Poor training for new teachers does permanent harm to students

As principals, we've seen it time and again as we peek inside one of our classrooms — that deer-in-the headlights look. It's not from students' faces. It's from first-year teachers who often seem overwhelmed by the task at hand.

This is a common problem among novice teachers, who come to us with the best of intentions to meet the demands of the classroom and the critical challenge of teaching young minds. But why should this be? A patient would never expect a young doctor to quiver during an office visit. Yet so often, we see young teachers appear incapable of managing a classroom, through their own lack of subject knowledge or their inability to control behavior.

The teacher's fault? We don't think so. In large measure, our new teachers are eager to make a difference in shaping young lives. Theirs in an important and honorable pursuit, and they join us with every expectation of succeeding.

Rather, we believe the problem lies elsewhere — in the preparation our first-year teachers receive from their college and university education programs. From what we see in our classrooms, there is a growing disconnect between what their programs do and the actual skills and knowledge aspiring teachers need to flourish from Day One. While we believe that educational institutions that prepare our teachers have good intentions, their methods are based on a passé model.

As it turns out, the first-year teachers we see here in Baltimore are not so different from their peers across the country. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality examined teacher preparation programs at 1,100 colleges and universities and found that almost 4 in 5, a full 78 percent of them, were evaluated as mediocre at best. Less than 5 percent of all programs earn three stars or more.

There are quite a few consequences of that. An area in which we see first-year teachers struggle the most is behavior management. Many do not know how to create an environment conducive to learning, and as every teacher comes to know eventually, no learning can take place in a disrupted classroom.

We also see teachers who may know facts and figures but can't make them relevant because they lack context. In other words, they have the requisite knowledge to teach the "what, where and when" but not the "why and how."

These issues come into sharper focus in student populations like ours as they become more diverse in ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. New teachers, as never before, need to understand these differences to make their lesson plans relevant to all their students; facts without relevancy are often forgotten.

These shortcomings are passed on to schools and school districts that can ill afford for a full-time teacher to fail. More and more, administrators are pressed to expand the support and coaching we offer new teachers in the hope and expectation that they will overcome their early wobbling to grow into effective instructors. These extra steps are critical in large, urban districts like ours, where children may not always get adequate educational support from their parents.

In many cases, teachers respond positively to the additional training and become more effective in their second year; but too many burn out and leave the profession, forcing districts to go shopping yet again for a replacement.

The ultimate burden of all this is borne by our students. As teachers struggle, students suffer. They are deprived of promised knowledge. Worse, a student's learning gap created in that teacher's first year only widens in the years that follow.

So much of this could be mitigated if teaching preparation programs were more closely aligned with the challenges and demands of the modern classroom. We were heartened to see that the NCTQ report included recommendations for improvement, one of which is to make the student-teaching experience more meaningful: Every aspiring teacher should be placed only with an effective teacher and for much longer periods than they spend now (generally about eight weeks).

We are confident that our colleges and universities will look seriously at the concerns raised by the NCTQ report and listen to the concerns raised by school leaders to make the necessary adjustments to their teacher preparation programs.

It's easier to sustain a quality education with teachers who have graduated from quality preparation programs, and our city needs the best teachers we can hire. Mediocrity doesn't do it; we need excellence. Our teachers owe to the students in their classrooms; prep programs owe it to the students in theirs.

Alisha Trusty is the principal at Western High School and Rhonda Richetta is the principal at City Springs Elementary/Middle; both are Baltimore City public schools. Their email addresses are atrusty@bcps.k12.md.us and rrichetta@bcps.k12.md.us.

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