As someone who loves working in education but hates how backwards some of our long-entrenched education systems are, I loved this video of Tom Rademacher (or Mr. Rad), Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, talking about “flipping tenure.” Now, I want to take Tom’s idea a step further: What if we also “flipped” teacher training?
Nobody in the history of teaching has ever been ready for day one. Never. I promise you, even Mr. Feeny on his first day of teaching was like, “How do I differentiate with Minkis and Sean Hunter?” You can’t be ready.
I went through four years of an education program, two summers with Breakthrough Collaborative teaching students in St. Paul Public Schools and, finally, Teach For America’s training and summer institute. I was still so far from prepared for my first year I can’t even describe it. In his first year, Mr. Rad hid under his desk and considered other careers. In mine, I visibly shook from anxiety in the mornings and blamed it on too much coffee. We did this because, like Mr. Feeny and every fictional and real teacher before and since, we simply weren’t prepared for the first year in the classroom.
To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a failure of teacher preparation programs. It’s a failure of the basic structure of how we prepare new teachers. I believe this structure needs to be flipped and thought about in a different way.
Currently, we spend so much time, money and effort trying to prepare people before they ever enter the classroom, and then, well, we hope for the best. What if we took all of that time, money and effort and used it to support new teachers in the classroom, where since the dawn of time, educators have actually figured out how to teach?
Mr. Rad believes that a new teacher’s job is “learning how to teach.” Well, what was I doing for four years before I started teaching? (We once spent a whole day in class watching birthing videos. That’s what.) And the thing is, I agree with Mr. Rad that as a new teacher, your job should be to learn how to teach.
But, in our current system, during your first few years in the classroom—when you should still be learning—you lose the support and mentorship you had in school. (Side note: I’m lucky that I had Managers of Teacher Leadership Development in Teach For America, who basically served as my teaching mentors. I wouldn’t have made it through my first year without them or all the teachers at KIPP who supported me even though it wasn’t their job. I can’t imagine anyone succeeding without that kind of support.)
What if, to help educators learn their jobs on the job, we spent 20 percent of our energy teaching them the basics beforehand and 80 percent supporting them in the classroom? This “flip” would allow for more individualized support. If you are a white teacher in schools with mostly students of color, like Mr. Rad and myself were, then you’ll need more job-embedded training on cultural competency than generic diversity training. A model like this could better support individual teacher needs, because teaching in a suburban school, urban school, private school or rural school each brings completely different challenges.
If we focus more energy on support rather than frontloading training, can we attract more great people who don’t want (or can’t afford) to go through a traditional program? Can we ease the burden and keep more teachers in the profession? Because, you guys, teaching is so hard. And we need to think creatively about how we recruit, train and retain the best teachers possible.
I think any flip is a flip in the right direction.
Ben Bauer is currently the director of operations at Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Morris Park and a part-time law school student at William Mitchell. He studied education at St. John's University and spent two summers teaching St. Paul Public Schools middle school students with Breakthrough before joining Teach For America, through which he taught seventh-grade English at a KIPP school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After leaving the classroom, Ben served as a site director for Breakthrough Twin Cities. Having gone through both traditional and alternative licensure programs, Ben is particularly interested in how we attract, train and retain teachers.
The MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows' views and opinions are solely their own.