Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District. He is a member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative.
Many years ago, as I navigated my way through different careers before settling on education, I was a truck mechanic for Ford. I started right out of high school prepping new cars and then worked my way into the apprentice mechanic program. I wanted to work on big trucks. The career path – from apprenticeship to journeyman mechanic – was charted and guided by the union.
According to union procedures, you had to apprentice under the watchful eye of a master mechanic. The length of the apprenticeship depended on how long it took for the apprentice to master the craft. For me it took around two years.
My master teacher, a crusty Chicago Sicilian guided me through the process, just as he was taught. He was short on theory and long on practice. So it went for two years. First I assisted him replacing clutches, brakes, and engines. Then he assisted me as I worked. Finally he left me alone to practice. All along the way he gave me feedback.
I wouldn’t call it the most nurturing experience. He had a knack for throwing Sicilian cuss words at me (which I occasionally conjure up today when needed) and he had a tendency to take the better paying jobs, leaving me with the jobs that paid less and involved more grunt work. But because of him I was able to move through my apprenticeship quicker than most. I took away from that experience the insight that I learn by doing and with plenty of feedback.
Learning by doing, under a watchful and practiced eye
This same learning from doing, under the watchful eye of a master practitioner, with plenty of feedback, should be used in the teaching profession. I had a mixed experience in my process of becoming a teacher. I went through a typical university teacher program. Good theoretical grounding with some practice in the classroom.
The time in the classroom was, in my view, too limited. I spent a few weeks observing teachers to give me an idea of what teaching looked like. This was, I was told, a way to make sure that I wanted to continue my pursuit of teaching, or to bail if it was not what I expected.
I then student-taught, team-teaching at first with my mentor teacher and eventually on my own, for 12 weeks. I had a great master teacher who gave me plenty of feedback. But as I found out later in my own teaching experience, the limited time spent in the class shortened my exposure to the trials and tribulations of spending time with students and fellow teachers for an entire cycle or school year.
I found the experience to be more focused on teaching than on student learning. It takes time to measure and observe student learning and then respond to those results. The preparation program that I encountered was based on the old paradigm of teaching: Do no harm and ensure that the cream rises to the top. Our expectation for teachers has changed. The change from ranking and sorting students, to ensuring that all students learn at high levels was not reflected in the way I was trained. Student teachers need more time, more feedback, and more exposure to the new paradigm’s focus on learning and not teaching.
Learning from the Stanley British Primary model
The Stanley British Primary School Teacher Preparation Program located in Denver is an example of an intensive year-long approach of placing master teachers with teacher interns. The Stanley BPS Teacher Prep Program is a designated agency of Colorado’s Alternative Licensure Program. Teacher interns who work in the Denver Public Schools work with a mentor teacher for the school year.
Besides daily feedback from the mentor teacher, the interns are observed on a biweekly basis by an educational advisor and they receive guidance from the program director and the principal of the partnership school. Every week the interns attend an afternoon of seminars, workshops, learning labs, and discussions.
The program also organizes the interns into various “homeroom” groups for support and collaboration. The program works closely with the University of Colorado at Denver, where interns can work on a master’s in Educational Psychology or Early Childhood Education.
The program is not cheap. It costs $16,500 to prepare each intern. The program is funded through a private-public school partnership. Teachers receive a stipend from BPS and funds from their partnership school to cover the cost of receiving the Colorado Initial License. Over 70 percent of the program’s graduates are still teaching after five years. Compare this to the national average of 50 percent.
The Stanley BPS Teacher Preparation Program recognizes the importance of theory coupled with intensive practice. And by practice I mean the experience of trying something new and learning from the results over and over again. It takes lots of guided practice to become an effective teacher.
Residency programs and other models based on apprenticeships
Two other local programs are similar to the Stanley Program. Both the Denver Teacher Residency and the Boettcher Teachers Program rely on intensive mentorship throughout the first year of residency. It is interesting to note that all three of these programs are alternative teacher preparation programs. It would be nice to see all teacher preparation programs utilize at least one year of intensive residency work.
The Bay Area New Millennium Initiative suggests an even more intensive process to become a teacher. The NMI proposes a three stage process:
- The first phase requires a three year apprentice teacher process. This would be a combined internship-university model. Apprentice teachers would start the process observing and then gradually releasing into teaching individual courses under the tutelage of a master teacher, while completing pedagogical coursework.
- The second phase is the “Professional Teacher.” Here teachers continue to hone their practice while they open up their classrooms to observation by apprentice, professional, and mentor teachers. If they so chose, professional teachers could then move on to “Master Teacher.”
- At the “Master Teacher” phase the NMI model encourages master teachers to take on school, district, county, or even state-wide leadership roles.
The NMI model “enables effective teachers to keep a foot in the classroom while taking on new responsibilities that build and spread his or her expertise.”
What I find intriguing about the Bay Area NMI idea is the relationship between a practicing teacher and their profession. Teachers recognize the importance of giving back to the profession as well as their responsibilities to upcoming teachers.
Both the BPS and Bay Area NMI approaches recognize the importance of time in the classroom and plenty of feedback. The Bay NMI takes it a step further by establishing different career paths for teachers. The profession of teaching is transforming and teachers need to play the key role in what the profession is to become.
Teachers certainly need to keep a abreast of policy and political machinations that seemed to have recently taken over the profession. We won’t be able to fix education with policy alone (if at all). We can fix it by transforming the profession.