Teacher prep programs can do better. Here’s how.

Observation only goes so far. Pre-service teachers need more opportunities to work directly with students.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Anyone who observed my kindergarten report card conference would never have expected me to become a teacher myself someday.  

As Ms. Campbell, my teacher, handed my mom my report card, I saw that she was not excited to see me. Though my mom could not speak English, she could tell from Ms. Campbell’s body language that my report card was not good. Ms. Campbell was pointing to me and her head and saying the word “headache” repeatedly. My five-year-old self was flooded with shame and sadness. As a non-native English speaker, it was true that I required more help than my classmates, but I never considered that I could be a burden, let alone a headache, to my teacher. 

The next day, instead of yelling at me or putting me down, my mom, who grew up in a war-torn society and could neither read nor write, went to the library and got flash cards. Each night, she would sit me down in our living room and hold up the letters of the alphabet. When I finally learned all 26 letters and saw her smile, the feelings of shame and sadness washed away and were replaced with pride and joy. 

Bach Tram (Courtesy photo)

As I reflect on that moment, I realized two things. First, my first real teacher was not Ms. Campbell, but my mom. And second, I wanted to be the kind of teacher my mom was for me — a teacher who can instill feelings of pride and joy and see the potential in all her students. 

Since becoming an educator, though, I have seen Ms. Campbell in myself many times. Like her, I have sometimes struggled to address the needs of my students who are English language learners, require emotional support, or have special learning needs. 

I attribute that partially to the reality that most of my time in teacher preparation programs was spent learning about education theory and observing other teachers rather than practicing my skills in front of students with a mentor teacher’s support. I did not have many opportunities to gain practical experience in working with students with diverse learning needs, and I entered the classroom still feeling unprepared. 

My experience is not unique. A 2018 study found that 72% of new teachers in Philadelphia reported feeling unprepared to work in an urban classroom, and 62% felt unprepared to teach culturally diverse students. Given this lack of preparation and the stress of being a new teacher, especially in the age of COVID, it’s no wonder that half of new teachers in Pennsylvania leave their school or the profession within the first five years.

I learned how to create lesson plans but not how to help students with diverse needs.  

I believe this high turnover rate is directly related to the way we prepare teachers. Currently, most pre-service teachers in traditional Pennsylvania preparation programs have only 12-16 weeks of hands-on student teaching experience. While they might observe mentor teachers for longer, many do not have sufficient student teaching time to encounter and solve problems with mentor teachers’ help they will someday face in their own classrooms. 

Take, for example, my own student teaching experience. Per our program’s requirement, I spent the first half of my time watching and observing my host teacher prepare and teach. By the time I finally got comfortable in front of the class, my student teaching experience was over. I learned how to create lesson plans but not how to help students with diverse needs. 

It does not have to be this way. Teacher preparation programs should create opportunities for future teachers not only to observe classrooms but also to practice teaching throughout their preparation, in the same way that apprenticeships and medical residencies allow for intensive and sustained on-the-job training. Pre-service teachers should have opportunities to work with students and share leadership of classrooms from their freshman year of college. Mentor teachers must also be trained to support, coach, and gradually release responsibility to their student teachers. 

By reimagining teacher preparation, we can help future teachers learn to manage their time, develop confidence and their teaching style, and build rapport with students and families. This shift will also ensure that future teachers are equipped to support students with special academic, language, social, emotional, or behavioral needs from day one, benefiting all students and teachers.  

This way, rather than see students with diverse needs as a “headache,” teachers will feel confident in their ability to support all students and see the strengths and brilliance in every child. 

Bach Tram is a middle school teacher in the School District of Philadelphia and a Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow.