I have to admit that I have not been a big fan of Teach for America. Like many educators, it seems logical to me that we should all want highly trained professionals teaching our children, just like we would want an extensively trained and certified doctor, or lawyer, or even accountant. I also don’t think that a revolving door of placing virtually untrained teachers in classrooms for only two years is a model that would improve our education system. I had a recent experience, however, that challenged these beliefs.
Last month I visited several schools in a large urban district. Looking into classroom after classroom I recognized the common practices I have seen in nearly all secondary schools I have ever visited. It is the old direct instruction model, with students sitting in rows, the teacher lecturing – sometimes with the aid of a whiteboard, or an overhead projector. In more recent years I have been visited schools that are adopting technology, so the whiteboard and overhead projector have been replaced by an interactive (“smart”) whiteboard and a document camera, but the pedagogy remains the same.
The most difficult part of these visits for me is witnessing the boredom of the students. Let me give you an example that hits very close to home for me. My daughter, Sophia, has come home from school several times this year and told me, “I fell asleep, again, in science class.” Sophia has science right after lunch. I learned in my first month of teaching that my middle school students were always sleepy after lunch. This shouldn’t be a revelation to teachers. Sophia’s teacher, however, makes things much worse by turning off the lights and lecturing from a PowerPoint presentation for the full class period several times per week. “I have been trying my best to take notes while he is talking, but I just keep falling asleep without even knowing it,” she laments.
You may be asking what this has to do with Teach for America. Well, during my school visits last month I was introduced to a Teach for America teacher. The music wafting from the classroom initially drew me in. Upon entering I noticed the students were sitting in small groups, not in rows. Their assignment was posted online and they were working independently in groups researching some leading questions, and collaborating on the meaning of the information they were finding. I also noticed that student hopes and dreams completely filled one large wall, student outcomes data was posted on another, and student work filling up most of the remaining space. These students are known.
During my time in this class there was a small behavioral problem. The teacher stopped the class, and had a conversation with the students about the infraction. Together they decided what the consequences should be, and then everyone returned to their meaningful work. These students have a voice and have real choices.
I’m not saying that all Teach for America teachers follow these type of practices, or are even good teachers. I’m also not saying that all formally trained secondary teachers are boring their students to death. What I am saying is that the traditional teacher development our profession uses is not leading to higher levels of student engagement, or improved learning in most secondary classrooms. The fact that the Teach for America teacher had no teacher training, and that his class was such a stark and positive contrast to all of the other classrooms in the building has really disrupted my beliefs, and has left me with many questions.
- Is it possible that some personality types are simply better suited for teaching than others?
- Is the current multi-year teacher certification process necessary?
- Is it possible that the teacher certification process is appropriate, but the content used in that process is flawed?
- Is there a better way to prepare teachers and ensure their quality?
- Will the new state teacher evaluation systems lead to more engaging instructional practices?
- Are student voice, student choice, and really knowing and respecting your students the foundational elements needed to effectively engage all learners? Is it really that simple?
There are so many questions that come to mind that I don’t have the space or time to list them all here. This experience has definitely made me question the teacher preparation program evaluation work I did for the State of Michigan a decade ago. The most important thing I learned, however, is that we shouldn’t dismiss an innovation just because it is different, or pushes against our long-held beliefs. On the contrary. When our beliefs are challenges we need to question our beliefs, not fight against the innovation. The challenge, however, as is true in all learning, innovation, transformation, and systemic improvement, is asking the right questions. Are we, as a profession and a nation, asking the questions that will lead to the improved learning that we all seek?
Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.