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Reforming Teacher Education Programs

Too often new teachers walk into their first classroom assignment full of educational theories but short on practical training, according to consultant Dr. Howard Seeman. Teachers need more hands-on experience in classroom management, he said. Included: Classroom management strategies.

If one looks at what is taught in teacher preparation programs and then at what teachers say they need help with in the classroom, the disconnect is obvious.

While teacher preparation programs stress pedagogy and educational theory, many teachers find that, when they begin working, their biggest struggles are with classroom management and coping with different types of students.

The time has come to reform teacher preparation programs so teachers receive more training in delivering lessons, preventing and managing disruptive classroom behavior, and self-examination, according to Dr. Howard Seeman, professor emeritus, Lehman College, of the City University of New York. Teachers need to analyze what thoughts, feelings, and personal traits they bring to the classroom and how they could affect their teaching, Dr. Seeman said.

A national education consultant since 1970, Dr. Seeman helps teachers and administrators through Classroom Management Online. He also is the author of the book Preventing Classroom Discipline Problems.

Dr. Seeman talked with Education World about why he feels there is an urgent need to reform teacher preparation programs.

"Unfortunately, most teacher preparation curricula taught in our nation's colleges are loaded with too much abstract theory and too little realistic practical help," says Dr. Howard Seeman, an author and education consultant.

Education World: I understand that recently you and many of your colleagues who consult in the field have been feeling that there is a lot wrong with college teacher education in the U.S. Can you explain?

Dr. Howard Seeman: I have been a consultant to schools across the U.S. for more than 30 years, schools that call upon me for help with real problems, not theoretical ones. I am glad to help. But, it has become appallingly clear to me, and some of my colleagues, that these teachers did not get this help with their real classroom concerns during their college teacher education. This should not be.

EW: What aspect of teacher education do you think is most urgently in need of reform?

Dr. Seeman: The short answer? The teacher education curriculum, that is, what prospective teachers are put through. When you ask teachers over more than two decades what they really need to be better teachers, they do not say: Piaget, Ericson, Maslow, or the history/philosophy of education, nor even better methods courses for teaching topics such as the Pythagorean Theorem.

Teachers say: "We need help with classroom management: discipline problems, effective classroom rules, procedures, handling students who don't do the homework, who call out, curse, come in late, fight, throw things, and attack us."

Some examples:

  • The Annual Gallup Poll of Public Schools for the past 22 years reports "lack of discipline" is the most serious problem facing the nation's schools.
  • Classroom disruptions lead to nearly two million suspensions a year, according to Daniel Macallair, in Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 2005.
  • We lose potentially "good" teachers every year: 43 percent quit the profession within five years because of classroom disruptive behavior, notes Jean Johnson in the February 14, 2005 issue of Public Agenda.
  • Johnson also writes that eight out of ten teachers report their teaching would be more effective if they did not have to spend so much time handling disruptive behavior.

Unfortunately, most teacher preparation curricula taught in our nation's colleges are loaded with too much abstract theory and too little realistic practical help. Courses in the history and philosophy of education, learning theory, and child development do help reframe teachers' perceptions of students' learning, but they do little to help teachers with their primary need: what to actually do in the classroom on the spot. There is a training gap between giving teachers informed perceptions, and actually helping them with what specifically to do for six hours a day, 180 days a year. Even the usefulness of subject methods courses only help get across the subject matter, if the teacher can control his or her class. Teachers want effective classroom management to be a priority in their education. It is not.

EW: Why do you think the architects of teacher education programs have been so slow to respond to teachers' needs?

Dr. Seeman: Unfortunately, teachers have little or no say regarding the courses they must take. Instead, professors of education have most of this power. And, most education professors tend to select theoretical courses that are in line with their training, that they are comfortable teaching, rather than teach what their students need. In many institutions, if the course offerings were more about what teachers really needed, many of these too theoretical professors would be out of a job. Many cannot teach what these teachers need. Professors vote for curricula that secures their jobs, rather than that which would really help the jobs of those they are supposed to help. Some education professors, assigned to train K-12 teachers, would themselves fall apart in front of a real K-12 classroom.

Teaching, though, is not just conceptual. Instead: teaching is a performance art.

EW: What do you mean when you say teaching is "a performance art?"

Dr. Seeman: It is not like learning chemistry formulas. Nor is it like learning what a car needs and then fixing it, no matter how good the lesson plan. It is also not like learning math concepts and then plugging them in.

Instead, teaching is more like learning the game of tennis: first, learning how it is played; then actually practicing how to play it, with coaching; then learning the strokes, until these become instinctive; and finally performing these skills interactively, with other players, on the spot.

Or, teaching is more like playing jazz piano: you learn concepts, practice reactions, by learning to hear the chords, and then perform these responses spontaneously, interacting with the other musicians in such a way that you play with honest feeling in order to make "music" together.

Training teachers in this performance art is very important because without it, or with just theories for reframing perceptions, teachers will fall back into just teaching the way they were taught! And some teachers have had some really bad teachers and/or parents.

EW: What are some of the crucial skills of this performance art?

Dr. Seeman: A key one is "congruence". We have not been able to help teachers with the performance art of teaching because you cannot just tell teachers what to do when Johnny does X. If a teacher does not respond congruently, that is, authentically, and is not being himself or herself whatever he or she tries will be ineffective.

For example, a teacher who yells: "I am not angry with you!" is being incongruent. As is one who looks bored saying, "The Civil War was very important." Or seems really not to be behind the rule: "If you call out again, you will, ah, get, ah, an assignmentsoon." In other words, an incongruent teacher is phony; he or she has not really figured out how he feels, or what he or she really believes in. The teacher seems to be acting like the TEACHER, from some kind of tape recorder in his or her head.

We need to, and can, train teachers not how to be the TEACHER, but how to incorporate their real selves into their teaching so that they can be professionally personal. Real, authentic, self aware, congruent "teacherpersons" tend to have more rapport with their students. Congruent teachers have fewer discipline problems. When someone tries to be a class clown in this congruent teacher's class, the other students tend to say to this class clown: "Hey, cool it, she is trying to teach us something!" We need to train teachers at being congruent, which helps establish this rapport with students. We need to help them with how to put their real person into their teacher, and how to practice this. We can.

EW: How can teacher education programs better prepare teachers to practice this art?

Dr. Seeman: First, since teaching is a performance art, we must face the uncomfortable fact that the most powerful tool in the classroom is not the blackboard or even the computer, but the teacher's personality. That is why Johnny can be a brat in period 3, then an angel in period 4. He did not change when the bell rang, his teacher did.

This is an uncomfortable fact for some because this means that good teacher training requires teachers to look at their feelings, not just their attainment of cognitive knowledge or methods. Math teachers who know their math, even many good methods for teaching it, still fall apart if they cannot manage the class.

Teachers need to look at their over-reactions, biases, inappropriate responses, displaced anger, and sometimes mislabeled discipline problems. They need to learn how to correct these and practice appropriate responses: fairness, keeping track of promises, warnings, systematic rewards, being properly assertive, and identifying the causes of correctly labeled disruptive behaviors.

EW: With so many teachers citing the need for help with discipline or behavior management issues, what are some tools teachers can employ to help them in the classroom?

Dr. Seeman: We need to give teachers guidelines for effective rules, and suggest procedures for homework, warnings, rewards, and handling cursing, but not tell them exactly what to say or do. If we do, these teachers will not be congruent. Incongruent teachers are ineffective; kids do not listen to incongruent teachers.

Then, we need to give them training exercises in these areas, exercises where they can find the responses that feel right for them, and then practice these, within helpful guidelines. We need to help them practice, simulate, and role-play these tailored-to-themselves suggestions, so they may be effective and still be themselves.

Another cause of discipline problems, sadly neglected in teacher education, is that we need to train teachers in, what I call not making "miscalls," that is, when a teacher calls a behavior a "discipline problem", when it should have been labeled and handled differently. For example, if Johnny puts his head down on his desk in the back of the room, it might be better to call it an "education problem" and not hit it with a "hammer". Instead, it may be better to use a "screwdriver"; let some behaviors slide for that moment, or use: "See me after class." When Mr. Smith stops his lesson and yells to this student, "Hey, what are you doing sleeping in my class?" Mr. Smith usually is more disruptive to his own lesson than the student. Furthermore, his "miscall" does not help the student by reprimanding him in front of the class. We need to train teachers to recognize about 15 typical "miscalls", and what to do instead of making these.

Teachers also need to participate in the formation of school rules. In addition, we need to train teachers not just in developing good lesson plans, but in the delivery of good lesson plans.

EW: Can you suggest what it is that we need to do as priorities to rectify teacher education?

Dr. Seeman: We need to first help teachers feel un-alone with these classroom problems. Professors of education need to drop a lot of their lectures and need to listen and support teachers sharing with each other. Many teachers are simply embarrassed to talk about these problems.

In addition, we need to help teachers not with just how to handle discipline problems, but also how to prevent these problems. The best time to fix a problem is before it becomes one. We need to help teachers diagnose and locate the causes of disruptive behavior.

This e-interview with Dr. Howard Seeman is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.



Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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