American schools are in trouble. Rising dropout rates, school violence, and administrative mismanagement in many beleaguered school districts represent some of the issues that exacerbate the current educational dilemma; however, one of the most pressing challenges facing U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching. K-12 teachers must receive comprehensive, sustained, targeted, and accessible training if American schools are to survive and thrive in the 21st century.
What separates ineffective teachers from those who make an indelible imprint on their students’ lives? What makes some of our former teachers live vividly in our minds while we banish others to a distant planet filled with specters of weekly spelling tests, five page book reports, middle school acne flare-ups, and other amnesia-worthy aspects of our childhood?
Memorable teachers of every era exhibit several key traits, including tenacity, vision, a passion for teaching and learning, content mastery, relaxed and confident delivery, goal orientation, adaptability, and effective classroom management skills. While few would argue that these elements do not foster good teaching, some contend that great teachers are born with innate pedagogical abilities that enable them to become experts at their craft. But innate abilities aside, “skillful teachers are made, not born,” as Jon Saphier and Robert Gower assert in their book, The Skillful Teacher, a widely used and respected teacher training resource.
Skillful teachers learn to teach
In our increasingly technological and globalized world, demand for skillful teachers is fast outpacing supply. Currently, over 3.5 million K-12 teachers work in US schools, but with teacher retirement and attrition, The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by the year 2018, American schools will need almost one million new teachers. These educators have to be highly trained professionals who can deliver educational services to culturally and academically diverse students, and enable them to function proficiently in a global economy.
What kind of training do 21st century educators need in order to produce students who exhibit new millennium skills — such as thinking outside the box, accessing, processing and evaluating new information, and engaging in effective cross-cultural communication? And what rubrics should teachers and administrators use to evaluate the efficacy of a professional development program? An effective professional development program should provide or foster all of the following:
1. A means of fulfilling professional and personal goals, successfully, in a manner that promotes relaxation and freedom from stress, anxiety, worry and fear.
In the course of pursuing their career goals, teachers frequently experience burn-out, fear of losing their jobs, dissatisfaction with their working conditions and myriad career-related challenges. Add to this mix the additional, but necessary, time and energy commitment that a professional development program demands. Recognizing the connection between the mind and performance, such programs would do well to incorporate stress reduction courses into their curricula. A relaxed teacher, with a positive self image, is a more confident, approachable, and productive teacher.
2. A unified and integrated teacher training and certification curriculum.
The curriculum should be tailored to meet individual needs and interests, but at the same time, transmit sound, well-established educational theories that enable teachers to develop professionalism in their field. Studies show that newly hired, uncertified teachers may not perform as well as other teachers. Students taught by newly certified teachers scored better on a state math achievement test than did students taught by new teachers who were not certified (Darling-Hammond, 1999; Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002). Similarly, teachers with emergency teaching certificates did not perform as well as others (Fetler, 1999).Teacher certification should guarantee acceptable levels of student performance, nationwide.
3. Expert guidance and mentorship.
Learning from experts enhances the quality of teacher preparation. Professional development programs must be staffed by expert facilitators with a wealth of training and practical experience who are willing and ready to help participants achieve their personal and professional goals as enthusiastically as they pursue their own.
4. A structured and sequential approach to knowledge delivery, with clearly defined objectives and frameworks.
Underscoring the value of focused professional development, studies by Cohen and Hill (2000). Wiley and Yoon, 1995; Brown, Smith, and Stein, 1996; and Kennedy, 1998, suggest that when professional development is focused on academic content and curriculum that is aligned with standards-based reform, teaching practice and student achievement are likely to improve.
5. Adequate support.
Team building and networking opportunities should abound. Fifty percent of teachers leave the profession permanently after five years of teaching. One frequently cited reason for this exodus is lack of administrative support. According to The Numbers Game: Ensuring Quantity and Quality in the Teaching Workforce, a report of The National Association of School Boards of Education (NASBE), the first component of a satisfying job in teaching is that “satisfied teachers are more likely to work in schools with supportive environments.” In the same way that teachers encourage students to work collaboratively, they should learn to hone their craft in an environment that fosters teamwork.
Service delivery should be fair and consistent. Busy, and sometimes underpaid, teachers need to know that they are receiving substantive returns on the time, energy and money they invest in a professional development program.
7. Leadership skills.
As a result of their training, teachers should develop practical classroom management strategies and skills as well as the ability to assume leadership roles in their school communities.
8. Innovative and creative teaching methods.
Teachers’ natural inventiveness and creativity can be awakened or enhanced through direct instruction in methodology; however, like the 21st century students they instruct, teachers must receive ample opportunities to “think outside the box,” and thus bring innovation and creativity, designed to satisfy the needs of their particular audience, to their classrooms.
9. Technology-integrated instruction.
Since computers play an integral role in 21st century education, professional development programs must prepare teachers to use technology in their practice, if they plan to capture the attention of their texting, tweeting, Facebooking and I-M-ing charges, or to provide differentiated instruction. Teachers themselves must learn to navigate a rapidly changing information superhighway in order to show their students how to use technology responsibly. Technological skill building should be embedded in their training.
Teachers tend to lead extremely busy lives and the demands of the job often encroach on their personal time. A professional development program should provide easy access to information and support. In this digital age, online professional development programs now offer more flexible learning opportunities to teachers who seek advanced training in order to comply with job requirements or advance their careers. These online programs should provide 24 hour accessibility and employ user-friendly formats.
11. Practical, hands-on, transferrable skills, adequate resources and timely feedback.
A criticism often leveled at teacher training institutions and programs is that they tend to be long on theory and short on theoretical application, with the result that a new teacher entering the classroom often lacks practical teaching skills. The program should provide multiple opportunities for hands-on learning and clear proof, through unambiguous assessments, that key learning objectives have been met. Learning resources should be readily available.
In the view of Grover J. Whitehurst, Director of the institute of Education Sciences, “Individual differences in teachers will never go away, but powerful instructional systems and new, effective forms of professional development should reduce those differences to the point that every teacher should be good enough so that no child is left behind.”
But for those who will inevitably lag behind, cadres of well–trained, skillful teachers must serve as able coaches who will help them win their race to the top.
The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund that Congress has awarded to the US Department of Education under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, represents a major step in the government’s ongoing effort to fix our schools. Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, echoed widespread concerns about the state of public education when he observed that “America urgently needs to elevate the quality of K-12 schooling and boost college graduation rates, not simply to propel the economic recovery but also because students need stronger skills to compete in a global economy.”