As city seeks out new pre-K teachers, a training challenge grows

Emma Markarian spent seven years studying psychology and early childhood education in Russia and the United States before taking over her own classroom. So Markarian, now a pre-kindergarten teacher in the city, was surprised to find herself leading an abbreviated course on child development in June to aspiring pre-K teachers who hoped to lead their own classrooms this fall — with only three months of training under their belts.

The child development course Markarian taught lasted for a fleeting three-and-a-half weeks. “There is no way you can have a deep understanding within three-and-a-half weeks,” she said. “That’s the scary part.” In addition to taking a sequence of condensed courses over the summer, the teachers-in-training interned in pre-K classrooms to get some hands-on training.

A longstanding body of research shows that high-quality pre-K programs help children succeed in school and in life — a driving force behind the city’s unprecedented expansion of pre-K this school year. But high-quality programs depend on high-quality teachers.

Knowing that schools and private organizations would need as many as 1,000 new instructors before classes start next week, city and school officials have tried to devise creative training and hiring strategies. While education leaders say there is not an outright shortage of applicants, the number of pre-K seats will increase again in 2015. And though many pre-K teachers are entering the system through traditional pathways, it’s important that schools and community-based organizations have a choice of candidates as the pre-K expansion progresses.

The architects of the effort are faced with the complicated task of training prospective teachers in a highly specialized field. Teaching the youngest students is far more complicated than babysitting on the one hand, or simply demanding that four-year-olds master increasingly demanding academic skills on the other.

“The people doing pre-K teaching need better training and support in most states than what they are getting now,” said Deborah Stipek, the dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, speaking generally and not specifically of New York.

In New York City, one approach has been to funnel already-certified teachers who are currently teaching older grades into pre-K classrooms. A second approach has been to start from scratch and educate rookie teachers — usually career-changers or recent college graduates — through intensive classes like the one Markarian taught in June. Experts say both approaches can be fraught with challenges. And with even the most seasoned instructors grappling over how to apply the Common Core state standards to pre-K, questions over how new teachers can be trained both effectively and efficiently are more important than ever.

Playing musical chairs

Some veteran educators shifting to pre-K from other grades in the coming years — in some cases at the urging of their principals — will have a steep learning curve. Maria OluHamilton, a teaching assistant at Brooklyn’s M.S. 394, for example, has over 20 years of classroom experience, but primarily at the eighth-grade level. She knows she’ll have to completely change how she behaves in the classroom to engage much younger students.

Maria OluHamilton (left) and Jacqualyn Porter during a teaching workshop run by Bank Street College and the Department of Education. (Madeleine Cummings)

“This is all new to me,” she said while attending a recent training session run by Bank Street College and the Department of Education.

Since OluHamilton is not certified as an early childhood education teacher, she will get extensive training over the next several years as she works toward her certification. Some experts worry, however, that it’s too easy for instructors who are already certified to teach older elementary grades to make the switch to pre-K; usually they can extend their certification to pre-K just by taking a course or two, says Beverly Falk, who directs the early childhood graduate programs at City College.

“The big issue is making sure the pre-K classrooms are high-quality so we are not bringing the upper grade model into the lower grades,” Falk said.

Practices like multiple-choice testing might be appropriate for fourth-graders at times, but not for four-year-olds. And because children’s social and emotional skills are developing at wildly different rates in the early years, pre-K teachers, in particular, must be able to adjust their instruction to accommodate children at a wide range of developmental stages. 

Esther Soto and Betty Garcia, who taught kindergarten and first grade, respectively, at P.S. 112 in East Harlem before switching to pre-K a few years ago, said the transition can be tough, even for those with extensive experience working with young learners.

“We were put back in pre-K with really no training,” Garcia said. “It was sink or swim.”

Both women attended the same training session as OluHamilton. They said they hope that the pre-K expansion will come with increased support for teachers in the form of professional development, frequent classroom visits from social workers, and guidance in making sense of new learning standards.

Garcia hopes to better prepare her classroom of four-year-olds for what she has discovered are demanding Common Core standards for kindergarten and first grade, particularly in reading, she says.

Though Garcia appreciated the recent workshops, she was disappointed that there wasn’t more of an emphasis on curriculum and dismayed by the number of teachers who said their schools had no curriculum at all for pre-K. “The teachers are completely left to their own defenses,” she said.

Stanford’s Stipek said young children are capable of learning extensive academic skills. But they need to be taught in age-appropriate ways — not through worksheets or rote counting exercises. In one pre-K classroom she visited, Stipek watched as students recited numbers from memory. She realized they knew the numbers’ sounds, but not their significance, when she put three pennies down and none of the children could say how many there were.

“Four-year-olds are really interested in numbers if it’s done right, in a playful, developmentally appropriate way,” she said.

Laura Bornfreund, the deputy director at the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative, said pre-K teachers should be engaging children in conversations and asking follow-up questions rather than lecturing.

“We know from research that, especially in early childhood, the most important thing that leads to long-term success later in school and in life are the quality of the interactions between teachers and children,” she said.

Starting from scratch

In another attempt to meet the demand for pre-K teachers, the city has helped create a fellowship program for about 100 aspiring teachers run by the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. The rookie teachers, chosen from a pool of 1,200 applicants, will take over their own classrooms in September after only three months of training (though they will continue to work toward a master’s degree from the City University of New York over the next year).

The program, modeled after the city’s Teaching Fellows program, was created partly to help quickly deliver teachers to many of the city’s 850 community-based organizations, which must find teachers who are certified — or working toward certification — if they want to participate in the expanded, publicly funded pre-K program.

Some educators, like Emma Markarian, worry that the fast-track to the classroom could leave novice teachers underprepared. When she taught the course on child development this summer, Markarian described many of her students as “confused” and “overwhelmed.”

“They are given so little time to learn and right away thrown in the classroom,” she said, noting that it takes time and training even to figure out how to set up a pre-K classroom.

Lily Pollak, one of the aspiring teachers participating in the training sessions, says the program logistics have been somewhat rushed, but she feels like she has been learning a lot. The trainees have had to be flexible as they waited to learn whether their salaries will be the same as fully certified pre-K teachers, for instance. “Things are changing so much day to day,” she said.

Still, Pollak believes she is getting solid training in such areas as teaching students with special needs and in different educational philosophies and approaches, like Montessori, which emphasizes hands-on learning and multi-age student classrooms. And although she’s studying plenty of theory, Pollak says program leaders also teach us “real scenarios in the classroom.”

Sherry Cleary, the director of the program, said the Professional Development Institute is working hard to support the teachers-in-training despite the time constraints. Each trainee has a mentor, for example, who can provide guidance on everything from job interviews to classroom management. Whether there will be funding to extend the mentoring past the new teachers’ first year on the job is uncertain, however.

Another question mark: whether all, or even most, of the trainees will stick with the multi-year teaching commitment. (They are supposed to remain in pre-K classrooms for two years after they receive their certification in exchange for free tuition.) Cleary predicts attrition, which has already become an issue, will continue.

“We fully expect that some of those people who believed with every fiber of their soul that they could manage the intensity will not be able to manage it,” she said.

Increased expectations add to the pressure

Pre-K teachers Betty Garcia and Esther Soto during a lunch break at a recent professional development series. (Madeleine Cummings)

The city’s massive training effort comes at a time of mounting pressure on early childhood instructors nationally as Common Core standards affect even the youngest grades. More is being asked of pre-K teachers, here and elsewhere, making it all the more vital that they receive high-quality training.

In January of 2011, New York became one of the first states to develop a set of pre-kindergarten standards that align with the Common Core. In addition to covering English and math, the document encompasses physical, social, and emotional developmental milestones, among others. It specifies that by end of pre-K children should be able to adjust their behavior depending on the setting, for example.

Rebecca Lescure, a pre-K teacher at P.S. 282 in Park Slope, said the Common Core standards have led some principals to pressure pre-K teachers to introduce far more challenging academic content. She initially pushed back against what she thinks are unrealistic expectations, but has since acquiesced to some degree, introducing more designated writing time in her classroom, for instance.

Alisa Clark, who teaches pre-K at the privately-run 14th Street Y, said there’s continued confusion among teachers over how the Common Core standards relate to pre-K.

“It’s all very vague and I know a lot of teachers are still confused about it,” she said.

Markarian said most of the pre-K teachers-in-training she works with know the standards, but not necessarily how to implement them in the classroom. On-the-job mentoring, she said, is one way to help new teachers cover the standards appropriately. But that kind of mentoring is tough for most principals to provide. Not only do most of them already have full plates, but many don’t understand how to teach more academic skills in the youngest grades in an age-appropriate manner. “The fact is that most administrators don’t have a knowledge of pre-K and how young children learn,”said Markarian.

In the meantime, many novice teachers are relying on each other. At a recent workshop run by Bank Street College of Education and the city’s Department of Education, a trainer led groups of soon-to-be teachers through the Common Core standards and how they relate to pre-K. After giving each group a classroom scenario, she asked them to come up with activities that promote creativity, curiosity, and initiative — and are also aligned with the Common Core.

Both Soto and Garcia said they found the exercise helpful, particularly hearing from their peers. “Even though we’re veterans, today I learned a lot,” Soto said.

Garcia echoed that sentiment, saying, “As long as they continue the professional development, allowing us to meet and support each other, we’ll be happy.”

Madeleine Cummings is a reporting fellow for a new education journalism initiative at the Columbia Journalism School focused on covering teachers.