Back to the Future: Teacher Educators Return to the Classroom
by Rebecca McMahon Giles & Alicia L. Moore - August 17, 2006
Teachers and teacher educators have an endless supply of materials and information on topics related to the techniques of teaching. There is, however, very little that connects educational theories to the day-to-day challenges of teaching. And, nothing comes even remotely close to cementing this connection as well as spending time in a classroom. As teacher educators, if we are truly committed to educating future teachers, we must depart from our comfortable space in the ivory tower and journey back to the “real world.” This journey will allow us to find out if we can do all that we are asking our students to do, make more substantive connections between theory and practice, and maintain our credibility with our students. Preservice teachers fortunate enough to learn from teacher educators who have returned to the classroom after an extended absence will possess a better understanding of their professional roles and an improved sense of themselves as future teachers.
Teachers and teacher educators have an endless supply of materials and information on topics related to the techniques of teaching. There is, however, very little that connects educational theories to the day-to-day challenges of teaching. And, nothing comes even remotely close to cementing this connection as well as spending time in a classroom. For this reason, colleges and universities across the nation are demanding increased field experiences in their teacher education programs, and governing organizations (e.g., Alabama Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education and Association of Independent Liberal Arts Colleges for Teacher Education) are mandating teacher educators involvement in P-12 settings. As teacher educators, if we are truly committed to educating future teachers, we must depart from our comfortable space in the ivory tower and journey back to the real world. This journey will allow us to find out if we can do all that we are asking our students to do, make more substantive connections between theory and practice, and maintain our credibility with our students.
Students often question the validity of strategies presented by university professors. They share their reservations with fellow students, and frequently, we overhear their derogatory references to the facultys lack of recent teaching experience. They make comments such as Id like to see her try that in todays classroom or When was the last time he tried that with kids? Sadly enough, these students impressionsthat it has been a long time since their education professors have taught in an actual classroomare often true.
The culture of teaching continues to evolve with changing times, as it is influenced by current politics, mandated initiatives, financially supported programs, public opinion, and present trends. As a result, the training of future teachers remains a continuous challenge. Furthermore, research (Darling-Hammond, Chung, & Frelow, 2002) indicates that the extent to which teachers feel prepared significantly relates to their plans to continue teaching, and it is estimated that over 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years (Hunt & Carroll, 2003). If we as teacher educators are to prepare our students adequately for the challenges of todays classrooms, we must first discover what those challenges are by facing them ourselves; teacher educators must return to the classroom as teachers.
As teacher educators we spend countless hours in classrooms observing students in field-based placements, periodically visiting classrooms of recent graduates, and occasionally collaborating with P-12 educators. While this keeps us abreast of current best practices and instructional approaches, and is a rewarding and worthwhile endeavor, its contribution to informing our university teaching is limited. First, you are an outsider on the campus and in the classroom. By joining the school faculty, there are opportunities for collaboration beyond those available to us as university faculty members. Daily interaction over an extended period erases the stigma of being a visitor and establishes the type of intimate professional relationships and level of mutual understanding needed to form true reciprocal partnerships between schools and universities. Further, you gain the invaluable opportunity to develop sustained learning experiences and cultivate personal relationships with the children taught. Once you become the teacher, you are no longer treated like a guest but instead have full and complete access to every part of a teachers role, from bus duty and faculty meetings, to discipline problems and parent conferences. Second, it is extremely difficult to participate in prolonged classroom teaching while maintaining your numerous university obligations. Advising students, providing service to the community, writing for publication, teaching courses, administering comprehensive exams, and serving on committees leaves little, if any, time unaccounted for during the typical school day.
The solution is simple and lies in the time-honored practice of granting sabbaticals to assist professors in becoming more skilled and knowledgeable in their university teaching. A return to full-time teaching provides a rich avenue for research while providing remarkable insight into teaching. These insights can be shared with our university students who are studying to become teachers. It also provides an understanding of the issues currently facing educators; thus, we are better prepared to address these issues in the courses we teach.
Teacher education has traditionally devoted much time and emphasis to the value of student reflection. Stepping into the shoes of a classroom teacher offers a direct avenue to reflect upon the theories and practices that we advocate. Beginning teachers spend much of their time searching for the right way to reach a student or solve a problem. It is our job as teacher educators to help them understand that teaching and learning are both processes refined through trial-and-error, and that being successful is not as much about always being correct as it is about learning from your mistakes. Spending time teaching children reiterates this belief to teacher educators while reminding us that is often easier said than done. Current teaching experience replenishes our supply of personal anecdotes to compliment textbook information and helps bridge theory and practice. Stories about teaching practice are a beneficial source of information about teaching and a worthwhile reflective exercise. Preservice teachers fortunate enough to learn from teacher educators who have returned to the classroom after an extended absence will possess a better understanding of their professional roles and an improved sense of themselves as future teachers. We strongly implore teacher educators to wisely use their sabbatical to go back to the classroom. Spending time where it all began is our best hope for preparing quality teachers for future generations.
Authors note: Both authors are returning to their university positions after spending time during their sabbaticals teaching in early childhood classrooms
Darling-Hammond, L., Chung, R., & Frelow, F. (2002). Variation in teacher preparation: How well do different pathways prepare teachers to teach. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(4), 286-302.
Hunt, J. B., & Carroll, T.G. (2003). No dream denied: A pledge to America's children. Washington, DC: National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.