I am of the opinion that most teacher education programs in the United States (and probably elsewhere, as well) do a fairly poor job of actually preparing teachers to teach. My main complaint is that the transition from student to teacher happens too abruptly, with not nearly enough practical experience in the classroom. This happens in part because state certification agencies do not require such experience, and teacher education programs are designed to meet state standards.
The program through which I received my teaching credentials is a good example. A bachelor’s student wishing to minor in education is required to take around 30-36 credit hours (10-12 semester long classes). An education major requires perhaps another 9-15 credit hours. In all of that course work, the aspiring teacher is only required to spend around 40-50 hours in the classroom before their student teaching commences. Most of those hours are spent observing a veteran teacher work, and fulfilling the role of an aide or assistant in the classroom. In fact, the student teacher is only required to write and teach five lessons to actual students before completion of the program.
At the end of the program, students are required to complete a semester of student teaching. However, in the program that I completed, the student teacher is only required to be in total control of the classroom for a grand total of four weeks. The rest of the 14 week semester is spent performing the duties of an aide, and perhaps slowly building up responsibilities while the veteran teacher is still in charge. Even if the entire 14 week period were spent with the student teacher in charge, this only represents about 400 hours of teaching (14 weeks × 5 days per week × 6 hours per day = 420 hours). Added to the earlier practical experience, this means that newly hired teacher has spent maybe 500 hours in the classroom before they are expected to take on all of the duties of professional teacher.
Compared to other fields, this seems quite low. Consider, for instance, a physician. After graduating from medical school, physicians are required to spend between three and seven years as residents, with more specialized areas of medicine requiring longer residencies. During this time, residents are more or less apprenticed to veteran physicians. They do the work of a physician, but they are monitored and mentored by veterans. Even at a conservative 40 hours per week for only 36 weeks out of the year, a 3 year residency will give a new physician over 4,000 hours of practical experience before they are permitted to work on their own.
Academic researchers face a similar practical requirement. Most undergraduates in the natural sciences (chemistry, biology, physics, &c.) will spend several hours working in a lab every week of their undergraduate lives. Then as graduate students they will be required to complete their own research programs under the tutelage of one or more veteran researchers. The process can take 2-10 years, depending on the program and the nature of research. Even then, many researchers take on post-doctoral positions where they continue to work under the supervision of more experienced faculty. Once again, this translates to thousands of hours of practical experience before the researcher is let loose upon the world.
One of the statistics that was hammered home to us during our education program was that more than half of new teachers leave the profession in their first three years of teaching. With the preparation that new teachers receive (or lack thereof), and the general lack of support for newly hired teachers, I don’t find this surprising. It is my belief that more needs to be done to train new teachers.
There are several places where improvement could be made. Prior to the student teaching experience, it seems that students can and should spend much more time in the classroom. If chemistry and physics students can be required to attend labs 4 hours per week nearly every semester of their undergraduate programs, why can’t student teachers be expected to do the same, and spend four hours in the classroom every week of their program? Even in a fairly modest two year program, this translates to an additional 200 hours of practical experience for new teachers.
Then, in addition to the time spent as a student teacher, better and more comprehensive mentoring can and should be a part of a new teacher’s first several years of teaching. Instead of throwing teachers into the deep end, match them with one or more veteran teachers who are teaching (or have taught) the classes the new teacher is being asked to teach. This has the potential to relieve the new teacher of some of the planning load, and give him or her more time to focus on classroom management and instruction. It also gives the new teacher more structured access to teaching resources—something that can take veteran teachers many years to accumulate and grow comfortable using.
Of course, many new teachers find themselves at schools with faculties that are very supportive, and provide much of the mentorship outlined above. Unfortunately, this is largely up to the luck of the draw. A more formalized and structured system can and should exist to help ease new teachers into the profession.
Additionally, there is little financial support for aspiring teachers. For instance, student teaching not only does not pay a wage, it costs money in most places. However, unlike physicians, teachers can’t expect to make a great deal of money once employed. It can be difficult to get loans, and once loans are acquired, they can be difficult to pay off. There are some very good financial options for new teachers, but they are far from universal. This leads to many student teachers working 40 hour weeks in addition to their classroom and planning duties. This is neither healthy or sustainable in the long term. Why not treat student teaching as more of an apprenticeship, and pay student teachers a modest wage?
And, of course, there are other possible improvements that can be made—I don’t claim to have all of the answers. What is clear to me is that primary education should be a priority for any modern civilization. The future of a civilization depends greatly upon its ability to pass knowledge and skills on to its children. While the decisions and actions of teachers may not have the immediate, life-altering consequences that the decisions and actions of physicians have, the ultimate consequences can be just as profound. Teachers are important to our society, and require training commensurate with that importance.