Teacher prep: Let’s get clinical

by James Kobialka

Teaching is not a profession which can be taught through lectures and reports. Just  as doctors must be trained in hospitals, in practices, so must teachers be trained in classrooms in what is called the clinical model of teacher preparation.

I remember student teachers coming into my high school class. They would sit at the back of the class, scribbling in notebooks. After two weeks of this, they’d teach one lesson and disappear, presumably off to present a signed form and get a degree.

I finished my own teaching degree in May of 2011. I spent well over 300 hours teaching. I designed lessons, units, and curricula. I watched others teach. I videotaped classes; I wrote reflections; I received critiques; I did research; I earned my degree with ink and tears, as did the rest of my cohort.

I feel privileged to have been taught by great teachers. Every step of the way I was supported and challenged.

Not everyone made it. Some quit. They couldn’t hack the long hours and the stress of teaching. While I feel for them, I also am thankful. Their leaving did not hurt students – if they had burned out in their first year of teaching, it would be a different story.

Those of us who graduated did so knowing who we were – not as people, but as educators. We had a feel for our classroom persona, our strengths and weaknesses, our goals.

A lot of eyes are turning towards teacher preparation right now. 25 state school chiefs recently agreed to “take action” towards renovating their states’ teacher licensure and preparation programs.

Their recent report identified “Licensure” as a main area to change. I hope they will focus on the clinical model of teacher preparation that mimics how doctors are trained.

The state chiefs aren’t the only people asking these questions. How do we train good teachers? How do we know whether a first-year teacher will have a high- or low- performing classroom? How do we train what TNTP called the “irreplaceables”?

Here are your answers:

Stop hiring people who worked in industry for fifteen years and think that qualifies them to teach high schoolers.

Stop hiring subs who have been in the system for ten years but never designed their own lesson.

Stop hiring people who majored in Education but have never stood in front of a class.

Call up Clark University, my alma mater. Call up the Urban Teacher Residency United. Call up any of a long list of schools. . Ask them which of their recent graduates need a job – because many of us still do.

Start hiring people with classroom experience. Start hiring people with portfolios, with lessons, who can show you videos and student work samples. Hire people who know their weaknesses as educators and are willing to improve them.

Learn from the programs that work. Stop sending low-performing teachers to endless Professional Development lectures; set them up with a mentor instead. Have them reflect, read, write, and think – just like we want our youth to.

I wouldn’t trust a doctor who has never been in a hospital. I would never trust a pilot who hasn’t flown.

So why do we think we can trust teachers who’ve never been in front of a class?

James Kobialka teaches Science and English in Worcester, MA

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Comments (13)

  1. gordon chan

    During my 48 years of teaching English, I have coached more than 35 student teachers to become successful professionals. Most have been hired in my district and surrounding districts. I believe the key word is “coach.” I am always available to my student teachers past and present.

    • James Kobialka

      And on behalf of every student- and former-student-teacher out there, thanks for being part of that network of support and training that lets us succeed.

  2. Developing good teachers takes time. Time is money and school districts don’t want to spend money on teachers. Good principals keep good teachers, unfortunately it takes time to develop good principals and time is money. Money first or Children first?

  3. Jessica Choi

    James – I got my Masters in teaching at GW through a similar clinical teacher preparation program. I agree that it is the best way to train teachers, but not all clinical teacher preparation programs are equal. Some programs throw teachers in a school and expect the school to support them. This is unfair to the school and often results in teachers who are not well prepared.

    Spending hours in a school, does not make you a good teacher. If it did, substitute teachers would all be great teachers. The key to a good clinical program is the combination of real classroom experience and support from excellent professors who are/were also excellent teachers.

    Observations, coaching, and encouragement from excellent mentors provides new teachers with the tools they need to persevere through those difficult first years. Those mentors also instill in new teachers the need to constantly reflect on and improve their practice so that they can eventually become expert teachers as well.

    As politicians discuss changes to teacher preparation programs and licensure, I hope they will consider increasing not just the required number of hours spent in the classroom but also the required amount of support new teachers receive from successful teachers.

    • James Kobialka

      Well said! I know teachers who hit that same issue – they were thrown in too deep and too fast, and the school used them more as free labor than as teachers in training. I completely agree with all of your points – just as we scaffold our youth’s learning, we need to scaffold for our teachers’ learning.

  4. Having suffered under teachers who came from industry – and who no doubt are responsible for the phrase “those who can’t, teach” – I agree that one’s experience in the industry is not enough by far to qualify for a teaching position at any grade level.

    Like you, I am a product of 300+ student teaching hours, designing my own lessons and curriculum, teacher mentoring and more. I believe this was invaluable to how I teach and the environment I create for my students now.

    That said, I have co-taught with new-from-industry teachers whom I count as teachers I wish I could have had when I was a student struggling in middle school. I count them among some of the most effective teachers I know.

    That said, those teachers – and the admin that worked with them – weren’t so foolish as to think they could just toss them in a classroom and be done with it. Those teachers worked towards their degree in education in their field, they participated in rigorous PD and made full use of the mentorship program available at the school.

    As Cliff Wagner alluded to earlier, “developing good teachers takes time” and unfortunately it’s not always feasible to bring in teachers who have that perfect make-up of educational background, classroom time and mentorship when the demand is what it is. But with careful vetting and proper support, you do sometimes get a spectacular career-changer teacher.

    • James Kobialka

      Great point. I don’t mean to malign those who make a career switch to teaching. Many of them are, as you mentioned, fantastic, whether from work experience or natural talent. That being said, I think that we all could do with more practice and support – first year teachers especially.

      It’s amazing what a strong community of educators and caring, helpful administrators can do!

      • And that, I think is key: whether you’re dealing with career-changers or the skilled and experienced grads, having a supportive community and a strong PD program is necessary to ensure the success of the students and our own continued growth.

  5. Beverly Ochs

    I have been working with teacher preparation programs for years and have worked with hundreds of preservice students. Once they began teaching in classrooms during their preparation process so many would say, “I never knew how much work was involved in teaching!” Clinical hours are essential in the preparation process.

  6. Connye

    I agree with this article whole heartedly and would like to add another dimension. I don’t think it is appropriate for a principal or other administrator to assess a teacher. If you have never taught a class, [prepared lessons, graded hundreds of papers, and listened to a spouse wondering when his time will be, how can you judge whether I am doing my job. What is worse is an administrator who has never taught and is adding to the teacher’s workload!

    • James Kobialka

      Great point! Diane Ravitch posted something recently about what she would try to do if she were Secretary of Education – one of them was make sure that all administrators had spent their own years in the classroom. I completely agree that an admin with no teaching experience is not acceptable. (And those with irrelevant experience – like second grade teachers running a high school – have some problems as well!)

  7. Ann Neary

    As an 8 year veteran of teaching but a 30 year veteran of “industry” I take exception to the first answer. Industry didn’t train me, my college , my students and my colleagues did. As they do all good teachers. Perhaps you meant those without the educational background to begin teaching.

  8. Michael Rebne

    There are some great points here. I also feel that we need to make sure that any PD program or preparation program is conducted with the input and even ownership of effective teachers. My year of teaching that I grew the least was my second and one in which my principal, who was solely responsible (really, by his own choosing) for staff development overwhelmed me with the intensity, scrutiny, and erratic nature of his observations and coaching. With a good teacher or teacher team there to complement and mediate his “help” I would have been much better off and would have learned to receive observation as learning.

    Unfortunately, as it stands, my highest growth periods in teaching are the ones that I am mostly left alone to sort out what works with my kids. It is not efficient, but it’s what a lot of us are left with in the absence of a supportive and knowledgeable system to help guide us.

    It seems clear to me, and I think this posting and organization is proof, that as teachers we need to join with our teaching groups and unions and really start pushing for a profession that is managed and overseen by the best of us. I believe we need to start writing the district and building policy on evaluation and development and make sure that we have strong voices advocating teacher leadership at the statehouse level especially.

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