Teacher prep programs: Helping new teachers swim—or sink?

Worried teacher blogWould you participate in a swim meet if you just learned to dog paddle? Probably not. Yet, many of our new teachers are entering the classroom straight from their college or preparatory program without the training, practice, or knowledge they need to succeed. With the increasing demands on teacher performance, and many teachers leaving the profession after their first year, the “sink or swim” mentality isn’t useful for teachers, their schools, or, most important, their students. Instead, we should be asking: What do preservice teachers need, why aren’t they getting it, and what can we do to ensure they get it?

School administrators Gary M. Chesley and Janice Jordan assembled a focus group of 30 new teachers from 17 universities and asked them how prepared they believe they were for their first days of school. Here are a few of the issues, also echoed in other studies, that these new teachers expressed about their preservice training.

Classroom management

New teachers are continually overwhelmed by unruly students and are unsure how to respond to classroom management issues. One study from researchers at the University of Florida, Stephanie D. Van Hover and Elizabeth Anne Yeager, shows that lack of classroom management skills often causes new teachers to be less creative and rely more heavily on lecturing and textbook-style lessons. Teacher preparation programs should teach research-based strategies for classroom management and expose preservice teachers to multiple ways of managing student behavior and building positive relationships in the classroom. 

Planning curriculum

Novice teachers struggle with lesson planning and coming up with enough curricula. The focus group  teachers reported that lesson planning practice in their preparatory classes seemed artificial, contrived, and useless in the real classroom. That may explain why, according to research from Sarah Walstead Fry from Bucknell University, many spend 10–12 hours a day planning and grading. High-quality preservice programs must give novice teachers opportunities to work side by side with master teachers to observe effective, long-term curriculum planning and deeply understand and organize subject matter. 

Demanding environments

Many of the new teachers surveyed in the focus group felt unprepared for the mental and physical stress they experienced—including the classroom workload and the expectation that they manage multiple demands and responsibilities. They felt that their preservice programs did not give them the “professional habits of mind” to build a teaching career or the skills needed to be “highly collaborative and active contributors in professional learning communities.” Teacher preparatory programs should expose preservice teachers to the intense work of the typical classroom for longer periods of time and focus on specific professional habits, such as accurately assessing the effectiveness of an instructional strategy.

How can K–12 school and universities collaborate to more effectively prepare teachers? What challenges did you face as a new teacher? What could have prepared you more fully for your first day?

For more information, read the May 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, Supporting Beginning Teachers, which includes Bryan Goodwin’s article, “New Teachers Face Three Common Challenges.”

Written by Jennifer Tuzzeo, writer and editor at McREL

15 Comments

  • Amy M. says:

    I am a relatively new teacher. I have now been teaching for six years. As part of my schools’ “School Improvement Team,” I recently shared with my colleagues concerns about the lack of preparation and support for new teachers. I had taken plenty of methods courses in order to get my degree, but those courses did not prepare me for classroom management in any way. I was not sure how to handle the behavior problems in my class, and I quickly got overwhelmed with all of the expectations(data, testing, parent communication, …). On top of that, I had the curriculum in front of me that I taught exactly how the curriculum was written, day for day, lesson by lesson, throughout the year. By the end of the second quarter I was stressed, exhausted, and burnt out. I was not prepared for that at all. I was considering leaving the profession entirely.
    Later that year, I was sent to an outside professional development that consisted of a large group of kindergarten teachers. Some of the teachers were brand new like myself, others had 30 or more years of experience. We were there to discuss the effectiveness of the curriculum. We shared with each other the things in our classrooms that worked and the things that were not working so well. I shared my concerns for keeping students focused and on task. They provided me with many ideas and activities to keep my students interested and on task. I walked away from that meeting so much more confidence. I believe that the support I got from that professional learning community saved my career.
    Even though I did successfully complete a semester of student-teaching, I was not completely prepared for teaching in my own classroom. I think universities need to focus on the non-academic aspects of teaching in addition to those methods courses. Classroom managment is a huge part of the job, and so is communicating with parents and families. Both of which, I learned nothing about in college.

  • Jessica says:

    As a new teacher, I often feel like I am unsure if I can swim in the deep waters of the school in which I am employed. I work in the inner city, and behavior management is a concern of all of the teachers in the building. I often feel the day consists of behavior first, academics seconds which is often very stressful. I am unlucky to say our summer PD meetings will consists around behavior management.
    I feel for new teachers it would be beneficial for PD to apply to just strictly new teachers. There are things like planning curriculum that we may have never experienced on our own. We were not born knowing these things and it would be beneficial for the new staff in the building.

  • Cynthia says:

    I am in my second year of taking on a teacher intern and the above concerns are also my concerns in preparing my intern. As a special education teacher I felt overwhelmed and alone in managing the curriculum, behaviors, and emotional stress in my beginning years. Although in those beginning years my students had a devoted teacher, I was not prepared. In making up for not being prepared I, too, relied on the textbook and lecturing style. The best professional development is working alongside a master teacher.

  • Kory says:

    When I began teaching I did not feel like college had prepared me for all the demanding expectations of actually being a teacher. In college I spent so much time on learning how to correctly write artificial lesson plans, which I have never used in the teaching world, rather than focusing on more genuine and real responsibilities. Luckily for me, my current school has great Professional learning communities where I feel comfortable discussing my challenges and working collaboratively with others to solve problems and better enhance my teaching and student learning.

  • Kalwin Kephas says:

    I still have problems with my teaching at Sunday School, know being sure of myself if my students are interested on my topic. Therefore, to be safe, I follow the lesson and making sure that my lecture bounce back to the objectives of the lesson. I use a lot of application and questioning. When they respond, my confidence increases.

  • Jennifer Tuzzeo, McREL says:

    Thank you for all of your comments. It seems the research does in fact reflect the reality.
    Something else to think about: Is it the district’s job, rather than the university, to teach non-academic classroom skills to new teachers?

  • Regal Tool says:

    The curriculum planning sounds like a great service. It can be really difficult to figure out what it is that you want to focus on over the course of the year.

  • Paul M says:

    I remember that first day, 16 years ago, and wondering what I got myself into. I learned more in a “trial by fire” situation than I had in the four years previous. One of the good things about being a band director is the fact that we have built in support systems like our state and district level organizations. We also have a mentoring program set up state wide that pairs young directors with veteran directors from other district. I think this type of relationship could really benefit the classroom teacher.

  • Darcie says:

    Being a new teacher can be stressful.I feel the mentor program has really helped new teachers so they feel they have someone to help them through those difficult times.
    I think the most difficult task for a new teacher is scheduling and curriculum decisions.

  • Joyce says:

    I have been teaching for 40 years and these are certainly 3 areas that affected me those first few years and it continues today, especially as education changes and technology becomes a necessary tool. Colleges can not totally prepare a teacher for their specific job. Colleges need to expose students to all the tools and have them use them, but I truly feel that the institute that hires the teacher has an obligation to preservice the new teachers what is expected, some ideas for classroom management that are effective with their demographics, and what curriculum they are expected to cover.

  • LYNN JOLLY says:

    Remembering back to my first year, I agree that outside help is important. Being given a direction for how to teach is very important.

  • Mike says:

    All Schools should have a mentoring program to help new teachers coming in to their district. The mentoring program could start from the day hired to the last day of school to assist the new teacher and his or her challenges. I also believe universities can prepare student more to be on their own.

  • Angelika C. says:

    Although I enjoyed the teacher preparation program that I attended, I feel that more emphasis was placed on lesson planning than managing student behavior and building positive relationships with students and their families. I would have loved to have more classroom time than was required for the program. I feel that my first year of teaching could be described as “trial by fire.” Although my coworkers were helpful, I feel that I would have definetly benefited from a mentoring program.

  • melanie bynoe says:

    I believe that new teachers should be trained by experienced high performing teachers from the first day of their teaching career for at least a whole school year. In this way they can observe this experienced teacher in action and model these behaviors when placed in classrooms to work on their own.This will also be beneficial to new teachers because they will be able to learn from the best so they themselves can become a good example to the teaching profession.Additionally research has indicated that coaching and modelling are very effective forms of success for inexperienced teachers.

  • Dina Becvinovski says:

    I agree with Melanie. In Australia some pre-teaches only have 2 x5 week blocks in a classroom. I believe teachers should have a one year traineeship within a school. Most of the learning about classroom management and differentiated classroom etc must be hands on. Less essays more teaching.

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