Monday, July 2, 2012

My Problems with My Grad Teacher-Prep Program

Just a brief note. Before actually writing this post, I actually begin a post about my graduate teacher prep program, but I never finished it. This first part is the beginning of the original, unfinished post. This was written in November 2011.

This is just my opinion. While I'm all about research and data (and those who know me well can attest to this), opinion (or "first-hand accounts") are not useless to researchers. In this spirit, I write!

My problems with graduate school are well-documented here on my blog. It is a frequent target of mine whenever I get the fine whines, but it's not because the graduate work is "time-consuming" or "difficult". I can handle both. What I can't handle is "wasteful", which is what this experience has been for me so far.

I'm working on a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in Middle Education Math and Science at a the second largest university here in GA. What all that mumbo jumbo means is that I'm in a graduate-level teacher preparation program, which is unlike the Master of Education, or M.Ed.

Hey! It's the present-version of Ms. Insane writing again! As you read, I wasn't a fan of my graduate program then, and I'm still not a fan now. However, now that I've come to the end of the road, I'll write more in detail about my experience. 

Again, let me note that these are my opinions, as in NOT SUPPORTED BY RESEARCH! If there are certain aspects that are, cool! I would relish reading these pieces, so post links or references.

The root of my problems lie in the following: a lack of focus on the practical, everyday aspects of teaching and probable low entry standards.

Lack of practical, pedagogical knowledge
          I've written about this already here and especially here. Still, to this day, that "Theory and Pedagogy in Middle Childhood Math and Science" course was the biggest waste of time in my post-secondary education career. The saddest part about this course was that it had the largest amount of potential to turn things around. It was a 3-hour class session every week. I would have loved for the first hour to focus on the theory-based readings, and the last two to focus on practical implications and practices from those theories we discussed the first hour. What we got instead was an hour of shooting-the-breeze style whine sessions (which as a teacher, I totally get the need for these) followed by the professor discussing how awesome her own classroom was without telling us why it was so awesome. This was followed by 30 minutes of her discussing the week's topic and then a hurried listing of the 901 readings and reflections that needed to be done on the readings. I was okay with the readings and the reflections. Too bad, we never actually discussed them and how they applied to our teaching philosophies and practices.

          I bring up that "Theory and Pedagogy" course as it was the epitome of the wastefulness in opportunity that I felt throughout my program. The particular program I'm in is built around the idea of having a cohort of preservice teachers taking the same courses together to create a sense of community. We would discuss and make sense of education theories, discuss together how these theories apply to today's society, share and discuss good, research-driven practices, and overall act as each other's soundboards and support system as we developed from pre-service to in-service teachers. Last summer gave use the background in theories. The fall and spring semesters (i.e. the Theory and Pedagogy course along with practicum) was supposed to be about the practical application. I didn't feel that was the case and many of my cohort members/my friends would agree with me to some extent.

          You could classify all of the cohort members as one of the following: a regular preservice teacher, a teaching fellow, or a provisionally-licensed teacher. The teaching fellows were those accepted into a special program that came with a grant, a year-long placement in a classroom in a high-needs school with a mentor teacher, and a high likelihood of having a job in the same school during the next school year. (Note that this teaching fellowship was not the same as the one I did. I came across mine while I was an undergrad, I didn't get a grant...I did land the job though!) The provisionally-licensed teachers were actual teachers without a renewable certificate. However, they varied in experience level. There were pro-licensed teachers with three years of experience and were some with none (me!). The regular preservice teachers were those placed in a regular practicum experience: one semester in one school doing mostly observations with a little bit of teaching at the end plus another semester in (highly likely) another school doing increasingly more teaching. Most of the cohort fell into the "regular preservice teacher" category. 

          No matter our classification, we all had a US, a university superior, our connect to the grad school while we were out in the field and the person who graded our performance through practicum. If you were lucky, you had the same US throughout both semesters. Because you are likely going to change schools (and thus mentor teachers), it would be nice to have some consistency. However, many of us ended up with another US for the next semester. I'll admit that in my case, my second US was miles more engaged and enthusiastic about discussing whatever was on my mind, teaching-wise, than my first one. In fact, I still communicate with her today and will continue to, because she has been an absolute blessing and inspiration to me! However, I don't think that my experience was common. My mentor teacher was also consistent, because I chose her and worked with her everyday. Again, most of my cohort-mates likely didn't have the same experience of having a consistent presence to help them along and support them.

        Yet, this is the whole purpose of student teaching. Whether it is a five-week program or entire graduate program, preservice teachers need a consistent, knowledgeable, and experienced mentor, advisor, or supervisor to help point out what is working, what can be improved, and possible solutions on how to improve. The US, while not as omnipresent as the mentor teacher, is supposedly the "expert" at this. However, I think that we greatly lose out when we switch USs halfway through. This blow wouldn't be anywhere near as damaging if we could keep the same mentor teacher throughout the year. My teaching fellowship before my actual first year of teaching saved my butt. There's something to be said for acting as a "fellow" in a classroom for a full year before doing it yourself. I watched an experienced, awesome mentor teacher at work for an entire year: I watched where she went right, where she stumbled, and how she bounced back. In the mix was me, observing, asking questions, jumping in to help students, and eventually, taking over the wheel. Whenever I did take the wheel, we would debrief about what I did well and what I could do better next time. That experience is how I largely avoided the year one ass-kicking many new teachers get. And to this day, even though my teaching fellowship mentor no longer teaches at my school, I still keep in touch with her. I shudder to think about how crappy of a teacher I would have been without that fellowship. That's not to say that the regular preservice teachers are screwed. In fact, some of them are the hardest-working and most talented out of the entire cohort, and they will do great. However, it would have been nice if our program didn't stack the deck against them.

Note: Many out there are likely thinking, "How did this affect you personally?" The answer is that most of this didn't, because of my mentor teacher and second US. However, at the beginning of the year when I could have used more practical strategies to help my students, I was left hanging by the course that I thought would have been the most helpful and by my US, though her lack of presence was not likely her fault, but the school's for stretching her too thin. 

Probable Low Entry Standards
         I'm going to keep this part short, because as I said in my last post, if you don't have anything nice to say, keep it to yourself. Yet, I feel compelled to say that while most of my fellow cohort members are intelligent and hard-working individuals, too many for my comfort were not. I genuinely felt concerned about these people having their own classroom in the near future, and I still do. For example, there is no excuse  for a future science teacher to not know why we have seasons! There is no reason for thinking that merely showing a Brain Pop video on organelles is sufficient to teaching students about organelles. And yes, knowing that 'b' is a constant in the algebraic equation 'y = mx +b' matters when you teach it! Also, knowing the difference between an "expression" and "equation" matters. Say what you will about TFA, they got the idea of selection right.

        While I am plenty disappointed in my graduate program, they didn't get everything wrong. I do appreciate the courses on educational foundations, theory, and diversity, which you just can't get in a classroom. While it's not something I think about everyday, what I learned in those courses helped me put a lot of what happens in and around my classroom into proper context. Without context, I wouldn't understand many policies and the reasoning behind them nor would I understand the underlying processes at work in many practical ideas. In fact, it is from these theories and ideas from education thinkers around long before us that these practical ideas are born.

        I am grateful for the contacts I have made through my program both personal and professional. I am also grateful that there were online courses available, so that I could continue to teach and learn at the same time. In fact, most of the courses that have been the most enjoyable and helpful to me have been online. Online courses are a blessing to teachers who want to grow professionally without having to sacrifice their classrooms. 

       I don't know whether my problems with my grad school program are school-specific or system-wide. Perhaps, it may have something to do with how I feel teachers are trained (which was a point of discussion in my Research Methods class two weeks ago...I may post my discussions!), because most of my problems are centered around the quintessential in teacher-prep programs, the student-teaching experience. Either way, I'm grateful I'm at the finish line.

Now, what's next? TFA or more grad school?

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