Elevating the Status of the Teacher Educator
A new TC doctoral specialization holds that those who teach do not necessarily know how to teach teaching
As the product of an alternative certification route for new teachers in New Mexico, Bill Davis found himself unprepared for the realities of the classroom. He had neither interned as a student-teacher nor taken basic courses in instructional methods, and found himself not only having to learn quickly on the job, but for the first time asking himself some of the more fundamental questions about his role in the classroom.
“I thought teaching was what happened back when I was in school,” he recalls. “A teacher got up in front of the room and lectured, or gave notes, or maybe had us watch a video. Things were very static. Reality hit me pretty quickly when I learned that my students didn’t necessarily respond the way I had responded to that type of instruction.”
Eight years later, Davis is determined to make a difference in the way future teachers are educated. He is one of six students enrolled in TC’s new doctoral specialization in Teacher Education – an emerging field that focuses specifically on those who do the practical work of teaching teachers and also conduct research into a wide range of related issues. The new specialization, launched this year by the Department of Curriculum & Teaching, marks a concerted effort by the College to formalize what all too often takes place in an informal and disorganized fashion – if at all – and to elevate the overall standing of Teacher Educators and their research in the academy. The value proposition, which sounds very simple, nevertheless amounts to radical thinking in some circles: Better classroom teaching starts with better Teacher Educators.
“The whole world is focused on quality teachers, but one thing that has been missing in this conversation is the notion of a quality Teacher Educator,” says A. Lin Goodwin, Evenden Professor of Education and Vice Dean.
The prevailing assumption, Goodwin says, even among many in the field, is that all it takes to prepare a teacher is to have been a teacher oneself. “People already have this wrong-headed idea that, ‘well, teaching can be done by anyone’ – so why shouldn’t any teacher be able to do teacher education? But being good at something doesn’t necessarily make one good at translating that skill for others or unlocking it for a novice.”
Just as having been a good home-run hitter does not necessarily make one a good baseball manager, “having learned to teach children does not make one qualified to teach adults,” Goodwin says. “So we need to think deeply about the preparation of Teacher Educators, in a way that is formal, conscious, deliberate and scholarly, so that we produce people versed in the meta-analysis of teaching, who can help practitioners develop a stance and an ideology about how to teach rather than simply schooling them in different methodologies.”
The new specialization has been several years in the making. It began during a faculty retreat in 2008, and gathered serious steam when TC was invited to participate in the Transformation Initiative launched by NCATE (the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education) to ensure continuous improvement in education. Research conducted by a team led by Goodwin found that the preparation of Teacher Educators at the doctoral level in university settings until now has often been anything but formal and deliberate. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Teacher Education concluded that many new and practicing Teacher Educators “often feel unprepared to assume their role” and that their preparation often came through “a somewhat haphazard and dysfunctional process of ‘learning through doing,’ ‘sinking or swimming,’ [and] ‘trial by fire’” after they were already on the job.
The result is that many new teacher educators arrive in the educators classroom feeling underprepared for their roles.
Like “Eating Your Vegetables”
Indeed, many Teacher Educators stumble into the job by default. It is hardly a secret that being a faculty member who teaches teacher preparation courses is not generally considered a high-status position in the academic hierarchy, although such jobs are often the most readily available. Teaching those courses is often viewed as something like “eating your vegetables,” says Daniel Friedrich, Assistant Professor of Curriculum. In other words, young professors are willing to do something they consider slightly distasteful because they know it’s good for them – in this case, helping them gain a toe-hold at an academic institution where their eventual focus will be on the more “prestigious” work of scholarly research.
“Many of the faculty who end up working as Teacher Educators did not aspire to be Teacher Educators, never really thought of preparing for it, and even once they get to the work, are not necessarily going to find themselves in a place where it is honored as a professional identity,” says Dirck Roosevelt, Visiting Associate Professor of Technology & Education, who has taken the lead on developing much of the coursework for the new specialization. “Many people going into this work are underprepared and in some ways under-inspired, and when they get to the work they are not necessarily well supported.”
During 2014-15, the move to create the new specialization took another important step forward when TC devoted its Sachs Lecture to a series, orchestrated by the Curriculum & Teaching department, on the “Landscape for Preparing Teacher Educators,” featuring such leading figures in the field as Kenneth Zeichner, Viv Ellis and Marilyn Cochran-Smith. Faculty members subsequently met with each of the speakers to delve more deeply into the issues they raised. Those meetings entailed “great intellectual work” that helped the department clarify its thinking about how to shape the program, says Celia Oyler, Professor of Education.
Now the new specialization, which students can declare after a year of doctoral work, is up and running. It consists of a five-course sequence that focuses explicitly on the work of Teacher Educators and includes a collaborative capstone research project.
“Research is the currency of the academy,” Goodwin says. “Research on teacher education is often criticized as small-scale, and boutique. So engagement in research and how to blend scholarship with practice is a major focus of this program. In particular, we explore what it means to do field-based research in schools and communities, which is very time-consuming because there are so many variables you can’t control.” In Fall 2016, the program will add a new faculty member with an established record in both research and practice – something of a rarity in the world of teacher preparation – who can help shape future development, says Oyler, who heads the search committee.
The specialization also includes a course that asks broad questions about the very nature and underlying assumptions of Teacher Education; a course revolving around the “guided practice” or supervision of new teachers; and a course on the history of Teacher Education in the United States. In addition, students may customize the specialization by selecting additional courses from a list of approved “selectives.” The specialization is open to TC doctoral students in any department in the College.
Down the road, the hope is to develop a full-fledged doctoral program focusing specifically on Teacher Education, in which students would follow a dedicated program of Teacher Educator preparation from start to finish.
Roosevelt, who has taught several TC courses in teacher preparation, believes better preparation and inspiration begins with dedicated coursework that asks fundamental questions about Teacher Education and allows students the freedom of a creative atmosphere in which to develop answers, answers that will “necessarily have normative, as well as empirical, dimensions.” Students in the program will also engage in collaborative research projects that will help unite theory and practice, he says.
“The ‘what’ or the many ‘whats’ to be learned when learning to teach can often be taken for granted, as if we all know what they are,” says Roosevelt, who teaches a course entitled “Learning to Teach and Teacher Education: Vexations of Theory and Practice?” “It seems that if we’re really going to engage people in Teacher Education, we need to engage them in questions of what we are trying to do, what is it we’re trying to have students learn. There are a lot of answers to that question, including a lot of legitimate ones.”
Singing a New Refrain
The new specialization aims not only to help prepare Teacher Educators in the practical work of preparing teachers, but in developing a more robust body of research into the field, which has, as Friedrich puts it, been somewhat “marginalized” and “under theorized.” Professor of Education Nancy Lesko, who chairs TC’s Department of Curriculum & Teaching, says the new specialization can help produce a new generation of scholars who can expand the field by re-imagining it and asking questions that have not been asked in the past.
“The national and international conversation about teachers and teaching, and the preparation of teachers have become dominated by the same couple of refrains,” Lesko says, much of it focusing on accountability issues such as whether the practice of teacher tenure should continue or whether teachers should be evaluated on their students’ test scores. “Universities – and this department in particular – can contribute by trying to shift the conversation and open up some new questions. That’s the great possibility here. I always like the way Dirck asks, when we talk about learning to teach, what do we mean by that? There are worlds of other questions within that question, and right now we just skip over them.”
Goodwin believes that a coherent Teacher Education program could help those who engage in this work develop clearer, more thoughtful identities as Teacher Educators.
“TC is a place of firsts, and I think we are breaking new ground in trying to prepare the scholar-practitioner of what it means to be a Teacher Educator and to teach teachers,” Goodwin says. “There are lots of people who ‘do’ teacher education—i.e., teach required courses, who are not Teacher Educators.”
A dedicated program also helps create a scholarly community of Teacher Educators who can share ideas and create the kind of energy that can help move the field forward, says doctoral student Jessica Smagler, who has already taken several courses in the specialization.
“I always knew I was interested in Teacher Education, but I didn’t know very specifically what aspects,” Smagler says. “The course work has exposed me to the research that is out there, and helped me identify some of the gaps in that research and areas I can contribute to. It has also helped me form relationships with specific professors and other people with similar interests. That’s what I’m particularly excited about: we’ll now have a community of people who will specialize in this, who share the same passion. I feel excited about this network that is developing.”
Roosevelt agrees that the specialization will help position TC to be at the forefront of a new movement in Teacher Education.
“Clearly there is a need to do something different, and we are very well positioned here to contribute,” he says. We have a core of faculty who are Teacher Educators who are committed to this. We think this work can be of great appeal to some of our most imaginative and committed doctoral students. It’s exciting for many of reasons.”
The faculty involved in the new specialization emphasize that it is open to doctoral students in any department, many of whom may unexpectedly find themselves in the role of Teacher Educator at some point after they leave TC.
Meanwhile, the program is already helping those like Bill Davis, who have decided to devote themselves to Teacher Education.
“We need to understand more about what it means to learn to teach and how complex that process is, and how individualized it can be,” Davis says. “I think it’s important for Teacher Educators to come into that work and think about teaching in different ways, and be responsive to teachers, and not simply reproduce what we’ve already done because that’s what we’re most familiar and comfortable with. I’m really happy that people in Curriculum & Teaching believe this is an area where Teachers College should be leading the way. The creation of this specialization is a very important step – though one that very few colleges of education seem to be taking.” – Ellen Livingston
Published Tuesday, Nov 17, 2015