Pity the poorly prepared teacher

An opinion piece I read back in the World Before Covid about teachers buying lesson plans on the Teachers Pay Teachers website,  got me thinking about a topic that the author didn’t address: teacher preparation.

header from Education Week article
The title tells Tipton’s position

Author Kat Tipton argues that when she was hired as a first grade teacher, her school didn’t provide her with curriculum and fellow teachers who shared theirs didn’t have time to discuss them with her or for her to observe their teaching.

“I was in over my head and had no idea what I was doing,” Tipton wrote.

Whatever one’s stance on teachers selling their lesson plans (I personally agree with the US Copyright office about sales of works made for hire), it is certainly worth inquiring what Tipton’s undergraduate preparation involved that she was shocked to find she was expected to prepare her own materials.

Did she think her college education profs were following curricula someone had handed to them?

My guess is that she entered teaching after completing a bachelor’s program in elementary education, which presumably would have included student teaching. I spent a week observing in an elementary school classroom before deciding elementary teaching wasn’t for me—people who choose to do that qualify either for sainthood or the psych ward—but that week was enough for me to realize the teachers are on their own.

Didn’t Tipton have to prepare lesson plans when she did student teaching?

When I went for a MACT in the humanities, although I had done my undergrad work in psychology, I was offered a teaching assistantship in my university’s English department. All the other TAs had English education backgrounds; some had been teaching English in public schools for years. We weren’t given a curriculum or even textbooks. The course description in the college catalog was considered adequate direction.

When I started working online with ELA teachers in 2008, the majority who visited my website were teachers with 15 or more years’ experience. They had exhausted themselves looking for materials that worked, but they at least had had materials to use.

I wonder if newly-fledged junior-high and high school English teachers are, like Tipton, over their heads and without any idea what they are doing when facing an ordinary, bricks-and-mortar classroom.

I’m not sure I want to know what the newly-credentialed teacher faces in the fall of 2020 when classroom teaching seems a distant memory.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Today’s educator needs a broad repertoire

In a design thinking course just wrapping up, I ran across the term repertoire used in a way that was new to me.

I’m used to seeing the term used to refer to the musical pieces a performer is prepared to play or to the whole catalog of music of a particular type. Less often, I’ve seen repertoire applied to the set of skills needed in a particular field.

In “Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector,” offered on Coursera by the University of Virginia, repertoire was used to refer to an individual’s set of life experiences.

Repertoire includes one’s educational background and work experience, but it’s not a CV. It’s actually a description of the mindset and skill sets a person can bring to a complex problem.

I’ve been thinking about repertoire in this sense for a long time, but I didn’t know that’s what I was thinking about.  (I also recently discovered that I’ve been using single-point rubrics for a half century and didn’t know that either. Shades of M. Jourdain.)

The broader the person’s repertoire, the better equipped someone is to work in an unstable world.  We certainly live in an unstable world.

Ignore (if you can) political instability.

Think about the changes that are happening in the world economy with the increasing deployment of artificial intelligence and robots taking over many repetitive jobs.

Think about the technology that’s increasingly used in education — technology that’s been invented since this year’s high school graduates started kindergarten.

Narrow, specialized experiences don’t help people — or their institutions — cope with an unstable, uncertain environment. A narrow range of life experiences leaves people vulnerable when the world around them changes.

Even more frightening is that when someone with a narrow range of life experiences teaches, that person transmits their narrow mindset to the students they teach.

It concerns me when I read local teachers’ autobiographies and don’t see any of them mention working anywhere other than education. Do they not have work experience outside education or do they have such experience and not value it?

If they don’t have, or don’t value, work outside schools, how will those people be able to teach students to work in a world where every three-to-four years they need to re-skill for a new occupation?

What about you?

Do you have a repertoire that will enable you to survive in the next 30 uncertain years?

Do you have a repertoire that will allow you to teach students to survive in the next 60 years?



A response to “How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals”

Robert Pondiscio’s article “How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals” caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.”

photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.)

In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice.

I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much.

I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is “making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design.”

What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students.

The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck.

The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards.

Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is ” like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before.”

That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals.

The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management.

The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional.

(That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally.

It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards.

Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning.

I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff.

I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.)

I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest.

If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering.

Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.