Learning to teach in the real world

The Education Beat

Practice: The trend is toward more classroom experience for would-be teachers, and mentoring programs for first-year teachers.

May 13, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S NOT TRUE that practice makes perfect, at least in the world of teacher education. But practice helps a heck of a lot, and where it helps most is in the training of reading teachers.

For almost a year and a half now, I've been observing college students as they move through their final courses in what educators call "pre-service." What I've found, not surprisingly, is that the more practice they get in the "real world," the better prepared they are to handle 29 squirming kids on the fateful and scary day they begin teaching solo.

And practice is crucial in learning to teach reading, particularly in Maryland. Reading is an extraordinarily complex process. No two districts teach it alike, and half the new teachers hired in the state each year come from out of state. So if Maryland districts want new teachers to understand their reading programs, they have to do it "in-service" - that is, on the job.

Educators have known for a long time that traditional student teaching - a semester-long experience under the close watch of a mentor teacher - isn't nearly sufficient to prepare a would-be teacher for working on her own. (I use the feminine pronoun here because the vast majority of students I've been observing are young women.)

So in recent years, education colleges have established "professional development schools" modeled after the clinical residency of medical education. Here, even before education students commence student teaching as college seniors, they are paired with veteran teachers in typical school settings, where they also take their college courses.

In the traditional program, students take their "methods" courses - the often-maligned instruction in the methodology of teaching - on campus. Their professors might venture into the schools where their students have been placed for student teaching, but the two cultures - that of the academy and that of the school - remain separate, as though a medical school had no place in a hospital.

Professional development schools strip away the membrane between higher and lower education. Would-be teachers learn first-hand about the learning patterns of children. They observe how teachers handle emergencies, how they encourage good behavior and how they address behavior problems. They see how reading teachers group children, and they learn something about the district's reading curriculum. Then they take what they've observed to their education courses, taught on-site.

The development school is good for the professors, too. Down from the ivory tower, they keep themselves fresh in their professional fields, and they see how their students react in "clinical" situations.

After a good bit of study and soul-searching, Maryland schools of education were required in 1995 to move to the professional development school model. Some schools moved quickly. Towson University won a national award a couple of years ago for its development school network, but others dallied. Six years later (and a year after development schools were to be fully in place at 240 local schools), only 55 have been established, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, and they tend to be concentrated in high-performing schools.

In part to fill the void left by many teacher education programs - and in part to address the fact that half the new teachers in the state this fall and next will have had no previous teaching experience - Maryland is spending $17 million a year on mentoring programs for new teachers.

Under the new program, seasoned teachers - usually in schools with diverse student bodies, high poverty and low test scores - are paired with newcomers.

"No matter how good your student teaching was, and mine was good, there's nothing like the moment you actually have to live it," said Amber Day, a 23-year-old Towson graduate completing her first year of teaching at Phelps Luck Elementary in Columbia.

Phelps Luck teacher Sandy Keaton, 42, acts as Day's coach and confidant, and sometimes as a prod. Phelps Luck is a "challenging school," said Keaton, with a relatively high proportion of students eligible for free lunches and more than its share of behavior problems.

"Sometimes she tells me when I have to get on the ball," Day said of her mentor.

After nearly a year as a third-grade teacher, Day said she's found the county's reading program is not so clear-cut or easy to grasp.

"It's not like science, which is pretty much laid out for you in Howard County," she says. "The county lays out language arts objectives but doesn't tell you how to meet them or what books to use."

For that, she gets help from Keaton, who puts her 20 years of experience and master's in reading from Bowie State to work. She advises Day about strategies for increasing reading comprehension, how to group students during the long morning language arts segment, how to improve writing - a critical skill for a grade in which students take the Maryland performance tests - and, of course, how to teach phonics.

In addition to Keaton and colleagues, who work with teachers such as Day at four elementary and two middle and high schools, the county has "reading support teachers" in other low-performing schools.

So Howard is moving aggressively. But what of the other schools and districts in Maryland not blessed with Howard's leadership and resources?

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