problem is made worse by the fact that you continue to get that “first-day” feeling for a long time…sometimes years if you are moving between grade levels.
Tough on the teacher, which is bad enough…but what about the students? If you feel that you are a better teacher today than you were the day you started, somewhere along the way there were kids who didn’t get the benefit of the “new-and-improved you.”
There is No Substitute for Experience
Experience is the greatest teacher, and new teachers don’t have enough time in the classroom to truly hit the ground running on day one; they just don’t know how things at school really work. And for that, I blame the Education Department at your local four-year university.
(Yep…I’m blaming “the system.” I usually think this is an inappropriate excuse for poor performance, but sometimes the system needs some blame.)
If we can all agree that there is no substitute for experience, and experience only comes from direct student contact, just how much of this valuable contact has a typical education graduate obtained when they get their certificate?
Not much: A few weeks of observing – not interacting with – various classrooms, plus two to three months of full-time teaching if you take out weekends and holidays. And after that dismal amount of “experience” (which frankly may not have gone very well) they are certified to go out and start changing little lives.
We have educators entering the classroom who don’t know even a quarter of how much they don’t know, who may be in extremely challenging situations and who may not have access to a good mentor. Is it any wonder that teacher burnout is a serious occupational hazard within the first five years of teaching?
Public Service Professionals Set the Standard
Let’s compare our profession to other public-service professions – not administrative jobs, but ones where people must interact directly with their customers in life-changing ways. With few exceptions, it is heavily focused on hands-on training:
- Pilots first and foremost must accumulate time in the cockpit
- Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s) should be able to start a saline drip in their sleep
- Firemen drag hoses into actual burning buildings multiple times
- Nurses undergo rotations through different medical specialty areas
The simple understanding of all these trades is that there is no substitute for hands-on, realistic experience. They learn by doing because on day one of their first job, they must be able to perform without any reservations about their ability to handle the fundamentals. They’ll learn a lot on the job, of course, but they must have all the basics mastered before they get started.
If an EMT’s training was not rigorously hands-on…would you want to be his first heart-attack patient?
Life-Changing Experiences Occur at School
“Time out,” you might say, “the customers of pilots and EMT’s are in potentially imminent danger of losing their lives…of course they have to be ready to react to all situations. Students aren’t facing that same danger.”
Are our customers (children) in any less danger of “losing their lives?” Not instantly from a crash or a heart attack, but a lost year of effective teaching harms a child for the rest of his school career. To argue otherwise diminishes the tremendous impact that great teachers bring to the classroom.
Kids are moving on a fast train through their developmental years and every day is important…an ineffective year of instruction is a year that they will never get back. If a student doesn’t advance a year in all content areas in 3rd grade, they have a significant probability of entering middle school not performing at grade level. That hurts – a lot.
Maybe I’m overstating the importance I place on our jobs, but in our technical society, I’d call falling behind “imminent danger of losing their lives”…or at least their livelihoods.
Every Job in a School Affects Children’s Learning
Maybe the education system assumes that since we all went to school, we somehow know how it works and experience is not all that important. I believe that before any teacher experiences the shock of their first day of school, they should know everything there is to know about how a school works.
And I mean in detail, the kind of detail that only comes from getting your figurative hands dirty, starting with the basics and moving up from there until the very fabric of how schools work is as familiar as your favorite jeans.
Personally, I started out as an assistant school secretary. Sitting in the office for two years was a huge education in how to work with sick kids, budgets, discipline issues, parents, administrators and demanding teachers. I believe that there is not a single school job in any capacity (support or instructional) that is not valuable for a new teacher to understand.
When I say any job, I mean starting with the basics like how to set up the lunchroom tables and manage discipline at recess. Should there really be noon aids that know more about managing discipline than new teachers? I’m essentially talking about short internships that occur every year during a teacher’s college career.
Learning by Doing
In addition to the college curriculum, a college student should spend time in a variety of schools in different socioeconomic environments, doing lots of cross-training and experiencing grade levels beyond those in which they will be certified.
For a “standard” elementary teacher certification (not a specialist), the program might look like this:
Freshman – Supervised Assisting in General Areas
- Office – Administrative tasks, attendance, parent interactions, discipline referrals
- Playground – Managing discipline and time schedules
- Lunchroom – Managing discipline, assisting with administrative record-keeping
Sophomore – Skilled Assisting in all Certificated Grade Levels
- Proctoring exams
- Small-group tutoring
- After-school programs
- Parent-outreach programs
Junior – Instructional Assistant
- Special Education
Senior – Full-Time Teaching
- “Regular” student teaching – Year-long process of progressive responsibility
There would be plenty of details to work out, including what “book-learning” courses would be cut. But just as one example, why should an education major take a college course to get fitness credits when they could get them by instructing fitness in an elementary-school gym?
I don’t see a downside to increasing the hands-on experience of our teachers. Instead, I see a benefit to replacing abstract learning with professional experience…experience that would make college courses even more meaningful because they would be placed in the context of actual classroom best teaching practices. If nothing else, by the end of her sophomore year, a college student would know for certain if teaching was really her chosen career field.
One more bonus: I’m sure our public schools would benefit from the help!
I’d love to hear your comments on how to improve on this idea. Maybe we’ll get something started that can change “the system” for the better.
And maybe we’ll even be able to alleviate some of those dreaded first-day jitters!
Next Month’s Column
Join me in June when I bust the next myth: “Standardized Test Scores Shouldn’t Matter.”
No, I don’t shy away from hot topics! Where’s the fun in that?
About the Author
Betsy Weigle is the creator and founder of Classroom Teacher Resources.com the detailed information source for new elementary school teachers.
Betsy is a National Board Certified teacher, curriculum developer in math, science and social studies and advocate for learning-challenged children. A travel enthusiast and kayaker, she lives in the Northwest United States.
“It’s all about the kids!”