Category Archives: Issues

Teacher Education

Reforming teacher education or preparation programs is critical to the future success of education. I have heard inducting new teachers into the profession compared to dropping them into the gladiator arena and stepping back to watch until the carnage is over. Those that survive the first several years will probably make it as educators. One-third of teachers quit within the first three years of teaching, and almost half quit within five years. I almost quit after my fourth year, but I came back. I don’t think I would have if I had not had excellent teacher preparation. There was something inside me that was different as a result of my teacher education program, and it saved me from becoming a statistic.

I wonder if teachers who happen by this site could comment and tell me how they were prepared for teaching and whether they would consider themselves well prepared (I started to write “adequately prepared,” but then I thought to myself that “adequate” isn’t enough).

I feel extremely fortunate to have gone through what I have come to believe was an excellent, innovative teacher education program at the University of Georgia called UGA-NETS, the University of Georgia Network of English Teachers and Students (the website has been under construction for a very long time, which is something that makes me nervous). This teacher education program was pioneered by Dr. Sally Hudson-Ross and Dr. Peg Graham.

UGA-NETS is a year-long teacher education program for BSEd and MEd candidates seeking certification in secondary school English. Teacher candidates (TC’s) in the program are paired with mentor teachers (MT’s) in UGA’s surrounding counties’ public schools. I student taught at Winder-Barrow High School. I did not actually participate in pre-planning, because I was not yet enrolled in the program. Perhaps one of the most serendipitous moments of my life, a TC dropped out of the program, already having decided teaching was not for him, and a vacancy opened up just as I moved to Georgia and applied to continue my interrupted education. Sally called me the day before the quarter was set to start to tell me about this vacancy. I didn’t know what to think — start now? But… was I ready? She said it was now or next September, because I couldn’t enroll in the program mid-year. So I took a deep breath and jumped in the pool.

It was an incredible experience. I kept a fantastic dialogue journal with my MT and Sally about experiences and observations I had in the classroom. I observed long before I began teaching in the classroom, which is something that TC’s don’t really get to do enough. We wrote weekly “think pieces” about issues that concerned us and used those think pieces to generate discussion. We conducted research, participated in collaborative inquiry, and developed true camaraderie. I really felt much more prepared for my teaching experiences, and I look back on my preparation with fondness — and not a trace of resentment.

As I entered the program, Sally and Peg were in the final stages of writing a book about UGA-NETS: Teacher/Mentor: A Dialogue for Collaborative Learning (also available from NCTE). My first year of teaching, I participated in a discussion forum: ETEACH-L: Dean’s Forum Discussion for High-School and College Teachers of English (you can still read my contributions under my former name, Dana Cooke — it has been entertaining to review my thoughts as a first-year teacher seven years later).

I think perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned in my teacher education program was the importance of participating (through conferences, professional development, professional organizations, and reading) in my profession. I am always amazed at the number of teachers who do not participate in their profession. Conferences, to me, are energizing. I love to discuss ideas with my peers. Another critical lesson I learned at UGA-NETS was the value of honest reflection. Constant evaluation of my practices has been critical in my improvement as a teacher. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Sally retired in June 2004, and Peg went on sabbatical. To mark the occasion, UGA-NETS had a gathering of participants — MT’s, TC’s, and professors. It was a celebration of the work Peg and Sally have done in English Education. I will never forget one of the participants fighting tears as he expressed fears that the program might not continue, now that Sally and Peg were not going to be able to run it. “And that can’t happen, because it just has to continue,” he said.

I would love to hear from any past or current participants of the program who want to share their thoughts.

Of course, preparation is key, but another critical element is implementing a mentoring program in schools for new teachers. I cannot say I ever had a really solid mentoring experience in school, despite participating at one school where I taught in a mentoring program that looked good on paper, but didn’t really accomplish its goals.

You can read more about UGA-NETS at these sites:

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Americans Concerned About Public Schools

A poll conducted by Educational Testing Service (ETS) demonstrates Americans’ lack of confidence in their public schools. Some figures, courtesy the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

  • Only 9 percent of Americans believe high school students are being academically challenged by their course work.
  • An overwhelming 76 percent of adults surveyed believe the country will be less competitive in 25 years if reforms aren’t made.
  • While 54 percent of adults and 60 percent of parents feel unified standards should be applied to all students, only 26 percent of teachers and administrators agreed.
  • Without being given a description of the law, 45 percent of adults and 46 percent of K-12 parents favored No Child Left Behind.
  • In contrast, 75 percent of teachers surveyed who gave unfavorable opinions, including 50 percent strongly unfavorable.

The results of this poll are not surprising to me. I taught for six years in public schools before making the move to a private school, and the struggles were legion. It worries me that parents do not feel their children are challenged, but often complain about teachers who have high standards. I don’t think most parents really know what it would mean to apply unified standards to all students. All students? Meaning that special education students and ESL students must meet the same objectives as gifted students? Or am I just reading too much into that statement? It seems really sweeping, and it is no wonder so many educators disagree with it. It is disturbing to me that more people do not educate themselves about NCLB. If parents really understood what NCLB was measuring instead of what sort of accountability they are looking for (and deserve), they’d be shocked. In a time when fears about school violence are at a high, my former principal avoided suspending violent students at all costs, because she was afraid it would affect our absentee rating for Adequate Yearly Progress. That’s patently ridiculous — that suspensions should count against AYP. If she’s right about that, then it is no wonder so many schools are failing to make AYP.

Public perception that schools are not doing enough is nothing new. I would hope that the concerned parents surveyed by ETS are doing everything they can to be involved in their child’s education, but somehow, based on the numbers of parents who attended PTA meetings, Open House, and non-sporting school events, or who contacted me with concerns, I doubt they are.

However, I was pleased to see the following, courtesy ETS:

  • 74% of the public strongly favor measures to ensure teachers are experts in the subjects they teach.
  • 80% strongly or somewhat agree we should increase teacher salaries to hire and retain more well-qualified teachers even if it means increased taxes.
  • 64% strongly favor emphasizing real world learning opportunities in high school through work study, community service, and vocational courses.

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Standardized Testing Hurting Our Students

The Montgomery Advertiser reports that students are increasingly unprepared for college, and many blame standardized tests. It should come as no surprise to any teacher that our nation’s focus on standardized testing is hurting our students’ success in college. Instead of teaching real critical thinking skills and writing, we teach to the test out of fear. Ideally, if we teach objectives required by our curriculum, students should be prepared for standardized tests; however, many of us with jobs and schools on the line because of NCLB are too afraid not to teach to the test.

One of the things I’ve noticed since teaching at a private school is that students are much better served by learning how to write well than by taking a language arts test mandated by the state. Georgia has high school graduation tests, as well as writing tests in the 5th, 8th, and 11th grades, and end-of-course tests. Over time, the curriculum has been eroded by all the test preps. My students are mandated to take the PSAT and have the option to take the SAT or ACT. Most do, because they are college-bound students. It has been so freeing not to worry about constant tests.

I wish we could figure out how to hold schools accountable through some other means. It would be better for our students, many of whom wind up in remedial classes in college because we have not properly prepared them.

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