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We Can Teach Teachers Better

Pro-D workshops aren't enough. It takes expert mentoring, teamwork and sweat. Fifth in a Tyee reader-funded series.

By Nick Smith 16 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Nick Smith is a veteran public school teacher who lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. This series was made possible by those readers who gave to the Tyee funds for Investigative and Solutions Reporting. Donations are tax deductible and you can find out more about the Tyee Fellowship Funds here.

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UBC's Kit Grauer: 'Sponsor teachers' are key. Photo by Christopher Grabowski.

Because I'm a teacher, people often tell me about their school years. They never mention the state of the equipment, course selection or educational policy at the time. They want to talk about their teachers: the approachable art teacher who did the graffiti project, or the primary teacher who held the year-end party at her house. Anyone with a good education likely has stories to tell of the teachers who made that happen.

Although we like to think of our most beloved teachers as naturals at their trade, truth is, effective teachers are well-trained. Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond confirms this. "Teachers who have the best effect on student learning are well trained in educational methods". And, "the most effective teachers have had the most recent training with opportunities for ongoing professional development."

Pretty straightforward. Train teachers well, then make sure that they stay on top of their game.

Nevertheless, this is not always as easy as it sounds. Teacher training is complex; it involves a lot of steps with a host of dynamics to be taken into account. Simply put, there are just so many places for things to go wrong, from lousy practicum placements, to the isolation of the first job, right through not having enough time to keep up with best practices because that stack of papers ain't marking itself. In order to see how things do go right, it might be worth backing up to see how the whole system hangs in balance.

Why old ways win out

Our teacher education programs are great for creating a stable system with high standards, yet it is this strength that we struggle against if we are to embark on a path of school reform that allows for flexibility and innovation. Using the methods to teach the methods creates a closed loop. It is like the proverbial axe that is used to carve a new axe handle, using the old one as a model. The challenge is to create new tools using the old ones, with no pattern near at hand.

I recently discussed this conundrum with Dr. Kit Grauer, a UBC education professor who has placed many student teachers in my classes. We both agree that the universities are teaching the latest and best methods to a crew of highly skilled, intelligent young people. Once they get into the schools, however, they rarely find newer methods enacted. Grauer articulates, "It is a huge problem, the divide between practicum and school enculturation which goes against the most progressive ideas in education." No matter what is taught on campus, pre-service teachers, "trust the experience of the school," she admits.

In all likelihood, student teachers also wake up to the fact that innovative teaching is a lot of work. Reading the chapter aloud then assigning the questions is a whole lot easier than having students collaborate on dynamic projects that require them to personally relate to a topic. It is also less effort to just do what your sponsor teacher would have done, instead of challenging trusted methods with the new-fangled ones coming down from some professors on the hill.

Rather than making waves by swimming against the current, student teachers wisely invest their efforts into getting along with the sponsor teacher. "All the research indicates that the number one factor influencing the outcome of a teacher's training is the relationship with the sponsor teacher," Grauer tells me. "That is key."

Let's train master mentors

In recognizing this vital point in teacher preparation, Grauer puts effort into developing long term relationships with teachers with whom she knows she would like to place practicum students. In doing so, she is an exception whose example should be followed.

Aside from fostering connections with exemplary teachers, universities might do well to train them in mentoring methods. Between SFU and UBC, I have now sponsored 14 student teachers, but never have I been offered anything resembling training in how to improve in my ability to mentor a pre-service teacher, nor have I been evaluated on my capacity to do so, a serious shortcoming if you are asking. I suppose that there is an assumption that if you can teach, you can teach how to teach, but I am not so sure about that.

Not long after my conversation with Dr. Grauer, I was reading an article about the miracles accomplished in Finnish schools, when a detail piqued my interest. The article discusses a "model campus" for children aged seven through 15, "which is run like a teaching hospital," where instructors can view student teachers "from the sidelines" as they help pupils. The benefits of such a system seem immediately apparent. University professors could concentrate their attention on developing long term relationships with just a few schools where all teachers could be trained in mentoring student teachers. Models of best practices could be fully implemented at schools where teachers are trained, breaking the cycle of passing down outdated methods.

Such a system might also help with the serious attrition in teachers' ranks we see in B.C. According to Mike Lombardi of the British Columbia Teachers Federation, up to 20 per cent of teachers leave the profession before getting their careers underway, in part due to "ineffective induction and mentoring programs." By starting teachers off in a culture of collaboration, we might help to break the myth within teaching culture that the best and strongest survive. The truth is that we just might be losing our most sensitive and thoughtful individuals while retaining those who have figured out how to cut corners just to get through the day.

Someone to share ideas

Twenty years ago, the Royal Commission on Education led by Barry Sullivan published A Legacy for Learners, a report that sought to draw a bead on where B.C's public schooling should be in the 21st century. Among the report's recommendations: that every new teacher be teamed with a mentor for at least a year. Personally, I could have benefited if I had been assigned a veteran with which to team-teach one of my tougher classes. I also could have used someone with good eyes and seasoned judgment to come regularly into my other classes to observe and report on how I was working. If the mentoring relationship just meant that I had had someone with whom to discuss teaching, it would have been life-saving.

Despite chiding one another for "shop-talk" in the lunch room, teachers huddled around the coffee urn on a professional day appear to like talking about education. I find that the standard model of professional development, that of the lecture or workshop, doesn't allow enough time for teachers to talk. Instead, we convene at a school or conference centre, jam into an auditorium for an expert-led keynote address, then file off to the smaller workshops, which tend to be headed by imported authorities. Often, the most interesting part of the day is comprised of the discussions with colleagues during coffee break.

Workshops that don't work

Fred Jones, an American psychologist who trains teachers in classroom management and instructional techniques, has always received accolades for his professional development workshops. One day he decided to find out how his ideas were making their way into classrooms. They weren't. He decided to narrow his research down to only those teachers who had rated his workshops as outstanding on the forms he had provided, but still found that, months after taking his workshop, less than one per cent of these teachers had used his methods.

Other researchers have had similar findings. Deborah Butler of UBC found that not only did the workshop model lead to "shallow implementation of principles" in the classroom, but that of the few teachers who did incorporate methods learned during workshops, "there was little sustained use of innovations, even when they seemed to be working."

Really effective Pro-D isn't as appealing as a nicely packaged conference. It doesn't come with brochures, big name speakers and trays of melon and strawberries at break. Instead, it is as messy and sweaty as real life, usually carried out in a classroom after everyone is already tired from teaching all day, organized by a committed group of teachers who already have a good idea of what it is that they want to learn. It is a lot of hard work, and it requires you to put yourself out there a bit.

In order to get his methods in action in classrooms, Fred Jones researched what it would take. He designed a series of facilitator-led sessions, complete with videos and workbooks, which I took part in, putting in over 40 hours with my cohort in after-school sessions. We spent our time enacting his instructional and discipline techniques upon one another, then all agreed to try them in our classrooms before regrouping and reflecting at the next session. By the end of the series, all seven of us were using the strategies in our teaching practices every day.

Creating a 'community of practice'

At the leading edge of professional development is the "community of practice," which is "an intellectual group of people who share goals, and who plan, enact and reflect together," according to Nancy Perry of UBC. Collectively, they find out what the research on their topic says, try out the suggested methods in their classrooms, reflect with the group, then work on improvement. Descriptions of this form of professional development can sound more like therapy, when someone such as Cathy Luna speaks of teachers seeing "the everyday through new lenses," and "accepting themselves as experts capable of inquiry." Some teachers involved in a community of practice will go so far as to conduct research in their own classrooms, collecting data, then analyzing the results, in a process known as "action research."

One Vancouver teacher, involved in a community of practice-based action research project facilitated by UBC education researchers, stated in her final report, "Participating in action research was the richest form of professional development that I have experienced in my career. It has given me the opportunity and time to examine, study and reflect upon my own teaching practices."

SFU has adopted a similar model for its Teaching and Learning in Information Technology Environments program. In TLITE, a teacher-mentor leads a cohort of teachers who seek to become more proficient with educational technology. I noticed an ex-colleague of mine, Christopher Rozitis, listed as a mentor, so I gave him a call.

He tells me that when he meets with his group of seven educators monthly, they discuss readings and assignments, but since all of their work is self-directed, he does not lead or instruct them in any way. "I say 'Go use it and tell me how it worked and how it didn't work.' I talk to them, but it is not my job to present curriculum."

'Easy stuff, right?'

Rozitis confides that some teachers are surprised at how the program operates. "They come in here thinking 'I am going to listen to the lectures and do the assignments. Easy stuff, right? But then it's 'Oh, no. Now I've got to think and come up with my own projects. But in the end they come out as better teachers who think about their practice."

He tells me that TLITE encourages teachers to work together on projects of mutual interest. It is this atmosphere of inquiry, collaboration and reflection that make for such a strong program. So strong, in fact, that TLITE has announced that it is taking a one-year hiatus from accepting new applications so that they can catch up with the number currently registered.

I like to think that B.C.'s students deserve the best teachers that we can provide. I know deep down that we could give aspiring teachers a much higher quality experience than I was given and than they are being offered now. If we treat these emerging educators as intellectual professionals in need of a supportive community, we might just hold on to the most promising individuals throughout their careers. There are no further academic studies needed to do this, nor any bags of cash, just the political will to roll up our sleeves and do the good work: We pick a place to start, inquire, enact, evaluate, reflect, then go back and do some more.

On Friday, last in this series: Time for learning: How the clock is used or abused when it comes to trying to teach well.

Related Tyee stories:

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