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Minnesota teacher preparation needs a reality check

As in any other profession, new teachers deserve to enter their field with relevant, high-quality experiences under their belts.

In my own experience, so much of what a teacher candidate learns is based on exposure to the real work in schools and communities rather than course work.

Teacher candidates deserve to feel prepared. And students deserve to learn from well-prepared new teachers.

Sandra Santiago Pickett

Although these statements might be considered common sense to most people, the Minnesota legislature has some work to do to ensure this is the case. As a veteran teacher of 20 years, I now have the pleasure of mentoring teacher candidates during their student teaching experience in my classroom, and my eyes have opened to the real issues facing teacher candidates today.

I cannot count how many times I have heard the phrase “I wish I had learned this” from the student teacher I supervised this year. My student teacher was an eager-to-learn practitioner who felt like she had simply not learned enough from her teacher preparation coursework. As in any other profession, new teachers deserve to enter their field with relevant, high-quality experiences under their belts.

Accountability structures needed

Minnesota has a pressing need for high-quality teachers due to increasing shortages. At the same time, our teacher work force is becoming increasingly newer and younger. The state Legislature must create meaningful accountability structures to graduate new educators with the knowledge, skills, and ability to boost student achievement. This may sound like a tall order but a wise first step is to look at what is working in teacher preparation programs and recognize the gap between preparation and practice.

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Teacher preparation should be designed to yield outcomes such as successful licensure, employment, program satisfaction, and ultimately student learning. If Minnesotans had access to easy-to-read data on these outcomes, we would be able to shine a light on best practices and transform teacher preparation into a more valuable experience. 

In my own experience, so much of what a teacher candidate learns is based on exposure to the real work in schools and communities rather than course work. My childhood as an inner-city kid in Chicago afforded me many skills that I use today as a teacher in Minneapolis, but not every Minnesota teacher grows up having the experiences. An open-minded worldview is essential to teaching an increasingly culturally diverse student population.

In 20 years of teaching I have mentored four student teachers, and as a mentor teacher, I often hear from teacher candidates that they need much more time to practice in the field, where they can develop skills with support from an experienced teacher. Coaching and firsthand experience are required to truly model dynamic abilities of a skilled teacher, everything from diagnosing and addressing various levels of student performance to developing deep, positive relationships with their families and members of their school community.

And if new teachers do not learn classroom-based skills during preparation, then education in Minnesota needs a serious reality check.

State should lead by example

What I’m hearing from new teachers in my district is also reflected in a national survey presented by Teach Plus where only 23 percent of teachers felt prepared as they entered their first year. As part of the solution, in 2017 the U.S. Department of Education will require states to collect data from teacher preparation programs on the outcomes of their teacher candidates, including their graduation, licensure and employment rates. I believe Minnesota students will benefit if we join the 10 other states that are ahead of this timeline. Minnesota should lead by example in doing this earlier, while also going further by requiring programs to report certain program outcomes disaggregated by race in order to spotlight which programs are best serving teacher candidates of color.

Whether it’s navigating cultural differences among students or accommodating lessons to meet the needs of different learners, feedback on improving teacher preparation will never make its way back to our training programs without transparent data.

We need to be able to measure the quality of teacher preparation programs because prospective teachers should know and understand what kind of teaching program they are getting into. And legislators need to know which teaching programs are producing strong outcomes and which ones need to revamped.

I cannot accept that teacher candidates are saying to me: “Had I known what I know now, I wouldn’t have selected that school. I didn’t feel prepared.”

Sandra Santiago Pickett has 20 years of teaching in urban, bilingual settings. A member of Educators 4 Excellence, Santiago-Pickett teaches for the Minneapolis Public Schools where she also mentors teacher candidates.

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