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How to Teach Teachers

During finance and consulting recruiting season, I received an email from a different type of recruiter, one from Teach for America. The associate from TFA explained that she had stumbled upon my name on LinkedIn and thought that my work “partnering with a professor to deliver high quality academic content to students” made me a suitable candidate for applying. The email intrigued me, not because I want to do TFA next year, but because it made me think about how programs find and train future teachers.

Recruiting unqualified 21 year-olds with no prior classroom experience via cold emails to teach in low-income schools is a fundamentally flawed approach — and one that highlights the debilitating variability in teacher training across the US. TFA accounts for only one of many routes for entering teaching. With these different routes comes a wide variety of training that teachers receive before entering a classroom. That should not be the case. Instead, all teachers, regardless of background, should be provided standard and extensive instructional training before they work in the classroom to better understand what methods most effectively help students learn.

Teachers used to be certified only upon the successful completion of a college undergraduate program. However, today there exist over 2,000 different programs for teacher certification through alternate routes, such as TFA, that are growing in size. There is now wide variability for teacher preparation programs, and the disparities in the quality of these programs is exacerbated by a lack of minimum standards or regulatory oversight.

Different teacher preparation programs emphasize particular instructional methods. Research from Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark shows the ineffectiveness of minimally guided techniques such as discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. There have also been varied results in the effectiveness of explicit instruction. The efficacy of any teaching method ultimately comes down to the teacher and the type of institutional knowledge and training the teacher is supported by.

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Although TFA has noble intentions, its philosophy of recruiting recent college graduates from a wide array of disciplines to teach only serves to perpetuate the issues produced by the lack of standardized teacher training. In 2006, Boyd et al. examined the recent push to lower the requirements for teaching in order to bring teachers with a more diverse set of backgrounds into the classroom. Using data from New York, they separated teachers by their pathways into the profession, and found that new teachers, especially in their first year of teaching, are relatively less effective and negatively impact students’ learning outcomes. These teachers may lack the training or experience needed to solve instructional problems in real time. Using data from Houston, Darling-Hammond et al. found in 2005 that untrained teachers are disproportionately more likely to teach at-risk minority and low-income students, and that students under the guidance of TFA teachers perform significantly worse on standardized tests. The authors also advocate that more needs to be done for teacher preparation.

These differences in training have real impacts on students — not only on the day-to-day effects of what students learn in the classroom, but also on students’ test scores, achievement marks, and even potentially the trajectories of their lives. I know that I will forever remember Mr. Siddiqui, my high school math teacher, and the way he made me want to excel in class because of the personal connection he formed with his students. Although he took a nonconventional route to teaching, he was effective at his job because of the training he received. Now he trains other high school calculus teachers on how to connect with their students from the very first day they walk into the classroom. We must take teaching our teachers more seriously by creating a universal system of training; after all, they are teaching the future of our country.

Though critics may argue that standardizing teacher instruction will take away the individuality of teachers, that is not the intention. A teacher’s individual personality is still needed for teachers to connect and grow close with their students. When teachers can make their lessons relevant to their individual students, performance for those students increases. This standard system would serve as a common starting point for teachers, one that they could adapt to match their personality and classroom environment.

Teaching is an incredibly difficult profession; to teach well requires a certain combination of talent, temperament, and training, especially given the myriad ways in which students of different backgrounds learn. But in today’s educational system, our classrooms are too often staffed by teachers who have the right talent and temperament but lack the right training — a situation which fails to set students up for success, personally and academically. We must ensure that all teachers, especially those who enter the profession through an alternate route, receive standardized training that enables them to understand how and why students learn the way they do.

Mackenzi T. Curtin ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Adams House.

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