The Teacher Preparation Catch 22

Teacher education programs are slowly getting on board with arts integration and training teachers in multidisciplinary, differentiated instruction. How can we get those teachers into public schools when the newest teachers are the first to be laid off, while some of the worst teachers are locked in place due to union seniority?

Educational practice is beginning to catch up with nearly century-old educational theory. The ideas that educators like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Lev Vigotsky pioneered are beginning to take hold. The core practice of guiding students as they learn to take responsibility for their own learning and construct their own understanding has begun to spread through teacher preparation courses across the country.

But then those freshly (if woefully under-) prepared young teachers and their students suffer because the best plan public education could come up with to deal with payroll budget cuts was to keep the teachers with the most seniority and let go the ones with the least.  This means that the teachers who are best prepared to help their students enter into a 21st-century workforce — requiring people to be more creative, communicative, team-oriented, and self-confident than the old industrial age companies ever did — are the ones least likely to survive economic downturns.

And, conversely, some of the worst of the old-guard, factory education teachers have the equivalent of a lifetime, Supreme Court appointment to their jobs. Some of those folks are intensely dedicated to their students, even if they are incapable of providing a good learning environment for them. Others are just punching the clock, collecting the paycheck, and grousing about having to do anything “extra.” All of them are just wasting space, money, time, and worst of all, the potential of so many children to do so much better than the bare minimum they ask.

I am all for unions and collective bargaining. But when any organization begins taking extreme positions that benefit few and harm many, I have to say, “enough.” We have to allow for merit hiring and firing of teachers, and that means we had better figure out darn fast how to fairly and publicly evaluate just what that merit is.

Employ this teacher!


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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10 Responses to The Teacher Preparation Catch 22

  1. Amy D. says:

    I understand what you are trying to do–shake things up a bit. I agree with your overall premise. What we all want is to make sure that the best, most qualified, most dedicated teachers are teaching our students. However, I had an issue with your overall generalizations that seemed to paint the vast majority of teachers in a bad light. The language you used seemed so all encompassing and demeaning. I was taken aback.

  2. rbdancer says:

    [Author’s note: I’m still learning my way around blogging. I meant this to be a reply to Amy’s comment below, FYI. Now I get it. Doh!]

    Interesting that my wording of “old-guard, factory education teachers” somehow became “veteran teachers.” You and I, Amy, both know countless “veteran” teachers who are intensely dedicated to their students and who pursue teaching and learning as a true profession and craft, rather than as a job. I have the utmost respect and admiration for those folks, as I know you do.

    Also, since you work in schools with administrative and parental support for teachers who are working outside the traditional factory education system, I think I you have a rosier view of the average school than I do. In Virginia and Maryland, well-schooled residents from many countries expect and demand a high standard of education and an openness to innovation. Here in New Mexico, in Oklahoma, in Alabama, in Ohio, in Iowa, and other states outside the East Coast sphere of influence, factory education is very real and very present and very very entrenched.

    I have been in classrooms of teachers who could not stir themselves to observe their students in the act of creating amazing demonstrations of understanding; they found it more important to grade worksheets, or use the cell phone, or check email, in spite of our planning meetings and careful preparation for the lesson. I have coached teachers who regarded constructivist methods rather wistfully, as if a fantasy that would be nice if true, but returned to their tired, ineffective strategies as soon as the door closed behind me. I have sat in lunchrooms and listened to teachers complain about having to attend professional development sessions that are fun, engaging for adults or children, and create proven results – citing union work rules or the need to go to the dentist, or many other excuses for not venturing a half-inch outside their comfort zones. I know those teachers are out there in many schools, keeping their heads down, and quietly but defiantly obstructing efforts to effect positive change. I can only speculate that is because change is scary, and no one ever helped them learn to deal with it. I feel sorry for them, but I have no more patience with them than I would with a doctor who could not manage to take an interest in keeping up with developments in the field of medicine.

    Teachers who cannot stir themselves to try new things in spite of evidence right in front of them in the form of their students’ dramatically increased understanding do not get the benefit of the doubt from me. To point out that there are such teachers, and that because of our system design they cannot be removed from their jobs short of provable malfeasance, is not intended to “paint a bad picture of the teaching profession overall.” Nor do I think that it does.

    To be clear: I have said on more than one occasion in public, and on this blog, that the vast majority of teachers in public education are underpaid, under-appreciated, overworked, and truly dedicated to their profession. But that’s no reason to let these other obstructionists hide under the desks. They can do incalculable damage, in their passive-agressive way, if we leave them to it.

    Every profession has to not only admit to harboring bad practitioners, but each must take the lead in rooting them out, if only for credibility’s sake. If we paint the teaching profession as saintly and invariably dedicated overall, we can scarcely hold a conversation with potentially transformative partners who know better. There is a stubborn sub-culture in education that is all about counting hours and calling the union rep with an unending trickle of grievances. Pretending that is not so does not help us to transform public education.

    We educators must be the first to call out those who cannot or will not wake up and help. There are no spare resources to carry dead weight, we have no time to mollycoddle those who can’t step up. The point of my post was that it is too bad we can’t weed out the bad apples and let some of the newly-trained true believers into those classrooms.

    • rbdancer says:

      These just in: As part of a summer institute I’m helping to lead, teachers have responded about their reasons for taking the course. From their answers to a set of preliminary questions, here are three places on what we might think of as the continuum of teachers in public education.

      (All three of these are actual quotes, unchanged except to remove identifying information.)

      Most teachers who attend this type of training voluntarily answer something like this:

      “I have attended district training this year as a teacher at ____. I also attended a workshop at the ____ Center in February. I am really looking forward to learning how I can integrate the arts in my French classroom. I hope to feel more comfortable integrating the arts after I have completed the class this summer.”

      The really progressive, enthusiastic teachers we all love to have in our workshops and classrooms say things more like this:
      “I tried arts-infused lessons last year. My students and I loved trying different things. I used my energy getting them to discuss and cooperate instead of trying to get them to be quiet. I tried to stick to the support documents and use the textbook as a resource. I used rubrics to help assess the students’ work. I had a lot of fun, and I had my best year in over 30 years of teaching. I am not an artsy person, so the small changes I made came with anxiety and fear. I am still uncomfortable because I don’t have an art background.

      “I have to work very hard to come up with new ideas for lessons. I hope I can become more comfortable and confident. I saw my students ‘ confidence levels change for the better. I am excited!”

      Wow. Now there’s a teacher who constantly strives to go farther, and I’m sure this teacher is very successful in terms of student learning about how to be learners. Talk about courage and dedication!

      But, several of the responses are more along these lines:

      “–*Training and experience is average with training I have received at P______ but have used little in my science classroom.
      ” *I am interested in attending the _______ Summer Institute in order to learn more and receive the 3 hrs of credit and along the way learn how to use more of it in my classroom”

      Several respondents echoed the graduate credit reason, and the offhand way that this teacher approaches classroom practice (hey, at least she mentioned it, even if it was third of the three reasons she gave) is not unusual among participants I see in professional development settings throughout the year.

      My personal goal is to help move more teachers into the first and second groups and out of the dead-end zone the third group currently inhabits. It takes patience, of the endless variety, and skill, and courage of the type that all three respondents above show. That’s courage as defined by willingness to take risks in spite of fear, and anyone who ventures out to take a workshop or summer course in unfamiliar terrain, whatever they say on their questionnaires, is okay in my book. I’ll do whatever it takes to help them take a step toward more constructivist teaching methods while enjoying an artistic experience.

      But those who manage to be busy or to schedule a root canal or have an injury whenever there is a meaningful professional development opportunity, and those who barricade themselves behind traditional factory education methods that fail children in every way — to those teachers I say, “Step up to the plate and out of your comfort zone. Take a swing at something that works better, or find another line of work.”

  3. Cissy says:

    I have to agree with Amy here. The classroom teachers I work with (many of whom are veteran teachers) are open to new ideas and approaches if it is going to help prepare their students. Yes, they are overworked and have to make sure they “cover” everything for the tests. But, they are life long learners and want to embrace those 21st century skills. The biggest struggle is getting school systems to pay for professional development and to give educators time to implement what was learned.

    • rbdancer says:

      Hey, Cissy,

      I agree that getting the schools and districts and states to pay for meaningful PD is extremely important. I’ll be going after them in a separate post. But see my reply to Amy for the point: we can’t let those teachers who willfully obstruct positive change derail our efforts. And that means we have to identify them and figure out how to move them out of classrooms and maybe into more suitable lines of work.

      And by the way, major kudos to you for working inside and with the system for such an extended time. I know you have made real differences not only in the lives of your students but also in the overall culture of your school and community. If we only had a few thousand more like you in key places! My hat is way, way off to you, and of course to Amy, who effects change on a sweeping scale I can only dream of.

    • Kathleen says:

      You are lucky, Cissy. At our small school we have one really excellent teacher out of 4 at the primary level. At our “pod” meetings that are supposed to be our opportunity for sharing teaching strategies and co-planning expeditions, we are almost always missing someone who had “errands” to run. Teaching strategy sharing slides away and instead I watch much complaining about student behavior. Do we have tough students? Yes. Should teachers yell at them? I say no.

      I have watched this teacher try to raise the bar and hold her colleagues to a higher level of professionalism, only to be patronized for being too “inexperienced” or “naive,” the implication being that given a few years she won’t be having so many ideas.

      As the dance specialist, I take the material from the classroom and expand upon it in the dance studio. This happens during planning time, so I never see any of the teachers, ever, in my class. Except for this one. She has even asked that dance not occur during planning because she realizes the value of of watching her students move. She is the only one who creates written classroom reflections based on her students’ dance experiences.

      Our other teachers are not “bad” and all are likable. But they stay well within their own comfort zones. They nod when our administrator talks about being lifelong learners, but they do not demonstrate it very often. They are not willing to take the chances that they ask their students to take.

      This teacher heard many of her peers at the local university here talk about choosing teaching as a profession because they have a short day and summers off! This speaks volumes about the level of education teachers receive in this neck of the woods. How do we establish a culture of excellence when mediocrity is so endemic? How do we clone our one excellent teacher? And most importantly, how do we support her in her quest for quality?

  4. anthea says:

    Well said Randy. I think Sir Ted Robinson’s new TED presentation about how schools are killing children’s creativity ties to this as well. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

    • rbdancer says:

      Thanks, Anthea! I’m glad you saw what I was trying to say. I should learn to consider a bit longer before pressing “publish.” I was going for a “shoot-from-the-hip” style and I see the drawbacks now.

      Anyway, thanks for the link. I see that creativity-killing (and general beating-down) at work just about every time I step into a school building, and it makes me mad because we have the ability to know and do better. We, as a society, just need to wake the hell up. Hooray for Sir Ken!

  5. Amy D. says:

    Your assumption that veteran teachers are either “some of the worst teachers” or “are intensely dedicated to their students, even if they are incapable of providing a good learning environment for them.” Really? The veteran teachers I know are very dedicated to their students and willing to be lifelong learners so they can develop new skills and learn new things. They are concerned about preparing their students for the 21st centurn workforce and are helping students be more creative, communicative, team-oriented, and self-confident. Your statement that “all of them are just wasting space, money, time, and worst of all, potential of so many children” is a gross generalization which paints a bad picture of the teaching profession overall. I, for one, am proud to be involved in in-service professional development because I have seen the dedication of veteran teachers and the incredible work they do on a daily basis in classrooms.

    • rbdancer says:

      Still learning this blogging syntax. I thought I was replying to your comment, but I seem to have replied to my own post. Anyway, I’m pleased you joined the discussion. Thanks for making me clarify! RB.

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