Some disclosures: Most of my certification program was in secondary education grades 9-12 English. I took two courses over a summer which gave me a 6-8 certification on top of that. Most of my course work was for my English B.A. with a handful of classes centered specifically around education. I did not take any elementary-geared courses. I received a 3.4 on my edTPA, but it was in the years before it actually counted for graduation. (I include that to show I gained a lot from my education prep classes.)
I taught in Chicago’s “Little Village” neighborhood for two years in an 8th grade classroom with a majority Hispanic population, nearly 100% low-income population, and an English as a Second Language population that hovered just above 35%. I now teach on the North Side of the city. Also, I continue to write switching the first person and second person, and with much more authority than I have; both are habits which I definitely need to break.
I write this list not to disparage any specific program or university or even “school of thought”; many of these things could have changed in the years since I graduated, and different schools teach things differently. I consulted no education students currently in college before writing this. I write this as a jumping off point to start a dialogue, or simply reflect on my experiences to answer a question I was personally asked.
1.) Teaching Phonics On Top of Literature
This one is ELA specific, so I’m including it as the first one so those who are math or science inclined can skip ahead. I was unprepared for the level of reading instruction I would be giving in an 8th grade setting. I went in expecting to teach symbolism or mood and instead quickly realized I needed to teach actual reading strategies. Looking at word endings, using punctuation to guide inflection…etc. Some students needed to be taught the “ch” sound, that level of phonetic instruction, 8th graders! I had to go and learn these strategies myself and I spent many, many days of my first year pouring through elementary texts to start back at the basics. I realize that I was in a secondary/high school program, but maybe even an idea of how to teach that would have put me miles ahead in my first year rather than spending the entire time catching up. (I still don’t feel caught up, if I’m being perfectly honest.) The idea that I could have 8th grade students at a kindergarten reading level had never occurred to me.
2.) A More Realistic Sense of Differentiation (both for Diverse Learners and ELL)
What differentiation looked like in my college courses does not even compare to what it looks like in my actual day-to-day life. College classes tend to focus too much on content differentiation rather than actual task differentiation. It’s an important distinction. “They can use an audiobook instead of printed text,” is a good place to start, but how will that help students who don’t even understand English? College gives you a chance to write out differentiation lessons that are on a perfect bell curve where most of your students are at grade level and you have 3-4 that are a teeny-bit below grade level that “just need that boost.” In my experience, this is unrealistic. You will have students drastically below grade level that you will need to account for. Wrapping your head around teaching symbolism to a student who struggles to even write a complete sentence is a challenge, but one that should be dealt with in college, not first day on the job.
The WIDA standards would have also been helpful to learn about in my secondary classes to understand how to properly instruct and assess English Language Learner (ELL) students. The “Can-Do Descriptors” were particularly helpful for task differentiation and what final products I should expect from my ELL’s, even though I do not speak the language. Regardless of what grade or content you plan on teaching, I would take a look at those resources online.
3.) A Co-Teaching Model
My education courses went over how to read an IEP and how to address those goals, something of which I am grateful for, however when it comes to addressing those goals with another teacher in the room? That’s a different story. I have one class this year labeled my “inclusion” class, due to the fact that the district has so few special education teachers, they essentially have to put every student who is not self-contained to their own classroom into one class. Granted I have only taught for two years, but working and collaborating with another teacher is not something you can just walk in and be able to do. There are multiple models for this and, while they were briefly discussed, I don’t remember devoting any sort of real time in my classes as to how a co-teaching model was supposed to work in a classroom. I did not take any special education classes, and maybe that was my mistake. There was no practical applications, there was no practice. Again, it required a lot of outside research/reading and attempting to work with a colleague, who had their own ideas of what a co-taught classroom looked like.
4.) Teaching as a Political Profession
I write this knowing full well that there’s no functional way to assess this in a college syllabus. I felt unprepared for things like union dues and strike votes and rallies. Many times my first year I kept thinking “can’t I just teach?” But our job, due to its very nature in the public sector, is political. Perhaps professors don’t want to discourage students from continuing through the education program, or maybe they’re unaware (which is highly unlikely.)
However, there are also issues on a smaller scale, such as dates that principals are supposed to adhere to for observations, or ways for you to appeal certain ratings or observation decisions, or maternity leave rules. What to do if a parent disagrees with a book choice for a class? What rights do teachers have inside the classroom (and out?) The various evaluation systems are not set up for teachers’ benefit in most cases. On top of all that, what does the Danielson Framework even look like? What does the evaluation/rating system for teachers look like? Those rubrics are free and publicly available and yet I never saw one until my first observation. The knowledge that part of this profession is occasionally defending yourself would have been nice going in.
You end up doing so much curriculum and instruction work that it’s very easy to get tunnel-vision and forget that teaching is an inherently political profession, and sometimes you will need to be prepared to research your union’s bylaws and what your due process looks like so you do not get steamrolled. What I always say is “I love everything about teaching on the inside of the classroom door, everything outside that door is not always so enjoyable.”
5.) Test Prep Curriculum
In line with the politics of the profession of teaching, I started my career having no idea that a major part of my curriculum (especially in the spring) was exclusively test preparation. (Sometimes called “test sophistication.”) Professors tell us that we have the power to change a child’s life with “The Great Gatsby,” which is true, but then you’re assigned a month of ACT/NWEA/PARCC Prep, what do you do? Planning an example unit or even set of weekly lesson plans aligned/centered around preparing students for standardized testing would have been incredibly helpful. On its face, it sounds easier than it is, but realizing that there is so much riding on these tests can cause even the best lesson-planning minds to short-circuit. Ideally, you would be doing “test-prep” stuff throughout the entire year, but where do analogies fit in a reading workshop model, for example?
This all gets compounded with the general belief that standardized testing doesn’t accurately measure student growth or intelligence. Again, I file this in the “professors not wanting to discourage students” folder. “Teaching to the test” is a generally bad idea, yes, and that value was heavily instilled in my courses. But, it’s a reality of the profession that, at some point, you will have to teach test prep, and I spent my first year running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to track down resources because it caught me so off-guard.
6.) Progress Monitoring/Data Tracking
Perhaps this just wasn’t addressed in secondary education courses, but I did not encounter the idea of progress monitoring students until I entered the profession. Secondly, this is an area where I wished I had even the slightest bit of exposure; obviously I’m not expecting to have been an expert my first year. I was taught the framework of “rubrics and letter grades” rather than “skills tracking” and getting past that mindset is something that I am still struggling with. You are going to have to complete intervention plans and accommodations and generally tracking a metric boatload of information on your students. Even learning how to read score reports (in my case it’s NWEA/MAP) would have been helpful.
Being given a model for what that progress monitoring looks like, even a flimsy Google Sheet would have drastically improved how I began this process. This is something that was not addressed at all in my preparatory classes, and I really wish it had. Data tracking is becoming more and more important as more schools are moving to a SBG (Standards Based Grading) model where the assignment is the standard and remains stagnant and the percentage changes around it. You have to have a way to track how many assignments a student has been given and what percentages equal out to that grade. You do not want to get pulled into a meeting asking about a student when they ask for all of your data, and you have nothing but a class average. Preparing education students in college for that level of paperwork and data analysis is important.
7.) The SAMR Model
This was something that I did not discover until early this year, and it’s something that I hope college classes are starting to integrate with their curriculum. Pre-service teachers need to have the idea that kids taking a Google Form quiz rather than a pen-and-paper quiz is not inherently using technology in the classroom to its fullest potential. I had professors who used a few interesting tools, such as Prezi or PollEverywhere, and I loved integrating that into my classroom, but there was little discussion on how to make students “content creators” over just rehashing or repeating information. “Students will be able to create a powerpoint” is where the technology portion would end on college lesson plans, and that was acceptable.
Perhaps this is just a question of values within me, and not everyone is as comfortable with using technology as I am in my classroom. However, could you imagine the much cooler our students’ final products could be and how much deeper their knowledge and representation of their knowledge could be if we had them create new information with their studies over repeating things or answering multiple choice questions? I’m just now getting started with that thinking process in my planning for students, but asking a pre-service teacher “so what level of tech integration is that?” could improve how they use the technology in their classrooms. Sure, it wouldn’t be perfect right away but, yet again, asking those questions in college can help teachers enter the profession with a little bit more guidance and be a little bit more knowledgeable moving forward.
8.) Social-Emotional Learning/Trauma
I did take an Educational Psychology class that went over Maslow’s hierarchy. However, going over Maslow’s hierarchy is not where this piece of instruction should end. Pre-service teachers need to receive training in handling students who have witnessed, or otherwise been involved with a heavy amount of trauma in their lives. I did not even hear the word “trauma” used with regards to student experiences until my first day or orientation for my district.
Often in college classes, students who were dealing with trauma such as deportation of relatives, gang-related violence, abuse, hunger, homelessness, or a multitude of other horrible examples are used as an anecdotal one-off. The professor makes a comment about a student they had and what they did and that you should be aware of those students in your class. You nod and some people even give an empathetic “aww,”…and then everyone moves on without discussing real-life applications or how to help these students.
Classroom management strategies such as having smooth, easily recognized transitions, or giving students a way out of the room if their “fight or flight” instinct gets engaged are things I learned later than I should have. I regret not building those things into my first year for some students who were struggling a lot. I wish my classes had focused on some practical application, rather than just making me aware of that segment of my student population. Being cognizant is great, actually working through it it would have been better.
9.) Ease Up on the Lesson Plans
This is actually an area where I think colleges could pull back a little bit. I have seen nightmare templates that are 10-15 pages long. The lesson plans I created in college were pristine and perfectly aligned and beautiful (according to Pearson’s edTPA standards.) They were also complete garbage when it came to my real classroom years later.
Asking education majors to create lesson plans should be about asking them the right questions, not more questions. Loading up a template with models and standards and what level of GRR and DOK can leave a pre-service teacher saying WTF? I argue that a more utilitarian approach would have better prepared me for my actual teaching experience. Professors can argue that they want to over-prepare you, but ultimately it becomes an exercise in cramming unnecessary and unrealistic goals and lessons onto a piece of paper. It took me months into student teaching to figure out just how much I could do in a class period because I was so used to creating these exorbitant lesson plans that ultimately weren’t meeting the needs of my students. Another aspect to consider is creating a template or model that pre-service teachers can work on every single day. If the model is gigantic, it creates this false pressure that every single lesson plan has to be like that, which is at best unrealistic and at worst, harmful. I wish people who asked me to create lesson plans asked me to focus on one aspect to see if I had done it correctly.
10.) Classroom Management
I think if you surveyed 100 teachers on “what do you wish your college classes had prepared you for?” 95 of them would say classroom management. This is something else that I have no idea how a college-level course would actually assess for, and I am open to suggestions. Some teachers may assign books on the topic with required chapter summaries, which is a good step. Some classes may show videos of different classrooms, or require comments during clinical observations, which is a good step as well. Beyond practicing role-playing scenarios, which I would have hated in college so I can’t exactly advocate for them now, I struggle with the assessment portion.
However, in the classes I had, classroom management seemed to be built on two principles: 1.) that your management system was its own universe, not beholden to any outside force (such as administrators) and 2.) “Love and Logic” was magic. Student teaching is for honing your management style. I would argue that’s almost more important than proving you can teach content, (but that’s a different post.) When you enter a building, you need to understand the proverbial rules of the road, or else your management style with conflict with administrators and it will undercut your authority in the first two months. College did not address this possibility. Additionally, “Love and Logic” can works wonders, but it’s not a one-size fits all situation, for individual teachers or students. Needless to say, I entered student teaching so well prepared to teach content and so woefully unprepared to help students. It’s something that I’m still working on to this day, but I wish I had been provided a little more structure or different management models before diving headfirst into my own classroom
Gladly Learning and Teaching
Despite what this list says, I was very happy with the teacher preparation I received in college. I was taught not always to have the right answer, but where to find the right answer (by joining professional groups such as IATE or NCTE.) I worked under individuals who could ignite a room with their passion for education, and it was obvious. I left with a foundation that I still rely on, even when particulars and specifics might fail me. I struggled and succeeded with peers who I consider to be some of the best, and who are truly called for it.
The face of education is an ever-changing one, and those who foster the new generation of teachers have to adapt and adapt quickly. It’s unacceptable to ask colleges to create fully-fledged and perfect teachers because we are not technicians who follow Step A-Z to get the same result. Ultimately, teaching is an art and a craft, which means inherently some of it has to be trial-and-error, learn as you go; this is the nature of the beast. The biggest thing that college taught me was to admit when I’ve made a mistake, brush myself off, and try again the next day for the betterment of my students.