Veteran and novice teachers agree: Anyone considering a career in teaching should start working as early as possible with students – either as student teachers or as tutors – to see if it’s a good fit. One may love and excel at math but not necessarily know how to best teach it. Today's teachers are also expected to deal with challenges unrelated to the subjects they teach.
See below for excerpts from our discussion on teacher preparation and development with:
- Meg Cleary -- entering her third year of teaching chemistry at Brookline-Hollis High School.
- Darrell Hucks -- Chair of the Education Department at Keene State College and former elementary school teacher.
- Susan Rourke -- Chair of the English Department at Nashua South High School, with 30 years of experience teaching high-school English.
- Sarah Schwartz, reporter for Education Week. Read her Teaching Now blog here.
(Below excerpts have been edited slightly for clarity; for the full conversation, visit here.)
How has the role of the teacher changed?
Darrell Hucks: There are very different challenges in today’s schools that teachers are contending with -- working with students who have a variety of different needs, students who have special needs and working with a diverse population of students. There are so many other factors to contend with – cultural differences and different socio-economic status and how all of that impacts how children learn and the access they have.
How have these changes affected programs that educate and train teachers?
Darrell Hucks: At Keene State we’ve been focused on getting teachers into the field, getting them exposed to children early in the program. Typically in teacher education programs, students take their foundational courses for a few years, and they don’t get into schools until the tail end of their program. We’ve shifted that at Keene State. We have them working with children and their families in freshman year. We emphasize cultivating relationships with the teachers in the schools, and we’re making sure they engage with principals and administrators, as well.
Susan Rourke: Teaching is such a complicated and challenging career path. It’s very problematic for teachers to have limited classroom exposure and experience until their senior year in college. I’ve seen student teachers come to my school and at the beginning they’re very excited. Then they come across the challenges that aren’t necessarily in the course curriculum at colleges. For instance: How do you deal with a homeless student? With students who grew up in the 9/11-Columbine era and are terrified about things that many of us who are teachers weren’t terrified about when we went to school?
Does student teaching prepare you for all the roles teachers must now play?
Meg Cleary: It comes with more experience. I didn’t see it throughout my methods or student teaching experience too much, unfortunately, so when I first got to Hollis Brookline High School, I thought how can I deal with this and seek mentors for help through the administration and through the counseling office. It’s hard to prepare for, because each one of these cases is so individual. It’s good to have some background in it, and you can prepare, but you just have to deal with it as it comes up.
What’s most important for students considering being a teacher to think about before entering this field?
Susan Rourke: I would say passion for content. You have to really love your content – be it English or chemistry or psychology. And you have to know your content backwards and forwards. And you have to have an area of specialization. That’s No. 1. They also have to understand that the job isn’t about standing in front of wonderfully attentive empty vessels of students who hang off every word you say. There’s a very specific skill to engagement and having students be engaged in what you’re saying. And many new teachers are completely unprepared for all the paperwork -- going through it all and getting the feedback to students in a timely fashion.
Darrell Hucks: I want them to think about who they are themselves as a learner. What past experience they’ve had in their own learning. I encounter new students who say I love children. And I say, Yes, loving children is wonderful but that doesn’t mean you’ll be a good teacher. You also have to understand that children can be challenging. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions on their behalf and it’s really about supporting them, holding them accountable -- in a good way.
Professional development – when outside consultants are often brought in to teach teachers -- can be a frustrating experience. Why?
Susan Rourke: There’s a saying among educators that the best professional development is just down the hall. Speaking with like-minded content-area specialists who have a bit more experience than you but encounter the same challenges in the same curriculum every day -- that is meaningful professional development. To get teachers to gather in a retreat to talk shop is just wonderful. We tend to get a lot of theory in professional development. We want something practical.
Sarah Schwartz, on her reporting for Education Week: A lot of teachers mentioned that their experience wasn’t taken into account when their school or district planned professional development. Teachers with decades of experience were sitting in the same classroom as teachers with one year of experience. Another complaint: When professional development is used for emergency preparedness or school safety training. Teachers agreed these were important, but they wanted these trainings to be put in a bit more context. And they wanted more time to dig into bettering their instruction.
Many said that approaches handed down by school boards, politicians keep changing. Some teachers told us that certain teaching methods seem to come in and out of fashion and that their administration would take one up one year and then drop it the next. Teachers also said they wanted training on how to handle a high-stress job, how to manage their emotions especially in front of children.
What do you find rewarding about teaching?
Susan Rourke: Despite the challenges of funding and of student behavior and all the difficulties students bring to the classroom, there is something wonderful, in my case, about sitting in a classroom of like- minded people and talking about books. It's a wonderful thing. And then to be able to feed off the energy of teenagers every day -- they constantly make me laugh, and I learn from them. So there is something very wonderful about the classroom experience; it energizes, and it's very rewarding and fulfilling.