Phases of First Year Teaching

Brent M passed along an excellent article.

1. Fantasy Phase

For the typical teacher, this includes the period of undergrad or grad classes about education.

The pretend teacher is the center of the classroom and possesses total authority and control over the actions within the context of the classroom. The rewards are obvious--the esteem and admiration of the pupils...

During this "fantasy" phase, the prospective teacher experiences some anxiety as the actual professional teaching act grows closer to realization, but, for the most part, the fantasies remain unrealistic and extremely pleasant.

Teacher educators can easily identify the "fantasy" phase teacher because it is difficult to establish relevancy of education theories and practices in the "fantasy" classroom.

For example, discussion about classroom management and desist strategies are of little relevance to an individual who is not going to have any such problems in the classroom. The traditional pre-service teacher (approximately 20-24 years of age) knows how it is to be a student, understands the needs of students, and is going to be liked and respected by his/her students. Therefore, classroom management, discipline, desist strategies, etc., are of little consequence or importance.

2. Survival Phase

This begins a couple days after starting full-time teaching.

This teacher moves swiftly through lessons (the students do not ask questions so the students must be learning), uses a vocabulary more appropriate to college classrooms than public school classrooms, and is either exceptionally permissive or exceptionally rigid.

Astute observers notice that these teachers take home an excessive amount of work, frequently appear to be hurried, and often exhibit characteristics of exhaustion.

3. Disenchantment Phase

The authors describe this as coinciding with first paycheck -- generally mid-September.

The gentle administrator that lauded the academic accomplishments of the novice transforms into a hideous being that begins to question the novice's ability to control a classroom. Parents that mysteriously appear at the classroom door generally do so only to question the novice's fairness and/or competence. Students, that once cared, have metamorphosed into an uncaring conglomeration of "hormones in sneakers," and are far dumber than when the novice "was in school."

And, to make matters worse, the apparent failure of the novice is quite visible to his/her colleagues as well as to him/herself.

4. Competence

After a period of time (usually a period of 12-18 months, but sometimes a period of multiple years), the novice teacher has learned some of the "tricks of the trade," how to balance his/her social and professional life, and understands that student attitudes should not always be taken as a personal attack. The novice develops a "thick skin" and becomes adept at manipulating his/her professional life to operate in concert with his/her personal life.

The whole article is worth a read. Maybe even a re-read.

The authors, Mark and Pam Littleton, offer an astute observation:

The length of time spent in disenchantment is critical. If the novice remains in this phase for a prolonged period of time, s/he will soon leave the profession. If other careers are not an option, the novice becomes bitter and constantly assassinates the character of parents, students, colleagues, and denigrates education in general.

I agree. Think about this from an economic point of view.

If a decent fraction of rookies become career teachers who are embittered, there's really almost no way to significantly change the day-to-day student experience -- billions spent on training, curriculum, data, or incentives -- are sabotaged. The well is poisoned. You can't let the well become poisoned.

Our teacher prep program was built entirely to short-circuit this cycle. Can we bypass the typical 12-18 months needed to typically establish some reasonable floor of competence? Can rookies have it from Day 1?

To do so, we aggressively work to end the fantasy period ASAP from our first day of the teacher training year: a mix of stories, data, and experiences for the trainee. (In fact, ending fantasy period begins even earlier: during recruitment and selection).

If that is accomplished, the authors' nightmare suddenly becomes a dreamworld -- the "classroom management, discipline, desist strategies, etc" are considered by trainees to be of paramount importance, instead of the status quo (no importance).

Boom: we have an audience eager to learn these essential skills from experienced coaches and instructors.

Could other Ed Schools do this? Various Ed School deans have described to me the political challenges within their organizations; faculty simply don't believe their job is to teach practical stuff.

This is reinforced by the data from a 2010 Fordham Foundation study. I blogged about this a few weeks ago:

For instance, when asked to choose between two competing philosophies regarding the role of teacher educator, just 26 percent prefer that of preparing their students “to work effectively within the realities of today’s public schools”; the majority (68 percent) choose the philosophy of preparing students “to be change agents who will reshape education by bringing new ideas and approaches to the public schools.

I'm sympathetic to the Ed School dean's situation. You can lead your faculty a little, sure. But how to bypass overwhelming opinion?

Last week I blogged about Ed Schools having a Navy Seal division of teacher prep. But at the time I was thinking of how appealing it would be to certain future schoolteachers.

I realize now the downside. It might would offend faculty. Because Navy Seal means "better." I.e., implies: better than our regular teacher prep.

So let me amend. Perhaps there's a more neutral way to frame this. I wonder if Ed Schools could at least split their teacher prep into two types: the current one (generally called "progressive" -- into project-based learning, portfolio assessment, teacher is "guide on the side," etc) and an End-The-Fantasy practical one.

I bet a decent chunk of students would choose the latter.

Progressive faculty might be happier. They'd have fewer students, true. But those they did have would be more firmly committed to the progressive vision. Therefore professors could dig more deeply into the "how" part of realizing that vision. And a clearer pipeline could be established to those K-12 schools which want those teachers.

Meanwhile, the Ed School which went down this road could hire non-Phd expert schoolteachers to teach the "practical" stuff. If effective, the Ed School's report card would improve. This would please faculty, students, and the university president....