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Teaching for Today - The Making of a Teacher

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Teaching for Today

No one would send doctors to coastal Thailand without first telling them what they might face.

New teachers won't last if they're unprepared for city schools

Watching the horrors of the South Asian tsunami, one wondered: if only certain social structures existed, would this natural disaster have been so devastating? So it goes with urban education, where we face what disaster experts might call a permanent emergency. Some education schools still argue that when learning activities are strong enough, classroom management is a non-issue. Some scholars envision political and economic solutions for our segregated, under-resourced schools. Yet the classroom teacher is left with one certainty: disasters will happen.  

The success of the Peace Corps Fellows Program at Teachers College, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, is all about recognizing that certainty. The program recruits returned Peace Corps Volunteers to teach in high-poverty New York City public schools. During their intensive 15-week summer training, Fellows spend at least 50 hours observing effective teaching in these schools, and in September, they begin teaching in them full-time while taking other courses in the evening.
 
All of the principals we serve tell us that our Fellows perform as well as other first-year teachers, and half indicate they do "much better." Perhaps this is because our Fellows seek a calling rather than a two-year stint--but perhaps it is also because of how we train them.

Our sustained impact on educational equity, which includes more than 600 alumni placed in city schools, results directly from our providing an urban classroom "reality check." Our faculty and alumni tell trainees about how to know students, call parents and use "proximity control" (getting out from behind the desk and standing near potentially disruptive students). They address scenarios that may not relate directly to any group-work or language acquisition theory, but are equally important: What to do when that adorable first-grader that wouldn't let go of your leg is now sobbing underneath his desk? Or when a student you've never met waltzes into your class, swears at another student--or even at you--and your whole lesson abruptly stops? How can you teach when your students are indifferent or even hostile? No one would send doctors to coastal Thailand without first telling them what they might face. Likewise, we must prepare urban teachers, even as we emphasize the success stories.

Now that Teachers College has revitalized its focus on educational equity, the College will be measured not only by the diversity of its graduates, but also by the diversity of the schools they serve. Will these great teachers, some of whom have achieved National Board Certification, serve in high-poverty city schools? If not, education will continue to be the great separator rather than the great equalizer that John Dewey once envisioned.

Reed Dickson is Director of the Peace Corps Fellows Program at Teachers College.

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