How Do Teachers Grow in Their Craft?

Ten years ago I started my first career as a children’s librarian in a public library.  The first week,  I was to observe a baby storytime, and then be observed the subsequent week.  Before this, my only storytime experience had been with Kindergarten-2nd grade, a very different audience from the one I was transitioning to, so I was looking forward to the initial guidance and feedback I would receive.  Approximately five minutes before the baby storytime was scheduled to start, the librarian that was to train me came into the office in tears, severely distraught over a fight with her husband.  She then left me there to fend for myself. Needless to say I was extremely nervous, and felt bad for the quality of program I presented that day.  My observation the next week never happened and I basically schooled myself on best practices for my early literacy programs (this was not taught to me when I was getting my master’s in library science). I primarily relied on professional learning networks (PLNs) to get schooled in children’s programming, made a ton of mistakes and adjustments, and eventually mastered that area of my field after several years.  Now that I’m entering the field of education,  I have a feeling that my first year of teaching will be very similar to that first hour of baby and preschool storytime, only the consequences for those I’m teaching this time are way more important.  I plan to do an internship instead of student teach, so I feel like my first year will involve me falling flat on my face, many times.   But at least I know I’m going to fall,  so I can attempt to brace myself for it.

As a teacher in training, it’s encouraging to hear about the practices featured in a radio documentary called Training Teachers.   I was excited to learn about teaching residencies modeled after medical residencies in this American Radio Works (ARW) documentary: http://www.americanradioworks.org/documentaries/teaching-teachers/ .  Getting to practice with highly qualified teachers and receive immediate feedback seems so valuable, as does the fact that the teachers in some of these residencies are practicing on adults standing in for actual students. This makes it less nerve-racking for the teacher in training because they don’t have an actual student’s education in their hands while they are still in process of training.  The immediate feedback also makes it easier to pinpoint problems and think of other methods in the moment, but also allows for reflection after the fact.  I’m also very encouraged by the development of the high leverage teaching practices.  One of the educators behind the practices, Deborah Ball, admits how difficult it was to create a comprehensive, yet practical list of the fundamental practices that teachers need to employ in order for their students to learn.  According to Ball, the list is not “the end,” and her and her colleagues request suggestions from educators as to practices that need to be added (Handford & Pekow, n.d.).  For a teacher-in-training like myself, who will not have the advantage of student teaching before being on my own in a classroom, knowing the high leverage practices will be extremely helpful in guiding my teaching.  

This same documentary also features the practice of lesson study in Japanese schools. Lesson study consists of teachers researching new teaching techniques and methods, planning a lesson using them, and having other teachers observe and critique the lesson, so the teachers are learning the newest methods of teaching, and also learning from each other.   I love this idea,  and the fact that the Japanese believe in the concept of continuous improvement,  in which most learning is done on the job and one is always striving to assess, reflect,  and improve upon one’s teaching (Hanford & Pekow, n.d.).  While I think it would be a little bit intimidating at first–having multiple colleagues sitting in on  lessons and making suggestions during the reflection time–I think it is something I would eventually get used to.  Being critiqued in the manner of the lesson study model would be a great way to practice high leverage teaching practice #19: analyzing instruction for the purpose of improving it.  Evaluating and reflecting on how I teach will only make me improve and be open to trying new methods of instruction for my students.

There are some schools in America trying out the practice of lesson study, but will it catch on in more American schools?  I hope so, but doubt it, because as education researcher James Hiebert said in Teaching Teachers, “We are so addicted to quick fixes. If it doesn’t fix things in two years, it’s not worth it” (Hanford & Pekow, n.d.).  Plus, the structure of the American school day would have to altered to accommodate the lesson study model, and additional money would need to spent to hire subs or paraprofessionals to watch classes while teachers attended lesson study.  I believe it would be so beneficial for American schools to adopt some form of lesson study, not only for the teachers being observed and critiqued, but also for the observers.   I have always benefitted tremendously from watching other professionals perform the same duties as me.  Everyone does things differently, and mindful observation can show even the most seasoned professional something new.  

One last thing that I really appreciated about the Japanese point of view on teaching is how they attribute achievement/learning problems to bad teaching instead of bad teachers.  A bad teacher needs to be replaced, but a teacher who is using ineffective methods can be taught new techniques and can develop as a professional.  As professor of education Deborah Ball said in Teaching Teachers, most teachers can not be expected to have a natural talent for teaching, but all teachers deserve to have training that prepares them to teach well, and the students they serve deserve to have well-trained teachers (Hanford & Pekow, n.d.).   As I enter the teaching profession, I need to plan not just how to educate and evaluate my students, but also how to educate and evaluate myself as a professional.  

Hanford, E. (Executive Producer) & Pekow, S. (Associate Producer). (n.d.). Teaching Teachers [Radio program]. Saint Paul, MN: American Public Media.