The Courage to Teach: Part III – Four Wishes for Teacher Education

This week’s post is the third installment in “The Courage to Teach” series and is directed at this country’s teacher education system. Too often, our national conversation around education and what needs to change within it focuses on the work that teachers are doing – teachers before administrators, teachers before community members (and their frequent resistance to passing educational support measures like levees), and teachers before teacher education (almost always). And yet, after spending 12 years teaching pre-service and in-service teachers, I believe that not only does teacher education need an overhaul in order to meet the real needs of this nation’s education system, but it should also be one of the first places we look when we considering educational reform. Unfortunately, on the rare occasion when teacher education is mentioned (as in my home state) it usually takes the form of a state-wide legislative committee with little or no direct educational experience making changes in teacher education assessment or loosening teacher education licensure requirements as a whole.


Given this reality, I would like to make four wishes for teacher education in hopes of developing a system that more effectively meets the needs to today’s communities, school, teachers, and students. This is not an exhaustive list of wishes, of course, but if we were to begin with even this small list, I believe we would make some good headway in getting teacher education to do what it is charged to do: prepare our teachers to be exceptional educators in an incredibly complex and challenging times.


Wish One: Stewardship

I was in a College of Education “Future Development” committee meeting about 12 years ago when it just so happened that our state legislature was making moves to eliminate the “human relations requirement” for teacher licensure. I mentioned to the group that this was disturbing because of its content but also because its process signaled one more time that those who were actually in education were not making the decisions about education. In response I suggested that we, as a College of Education in a good-sized university, respond vociferously to this and be the stewards of education that we are philosophically charged to be. How can we possibly say we are going to do right by preparing teachers but then do nothing when the quality of that preparation is jeopardized? I expected to be met with general agreement if not a rousing sense of support. To my surprise, I was instead met with disagreement, dismissal, and one colleague telling me it sounded “too communist” to challenge the legislature on their educational decision-making. A decade later, there was another round of the chipping away at teacher preparation by the legislature, I made another suggestion that we not roll over and instead speak up to defend what we know is right, and received yet another barrage of laughs, dismissals, and head shaking at me.

And so here is my first wish – that those in teacher education stand strong for what we know to be right for teachers, for students, for schools, and for education as a whole. Instead of finding new and innovative ways to help teachers “manage” larger and larger classes, let’s get out there and demand for more funding for smaller class sizes. We know that when class size is too large, teaching, learning and overall student development is hampered so let’s do something about it. Those who do not blink at the price increase for a Grande Latte need to be reminded that just like their latte the cost of truly good education cannot be the same as it was “when they were kids”. Likewise, if we know that standardized testing is mind-numbing, a horrible measure of one’s academic capacity and inherently biased with respect to race, class and gender, we must stand up for rigorous and unstandardized assessment. If we know that fast-track licensing for people from professional fields with no formal educational training is bad for education, we must strongly resist and defend the need for preparation in deep and complex ways. And instead of being reactive to issues like these, let us respond in proactive ways and without apology make the case for equity in our schools, for teacher education requirements that are rigorous and steep, and for change in our immediate, local and regional cultures regarding education and make it one of the most respected jobs in this society. If we are tenured (read “safe”) and the authors of the very teacher education textbooks our students use, we are obligated to take a stand and say to those who legislate education that we have had enough of their short-sighted and underfunded expectations for education. In my mind, there is no group of people more able to take the risk of pushing back on governmental intervention in education than college and university faculty. We have an extraordinary amount of privilege and power and it is high time we use it to support teachers and course-correct education in this country instead of worrying about our own books, articles, and careers. There is NO substitute for well trained, incredibly competent, and extremely knowledgeable teachers and it is the responsibility of teacher education to make this case to the public and be relentless in our efforts. In short, let us be the torchbearers for education.


Wish Two: Representative Teacher Education Faculty

This is a pretty straightforward wish: the faculty in teacher education needs to be a representative sample of those in our classrooms. More specifically, the faculty should reflect the racial, cultural, linguistic, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious, ability and nation of origin demographics of our schools. For example, in various higher educational programs I taught in, I found less than 5% of faculty were People of Color. This is particularly true for positions that are tenured or one-year fixed-term positions. In contrast, it is quite common to find faculty from historically marginalized groups hired as adjuncts who get paid very little, have no power within departments, and also are not responsible for student advising or graduate thesis advising.

This is easier said than done and so here are a few specific suggestions to help our teacher education programs lean in the direction of greater representation:

1) Examine, through a social justice lens, the culture and climate at the heart of your teacher education program,

2) Using this analysis, identify areas where there are dominant group norms that go unquestioned and unchallenged and in response begin to dismantle those. For example, are your meeting processes grounded in White or male or professional middle class norms and if so, how might that make retention of historically marginalized groups difficult. Then, identify how business as usual of your teacher education program consciously or unconsciously perpetuates long-standing biases, closed-doors, and overall dismissal of historically marginalized groups.

3) Begin to transform those ways of being in your programs that perpetuate dominance, privilege and the oppression of marginalized communities. For example, change the various ways you structure tenure, develop job descriptions, implement policies and procedures, and structure hiring processes.


In a nutshell, the answer to this is not to “get more of ‘those’ people in our program” but rather ask “what in our program is making it inaccessible to historically marginalized people and favorable to those in the typical dominant groups in this country?” This is not about tokenization, but really a simple but incredibly important response to the increasing needs for multiple-identity perspectives in teacher education.


Wish Three: Get Into Today’s Classroom

I would love to see those in teacher education get into the classroom again; not as someone observing teacher education students, but as someone who is actually teaching the class AND being observed by others. Teacher educators who are confident in their teaching content, in the methods they are imparting to their students, and in the pedagogical frameworks they espouse, should have no fear of being in a high school, middle school, elementary or early childhood classroom themselves. And yet, if I were to place most of those I know in teacher education into contemporary U.S. classrooms (and had them observed) I am sadly confident that many of them would not be successful or able to respond to the need of students in today’s classrooms. I often explain the importance of the need for this “wish” this way: we have long-term faculty in teacher education who were E-12 educated in the middle of the 20th century, taught and / or went to graduate school in the latter quarter of the 20th century, who are then teaching undergraduate students who were raised mostly in the beginning of the 21st century and will themselves be teaching students who will live to the end of the 21st and perhaps even into the 22nd century. Given the rapidity of social, political, scientific, climactic, and global change across this span of time it seems likely that a faculty member who has been in teacher education for 20 years as of 2013 will not truly understand the current landscape of today E-12 setting unless they have jumped into it on a regular basis. For this reason I implore faculty in teacher education to get in the front of an E-12 room and allow themselves to be evaluated just as they evaluate student teachers. I am certain that the experience and observational feedback they receive will have a strong impact on how we teach future teachers.


Wish Four: Teach for 21st Century Education

I think this one is more of a personal desire than anything grounded in piles of research, although there is research to support it. It is my hope that teacher education take a hard look at what is on the horizon and teach accordingly. For example, the archaic “siloing” of topics and content areas in education no longer serves the complex and multi-varied nature of this society. When the workforce was built on an older model of industrialization where there were structured, singular tasks to be performed, this parceling out of educational content seemed to serve a purpose. But today when an ever-increasing percentage of our workforce is doing more and more complex work, or telecommuting, or working multiple jobs as a result of a downsized economy, it does not make sense to separate math from economics from social studies from science. The 21st century workforce, political arena, community voice and slate of challenging global issues calls for citizens who can think critically, bring a wide swath of knowledge to bear on the problem, and function as well in collaborative projects as they do in independent work. Sadly, our teacher education programs are not acknowledging this reality and still silo students into content areas distinctly separate from the greater whole. For me, this resulted in pre-service teachers in my classes, for example future biology teachers, unaware of how language arts skills such as literary critique, the analysis of voice, or attending to the social implications of a piece of writing were relevant to the treatment of the environment, the splitting of the atom, or the patenting of the human genome. It took several weeks to get these students to open their minds to these intersectionalities of content, thought, and learning, but once they did they repeatedly wondered why they were not being taught this across their entire teacher education program. I did too.


In addition, a 21st century teacher education program must be rooted in social justice and a commitment to helping students both understand and seek to solve the most pressing social issues of our society. They did not start these fires and yet they will be repeatedly singed by them. It is the very least we can do to give them the analytical and educational tools to try and put them out. In line with this 21st century teacher education needs to teach students how to work collectively, collaboratively and with empathy and care for those about them. These are indispensible elements of our society and yet we give them sparse commentary in teacher education. A few months back, Buddhist teacher Spring Washam quoted an ABC interview of the Dalai Lama where the interviewer asked the Dalai Lama, “If there were one thing you would change about U.S. society to make it better, what would it be?” And according to Spring the Dalai Lama said, “I would make compassion the central teaching of your entire educational system. If you taught compassion this way, all of your national problems would be solved.” You can debate this last statement, but it should be a no-brainer that if compassion was a core element of what we taught as teacher educators (and by default our students taught as E-12 teachers) we would certainly be much, much better off as a society.



In sum, I want to say again that it is all too easy to target this country’s teachers for the current state of education, but if we are concerned about the efficacy of our teaching in this country we should turn our attention to those who are training them. In the first installment in this series I suggested that we should truly appreciate and express our gratitude to those teachers who are true artisans and stellar examples in education. Likewise, we need to lift up teacher education programs that are exceptional and who do actually train teachers for the 21st century, while also calling to task teacher education programs that are not good stewards of education, do not represent our students and their families, are not rooted in the realities of the classroom, and that are completely out of date in their own practices and ways of teaching. I know this is merely a wish list, but it is one born out of 12 years of teaching future teachers and an even longer period of working with in-service folks and therefore has some experience the back of it. Perhaps if enough of us call attention to what needs to change and grow in teacher education these wishes will become reality.