No factory for 'super teachers,' but UMSL is developing a system
I didn’t go to high school in St. Louis. And while I married a native, and raised three, I have lived here for only 21 years. Obviously, my authority to speak as a St. Louisan is limited.
On the other hand, being an émigré allows me to feel proud of prideworthy local happenings to a degree that seems less common among indigenous St. Louisans.
Here is one example having to do with education. (Full disclosure: I have spent the last four months employed part-time in this initiative.)
First, a little background: You have probably seen the articles and television segments with titles like "Building a Better Teacher," "How to Train a Better Teacher" and so on. These stories usually begin with a lament about falling test scores, disengaged students, and lousy, complacent teachers who have given up on kids long ago and rely on craven union policies for their long-term employment security.
The middle section of these stories describes some amazing, heroic, tough-but-kind teacher whose insight, intelligence, and grit prepares the most wayward kids for college and fulfilling lives. "If only," these stories wistfully conclude. "If only we could somehow get a grip on these qualities, figure out how to impart them, get them into all of our teachers, and scale out the whole process.”
The underlying idea is that in a perfect educational world, every teacher would stand and deliver, and our kids’ test scores would look like Finland's and Singapore's.
Stories like these are galling because, apart from the fact that we will never be Finland or Singapore, good teachers are not "built" like robots or solar-powered cars or fabulously responsive computers. Good teachers are nurtured, counseled, and cultured in environments that enable them to try things out, learn from their mistakes, figure out what works best when and collaborate with others.
Good K-12 teachers reckon with the whole child, with (among other things) his family, his culture, his neighborhood, his eating habits, his values, his beliefs, his home language and the number of hours he sleeps at night. In other words, good teachers design what they do and say in context.
Happening at UMSL
At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the college of education is transforming itself into the kind of teacher preparation program that reflects what the smartest people have been saying and what the most up-to-date research has been suggesting about teaching and learning: context and clinical experience matter. In taking on this ambitious project, UMSL is responding to very specific calls for change from a Blue Ribbon panel appointed by National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) in Washington.
Under the leadership of the Carole Basile, who came to St. Louis in 2011 from the University of Colorado-Denver to serve as college of education dean, faculty and administrators at UMSL have been figuring out ways to redesign the undergraduate teacher education curriculum so it more responsively connects with the larger metropolitan community in which the students of their students – the children of this region -- are living their lives. By “larger metropolitan community,” I mean us. We are the K-12 context.
By “figuring,” I mean that this process has been hands-on and human. Retooling the education curriculum has required everyone involved to question, rethink, and recalculate exactly what we are talking about when we talk about educator preparation in the 21st century.
What we know we want
One thing we are for sure talking about is preparing teachers who can conduct systematic research into their own practice. We want teachers who can adapt, self-correct, and document the changes they make in their practice over time. We want teachers who conceive of themselves as knowledge generators, not merely “transmitters” of knowledge created by other people, or drill-and-kill cogs in a test-prep machine.
We want teachers who understand that teaching and learning evolve in relationships, that meaningful teaching incorporates awareness of a student’s temperament, as well as of her physical, cultural and environmental experiences. We want teachers who have cultivated relationships within a network of community partners and collaborators.
We want teachers who imagine themselves as professionals working in communities of practice.
And we want teachers who, like physicians, complete their training in and through clinical experiences in multiple school settings under the supervision of many different kinds of educational mentors (not just one all-powerful but isolated “cooperating teacher”). Basile calls this piece of the model “differentiated staffing,” which will take place in what are being called “Studio Schools” around the area. This semester, 13 schools will host the first cadre of UMSL students prepared to serve (and learn) in multiple roles across a variety of school settings. In the spring, the number of participating schools grows to 16.
The arc of the four-year journey will draw upon the partnerships the UMSL college of education is establishing with the St. Louis community, and lead toward preparing educators for the culminating Studio School experience. Our political and business leaders, our cultural and scientific institutions, and our child and family-serving foundations and organizations all have parts to play in “culturing” the next generation of teachers before these early career teachers head into classrooms.
Push to change
For people like me who crave the integration of theory and practice, what is going on at UMSL is very inspiring. What cognitive science tells us about distributed knowledge and what social science tells us about distributed leadership is playing out in the ongoing tinkering happening among teacher educators, K-12 teachers and administrators, education students, community partners, all of whom have been attending planning sessions for several months. At their best, these meetings and the changes they entail aim for horizontal enrichment and flexibility, not hierarchical rigidity. It’s messy work—patterns and traditions are hard to change—but people keep showing up with pads and pencils.
Eventually, as these early cohorts of “thickly” trained teachers begin to flow into schools and other places where learning is happening, the quality (and experience) of teaching will shift for everyone, even classroom veterans, and the quality of student experience (and learning) will improve.
Education is not confined to schools. UMSL is trying to prepare people who can teach wherever there are people who need or want to learn. No matter where you’re from, that’s everywhere.
Inda Schaenen is a writer and teacher in St. Louis.