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How to Build a Better Teacher? Practice, Practice, Practice
04 Jan 2017
by Lynn Holdheide

Let’s be honest. Teaching, done well, is a complex job.

Teacher preparation programs work to have their graduates “learner ready” by day one in the classroom. But teacher candidates need more than coursework, watching master teachers, and a semester or two of student teaching to become effective.

And all students need effective teachers on Day One – and beyond.

To get there, our teacher candidates need to teach early, teach often, and teach in a wide variety of settings before they get their own classrooms. Research in cognitive and developmental psychology suggests that for adults to learn complex skills (as needed in teaching) they must learn in situations similar to what they will encounter.  This, in addition to quality feedback, will help them hone instructional and classroom management techniques that new teachers often work years to develop.

Teacher preparation programs say that there aren’t enough high-quality placement schools willing to let teacher candidates try out teaching techniques early in their training. And there’s a lot of content packed into teacher preparation classes. Much needs to be accomplished—all compressed into a candidate’s time within a preparation program. How does extra practice fit into that?

With no time to waste, some teacher preparation programs are integrating innovative practice-based opportunities within campus-based coursework and field experiences—before in-school placements.  

In a recent brief, Learning to Teach: Practice-based Preparation in Teacher Education, The Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR) and the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL Center) highlighted opportunities to practice within educator preparation programs.

These Practice-Based Opportunities are:

  • Focused—target critical content and skills centered on what teachers should know and be able to do
  • Coherent—common expectations of practice are advanced and reinforced throughout coursework and field experiences
  • Scaffolded—carefully built in sequence and in complexity over time

They’re also coupled with a deeper, more immediate level of coaching, feedback, and reflection.

How does it work?

Let’s take an elementary education candidate who’s learning how to teach reading. He needs to build his knowledge—to understand the research behind successful ways to teach reading. But knowing how to do it isn’t enough. He needs practice.  

First, he might practice a beginning skill in front of other teacher candidates. For example, he may demonstrate teaching students strategies to improve reading comprehension. The other candidates give him feedback and he can learn from their observations.  

Then he and his peers might watch and critique a video of a master educator teaching reading comprehension instruction. Next, he and his peers might watch a video of themselves teaching reading and give feedback and more coaching.  

After that, he might head to a special teaching technology lab, where he could practice his teaching in front of a virtual classroom of “students” (avatars) with a complex range of instructional skills.  It’s like a flight simulator; he can make mistakes, crash, and try again and again.

Then he might be ready for live students—and live coaching. In a field placement at a local school, his supervisor or a master teacher can give him real-time feedback through an earpiece right while he’s teaching.

These “learning/practice” opportunities are repeated multiple times and become more complex over time as our teacher-candidate masters a wide array of teaching skills.  

Teacher preparation programs across the country are employing innovative strategies to increase both the quantity and quality of practice-based opportunities. Schools like University of Central Florida are using virtual simulation with avatars to prepare their candidates. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is integrating bud-in-the-ear coaching for real-time coaching and feedback. The University of Virginia is using a modified version of a program that supports teachers through video analysis and individualized coaching during their preservice training.

Bottom line: Teaching is hard. It’s complex. Expertise doesn’t come overnight and new teachers—even those who have had plenty of opportunities for practice, coaching, and feedback—will still benefit from early additional support at their first schools. But in the long run, practice does lead to proficiency– or at least gives new teachers experience and confidence on the journey to becoming effective educators.

Lynn Holdheide is a former special education teacher and current AIR Project Manager for the CEEDAR Center, which is led by the University of Florida. She is also Senior Advisor for the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders and a technical assistance facilitator for the National Center for Systemic Improvement.



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