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How teaching portfolios grow skilled teachers

As an experienced educator who got his license through the portfolio system, I hope everyone knows: Portfolio licensure is just as much about students as it is about teachers.

As articles, op-eds, and radio programs have announced recently, the Minnesota Board of Teaching is under fire. The board’s refusal to implement the alternate forms of teacher licensure, as required by state law, has been criticized from nearly every outpost in local education circles. While the issue of portfolio licensure is vital to decreasing the current staffing shortfall, increasing the diversity of the teaching corps, and facilitating the arrival of talented educators from other states, the discussion so far has neglected to emphasize how the portfolio system is in the interests of Minnesota’s students. As an experienced educator who got his license through the portfolio system, I hope everyone knows: Portfolio licensure is just as much about students as it is about teachers.

Ben MacKenzie

First and foremost, our collegiate education students deserve a portfolio model to demonstrate their learning because portfolios help bridge education theory and practice. Our colleges and universities serve the students in their courses through both directed theoretical and practical coursework. But our current system’s reliance on a standardized tests to measure teacher-candidate preparedness does a disservice to every professor’s course work, to each teacher candidate’s preparedness, and as a result, to every K-12 student’s learning.

A relevant experience

Instead of cramming details or reviewing test-taking strategies, portfolios allow teacher candidates to reflect on evidence and examples of their teaching practice. I’m grateful my college professors thought it would benefit each candidate to focus on portfolios because it helped make my learning real. Opening the door to portfolios again will make learning to be a teacher a more relevant experience for every education student in the state.

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Building a portfolio as a teacher candidate helped me to get into the habit of reflecting on my practice and evidence of my growth. Developing a growth mindset through my teaching portfolio prepared me to be more public and collaborative with my craft and with my colleagues, and it has helped me model my love of learning to students throughout my career.

But while creating my portfolio has helped create a mindset where professional development is more immediate and meaningful because I am always aware of the next step in my own learning of how to be a better teacher, too often my colleagues have found our district-driven professional development abstract or irrelevant. It wasn’t easy to stay motivated, working long hours, through chattering and frostbitten fingers in my college’s ice-box-esque basement computer labs. But I genuinely enjoyed making my own portfolio because it was goal-driven, intrinsically motivating, and based on my actual competency as a teacher. It was through the overt practice of reflection and analysis that I resolved to provide my students with the same experience.

Process can be streamlined

Some people will argue that the portfolio licensure option is too arduous for the Board of Teaching to implement and maintain, but I am confident that there are viable solutions to this problem. There are some simple steps to streamline the portfolio review process — like using smaller examples such as assignments, mini-lessons or data rather than a single exemplary lesson to meet standards, or empowering exceptional teachers to review portfolios. 

The real question is: “How important is it to ensure that our licensed teachers have meaningful options to demonstrate their competency before they are in front of our students every day?”

As I think about my successes in the classroom, I think about what I learned and how I learned my craft, I know that my portfolio honed my teaching practice and increased my commitment to professional growth. The Board of Teaching needs to promote portfolio licensure beyond its current basic level, not simply because of the increasing public pressure, but because it will serve the best interests of students and help elevate the teaching profession.

Ben MacKenzie is an English teacher at the FAIR School in downtown Minneapolis.


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