Sink or Swim: A closer look at teacher preparation

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maryIt is interesting to think about what becomes a “buzz-worthy” topic in the field of education. For instance, politicians, researchers, and school administrators across the nation have been talking a great deal about the quality of teaching in American schools. Much of the emphasis in that dialogue has been on how teacher’s performance can be rated, how that rating can be analyzed alongside student outcomes, and how both can be tied into some kind of merit system – drawing attention to failing teachers and rewarding those teachers deemed as successful. In further reflection to those often-discussed topics though, it is interesting to acknowledge what is missing from the conversation. One essential topic in education that has not found its place on the radar is teacher preparation. It seems the topic of whether teachers are prepared to teach effectively is a hotter topic than how teachers are prepared to step into a classroom – and what challenges they find once they do step in. For example, how are new teachers prepared to take on the central task of managing their classrooms?

“With this in mind, a teacher has the opportunity to use the classroom climate as a second teacher. If the teacher ignores it, and has little in the way of formal training in classroom management techniques, it is a recipe for disaster.”

The National Council on Teacher Quality has published a new report looking at the teacher preparation: more specifically, the course descriptions and degree requirements of a sampling of higher education institutions across the country. The section of the report offering ratings of teacher preparation schools has begun to surface as news-worthy, much in the same way that teacher-rating and community school-rating attract attention. But another element of the report worthy of discussion is the finding that little instruction is offered to novice teachers in classroom management and when it is offered, it goes no further than theoretical basics.

The topic of classroom management can be polarizing amongst educators. Some would say – either you’ve got control, or you don’t. Some seasoned educators warn against the common novice teacher mistake of trying to be the kids’ friend – going as far as to advise no smiling for the first couple of weeks in order to make it clear that this teacher is no pushover. Others believe if the teacher is good enough at teaching, every kid will be engaged, and behavior problems will simply not surface. So much emphasis on the ways teachers make their authority understood, ignores a big part of the picture: what do aspiring teachers know about the role of “climate” – the term given to all the elements that goes into how it feels to be in that teacher’s classroom environment.

Humans react to their settings, and these reactions organize to produce behaviors. In addition to basic ascetics (e.g. lighting, sound, smell, textures, temperature), research has found that environmental elements such as one’s history with the setting, how closely it matches with the temperament of the individual, and how clearly the expectations of that environment are articulated all have an impact on the behavior of the individual. With this in mind, a teacher has the opportunity to use the classroom climate as a second teacher. If the teacher ignores it, and has little in the way of formal training in classroom management techniques, it is a recipe for disaster.

While the NCTQ report draws attention to the lack of formal instruction, it gives very little describing what would constitute better teacher preparation in the area of classroom management. Instead, the report simply highlights the cultivation of a teacher’s ability to sense when students are getting “off track” and the ability to “re-engage them without interrupting instruction.” It also points out that novice teachers need to have techniques for when misbehavior occurs, and should establish a “classroom environment conducive to full engagement in learning.

“Being able to provide a positive learning environment is the stage in which all other teacher skills can be demonstrated.”

It begs the question: How is a teacher-in-training supposed to decode this expectation of dealing with every child’s needs, while never missing a beat? What does a classroom look like and feel like when it is conducive to full engagement of learning? How can I have a technique that works for everything from clowning around to swearing at the teacher?

If we are truly going to raise the standards of teacher preparation, we must start with a firm grasp of what professional skills each teacher needs in order to do his or her job. Being able to provide a positive learning environment is the stage in which all other teacher skills can be demonstrated. A thorough understanding of how elements such as classroom set-up, schedule, routine, and rules affect the behavior of children and adults alike must be paired with formal instruction on how children build social and emotional skills. In order to provide such an environment teachers need to feel confident in the use of a variety of strategies to prevent, minimize, and address challenging behaviors. And, like any student, novice teachers require a variety of learning opportunities in addition to didactic instruction, including observation, practice, and feedback in order to feel confident in the use of classroom management techniques. Without this element of teacher preparation we will continue to throw new teachers into classrooms, and watch them either sink or swim. Teachers deserve more and so do the children.


Mary Watson Avery, M.S, is the Program Manager of the Connected Beginnings Training Institute at Aspire. Mary’s career has focused on work with children birth to 6 years, parent support, and early childhood practitioner professional development. Her special interests include infant mental health practices; the play of typical and traumatized children; therapeutic parent education; coaching practices in early childhood settings; and the mentoring of early childhood trainers. She has been a teacher, administrator and consultant in several urban early childhood programs in New York City and the greater Boston area. Her experience as an early childhood educator has focused on protective childcare as an element of family preservation efforts. Mary has also served on the faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Risk & Prevention Program; and was the Director of Family Connections , a community mental health outreach program targeting parental depression, based at Boston Children’s Hospital .

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  1. Dear Mary,

    I really appreciate all of what you stated in your article based on teacher preparation and the subject of classroom management. I am going in to my 15th year teaching and I have seen this time and time again where an innocent, educated teacher leaves the classroom in tears, feeling like a failure (during their first week) because they were never formally trained in classroom management skills. I am a Wheelock Graduate (class of 1999 high school Special Education Teacher). During my student teaching at the Franky V Thompson Middle School in Dorchester,MA it was sink or swim! I never had a chance to make the mistake of trying to make friends with the students, they did not want to be my friend! Instead, it was birth by fire, I had to be prepared for the worst, be able to adjust my lessons to many various classroom disruptions (most of the time outside the classroom) and anything else that came my way. I remember going home exhausted, wondering if I really could handle being a teacher for 30+ years. I will tell you that because of this experience and training, I know that I have made an outrageous impact on the students that I have had throughout the years because they come back to school 5-10 years later after they have graduated or come up to me in public and tell how much they appreciate what I did for them:held them accountable, taught them how to feel confident and to become good problem solvers. This is to me is the true meaning of success. I remember how hard my cooperating teacher worked to help me learn about the process of breaking down the emotional walls in each and every student in my classroom, mainly it was all about teaching the students that they could trust me. It was amazing that once the trust developed between us, the learning started and did not stop. I learned to adjust to my students’ needs based on the environment that I was working in. To this day, I still utilize this model.