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Myths behind the blackboard

How should teachers be prepared for today's schools? It's more than knowing your subject and doing what comes natural.

By Sam Dietz, Dean, School of Education

The best way to raise student achievement in Texas is to ensure that excellent teachers are available for every child. Disagreement and controversy come from suggestions on how to achieve that goal. As a dean of education, I hear questions from many sources about how teachers are prepared.

Embedded in those questions is a set of common and persistent myths about teaching and about the effectiveness of colleges of education. We need to clarify these myths or it is likely that suggestions for improvement could detract from the goal of providing excellent teachers for our children.

MYTH #1: Teachers are born, not made. Many people believe that anyone can teach. After all, they say, "Isn't teaching just mostly common sense? While a few individuals are "born teachers, most great teachers have worked very hard to acquire and master their skills.

Expert instruction for 25 to 30 children of varying abilities and backgrounds is an
impressive feat that can take years to learn and perfect. Teachers who know how to teach do far more than help students learn. They know how and when to be directive and how and when to allow students to discover. They know how to make children active participants in the learning process without allowing them to flounder without knowledge.

These artful manipulations of a subject rarely come naturally. Imagine teaching 30 children, each with different abilities and backgrounds to read, or learn history or understand algebra. You must ensure individualized instruction and, in the case of reading, you must balance such issues as when and for whom to use phonics and when to move toward whole language.

Consider the problem of establishing a classroom in which children not only learn academic skills, they also learn to behave well. Ernest Boyer said that children should learn to be "honest, respectful, responsible, compassionate, self-disciplined, persevering and giving.
These are important abilities and they are very difficult to learn. Building these traits and
skills requires that teachers make school a positive environment -- an oasis in the midst of what might be difficult home or community conditions.

This is most often not the result of "doing what comes naturally, and it may even be the opposite. Teachers need to learn to suppress criticism, harsh tones, and other forms of punishment. They need to stress what is positive to help a child learn how to behave well. In academics as well as in skills of character, common sense alone cannot prepare a teacher to accomplish these difficult tasks.

MYTH #2: Teachers only need to know their subject. The most common current myth is the belief that anyone with a high level of knowledge in a subject area will be an excellent teacher of that subject. There is no question that a skilled teacher requires strong knowledge of their subject.

The Education Commission of the States recently released a report supporting strong subject matter knowledge. They added, however, that, in addition to knowing content, knowing how to teach that content is important. In other words, there is more to teaching than knowing your subject.

It is common to "blame the victim. If students fail, it is said to be the fault of the student -- they did not work hard enough or pay enough attention. Teachers who do not understand the complexities of teaching might even say, "I taught my students, but they did not learn.

But a superior teacher knows that if a student has not learned, a teacher has not taught. Excellent teachers take responsibility for student learning and effective teaching can only be achieved through a combination of effective teaching skills and expertise in a subject.

Teacher preparation programs in Texas already ensure that all prospective teachers know their subject well. More courses in a subject than ever before are required in teacher education. But colleges of education offer their students so much more. If we believe that teachers only need to know their subject, we will produce a generation of teachers who lack the essential skills of effective practice and the children of Texas will suffer.

MYTH #3: Colleges of education do not prepare teachers well. It is popular these days to criticize university teacher preparation programs. Many of the criticisms may have been true in the past but they are not true today.

Changes in colleges of education -- and Texas is a leading state in the nation -- have been so widespread that their actions far exceed their reputations. Teachers graduating from Texas colleges today are better prepared than they were even five years ago. Subject expertise, teaching skill, knowledge of technology, and pre-service practice in schools are higher today than ever before.

To be a fully qualified teacher in Texas, there is much you need to know. Jane Conoley, dean of education at Texas A&M University, said crucial educational methods include the use of, "teaching strategies and technologies, knowledge of how children learn and develop, skills in working with students from diverse backgrounds, skills in working with parents and collaborating with colleagues, Teachers must also be able to assess the students’ level of learning to improve performance.

University-based teacher education programs do even more. They include extensive field-based practice over several years. When teachers graduate they have experience in a wide variety of schools with children from many different backgrounds, skills and abilities. These new teachers make an impact on the success of our children.

Thoroughly prepared teachers are most important for low-income students, the group with the highest dropout rates in the United States. These children often come to school less well prepared than students from middle and upper class backgrounds.

Says Conoley: "National research is beginning to appear that is unambiguous. Low income, minority students make 20 percent more academic gains per year when taught by fully certified teachers from university programs. In other words, the children who need the most support benefit the most from fully prepared teachers. Contrast this finding with Texas data that show that the preponderance of under-certified personnel are located in low income, highly diverse schools.

Not only do colleges of education prepare excellent teachers, they may be the only place where teachers are prepared with the comprehensive set of subject matter skills and teaching knowledge that allow them to be successful with the many different children they encounter each year.

A recent poll conducted by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education in Washington, D.C., found that lawmakers expect "high quality teacher preparation programs that emphasize the realities of the classroom, the development of content knowledge, and an understanding of the diverse students teachers will teach.

I am proud that those are already the guiding principles of the teacher education programs at TCU. I am confident that they are also the principles that support other colleges of education in both public and private Texas universities.

Great teachers are made not born. They know teaching methods as well as content and they make a difference with our children. These successes show how very much we need to demand and invest in strong, effective colleges of education.

If our state and local leaders look toward establishing this support and avoid making policy based on these myths, Texas can take the next major step toward ensuring that all our children in all our schools are well served by excellent teachers.

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