Ahead of the Class

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 Ahead of the Class

The teacher education curriculum leading to full certification is the heart of the Pathways program. It is the vehicle for developing and enhancing the skills that participants must acquire in order to successfully teach students in the partner school districts.

Mirroring the demographics of student populations in city schools throughout the country, urban sites in the Pathways initiative largely serve poor children from racial and ethnic minorities. A similar demographic profile characterizes students in rural Pathways programs. Historically, children who are poor and children of color have not been well served by public schools. This is evident in their less than optimal grades, test scores, attendance, and high school graduation rates, among other factors.

To improve these children’s chances while preparing teachers from new sources, most Pathways programs have adopted a curriculum that reflects the best current thinking on effective teaching, building on participants’ strengths while addressing their unique needs.

Building an Innovative Curriculum to Prepare New Teachers

Central Themes in the Curriculum

Curriculum development was never a requirement for an institution’s participation in Pathways. Nevertheless, almost all teacher education programs in the Pathways network seized the opportunity to reshape their coursework and field experiences—some more substantially than others—to serve the K-12 student population in their partner districts better. As you plan the curriculum for your program, consider the central themes that permeate the preparation of teachers at existing Pathways sites.

Valuing diversity. The value of diversity is infused throughout the teacher education curriculum. The message of diversity is strongly and consistently conveyed to participants: Teachers who consider behavior that differs from mainstream cultural norms as a problem to be remedied will generally not make accurate assessments of children’s strengths and limitations. An attitude that presumes minority children suffer automatic “deficits” invariably leads teachers to emphasize what students cannot do, rather than what they are capable of doing well. To capitalize on the many strengths students bring to class, teachers must demonstrate respect for, and appreciation of, cultural differences. They must accept all students as learners who already know a great deal and who have experiences, concepts, and language that can be built upon and expanded to help these children to learn more.

Selecting participants who are favorably predisposed to diversity and the expression of cultural differences is a necessary condition for success. But to make the best use of these favorable attitudes, the program must reinforce the value of cultural diversity throughout the teacher education curriculum.

Learning about different cultures. To teach children from diverse backgrounds effectively, teachers themselves must learn about cultural differences. They need to understand the concept of culture and its changing meanings. As part of their preparation, program participants also should explore their own cultural identities and how these were shaped in their own lives. By sharing their stories and hearing their classmates’ stories, Pathways participants can learn much about cultural differences. Studying the history and literature of the different cultural groups represented by children in the classes they teach will also yield important insights.

Building bridges between home and school. While differences exist in the views of teaching and learning embraced by Pathways programs, the sites generally agree that learning is made easier when teachers help students to build bridges between their experiences inside and outside the classroom. For example, when teachers know their students well, they can select materials that children find relevant and interesting; they can also clarify new concepts by using examples or analogies drawn from the youngsters’ everyday lives. To ensure that students receive help in making the necessary connections between home and school, many sites target for selection into the Pathways program people who share the students’ race/ethnicity or live in the same communities. Once admitted into the program, however, participants need to be taught that students’ prior knowledge and experiences—both individual and cultural—play a critical role in successful learning. Pathways trainees also must develop facility in using a variety of pedagogical strategies that help students themselves to connect what they already know to new concepts and skills they must learn. Still another way of fostering connections between home and school is to prepare participants to work effectively with the families of their students.

Preparing to serve as role models. Because they have ongoing contact with students, teachers are in a good position to serve as role models for them. Many Pathways sites consciously work to prepare participants—both white and of color—to fill this role. Such preparation may invoke discussion of the qualities of an effective role model and explain strategies teachers use to become effective models. Another approach is to cultivate participants’ personal leadership skills. Teacher educators can also serve as role models for Pathways participants, teaching them by example as well as instruction the benefits that students may draw from admired mentors.

Making connections between theory and practice. At most Pathways sites, the teacher education curriculum aims to help participants clearly connect theory with practice in the classroom. The translation of theory into practice is made somewhat easier in Pathways programs because nearly all participants (including those who are RPCVs) are employed as instructional aides, substitute teachers, or emergency-certified teachers. Because they have access to classrooms, Pathways candidates can easily carry out field experiences associated with their coursework. Participants also bring to bear on their academic courses a wealth of teaching experience. Most of the Pathways teacher education faculty we interviewed commented favorably on the ability of program participants to ground theoretical discussions in the context of their everyday practice. Faculty interviewees also mentioned that other teacher education students who take classes with program participants benefit considerably from these practically grounded conversations.

Strengthening subject matter knowledge. If students are to attain high levels of achievement, teachers need not only well-developed pedagogical skills but also a deep grounding in subject matter knowledge. Without such grounding, teachers’ ability to make content conceptually accessible to students is severely limited. Pathways sites recognize this important principle and consciously strive to provide program participants with a deep understanding of subject matter. To this end, many reported having extensive and rigorous course requirements in general education and the liberal arts, as well as in the academic majors available to Pathways participants.

Innovative Instructional Practices

We have found that teaching by modeling is a highly powerful instructional practice. At Pathways sites, teacher education faculty often reported that they model for their students the practices they encourage them to use in the classroom. For example, the faculty not only tell participants that students learn best through active participation in learning tasks; they also make a point of actively engaging participants in their own learning. Through guided reflection on their personal learning, class members gain valuable insight into effective teaching.

Further innovative instructional practices often used at Pathways sites include these methods:

  • Teacher reflection—asking participants to keep journals of their teaching
  • Cooperative learning
  • Group projects
  • Application of theories learned in courses to concrete issues in their classrooms
  • Analysis of situations depicted in teaching cases
  • Analysis of videotapes of themselves teaching
  • Emphasis on learning by discovery rather than by verbal instruction
  • Use of performance assessment to document breadth and depth of candidates’ learning
  • Service learning in community settings

Structural Innovations

In important ways, the Pathways teacher trainee groups of paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, and uncertified teachers differ from the traditional population of teacher education students. The people in these nontraditional pools tend to be older and to bear more family responsibilities. They also are likely to have had more teaching experience than the typical teacher education student. Because teacher education programs are designed largely for traditional students, your program may need structural adjustments in order to serve nontraditional candidates most effectively. These adjustments, we found, can often become creative opportunities to improve curricula rather than mere accommodations. Our findings about Pathways programs suggest that the ideas below should be integrated into your program planning.

Giving credit for experience. New programs should consider giving participants credit for their past professional experiences. For example, programs might reduce the required student teaching time, or waive this requirement altogether, for participants with substantial teaching backgrounds. By taking such actions, programs take account of and validate the experiences of individuals from nontraditional populations.

Addressing barriers to student teaching. Most states and school districts prohibit aspiring teachers from being paid for their work as student teachers. This component of the teacher education curriculum can thus cause great problems for paraprofessionals, the group most directly affected by this regulation, who often have family responsibilities and require income. Programs need to develop a strategy that will enable paraprofessionals to continue earning during their apprenticeship period. Pathways sites used the following strategies to surmount this barrier:

  • Asking paraprofessional Pathways candidates to fulfill the student teaching requirement on a part-time basis over a longer period. This adjustment allowed them to continue in their jobs without a salary interruption.
  • Allowing paraprofessionals to embed student teaching into their work as teaching assistants. This strategy works well as long as the teachers who supervise the paraprofessionals are willing to serve as cooperating teachers. Such an arrangement may require negotiating a formal agreement between the teacher education program and the state or the partner school district, or both.
  • Finding another source of funding to pay the salaries of paraprofessionals during the student teaching period—career ladder funds available in some districts might be a good source.
  • Arranging for paraprofessionals to receive paid administrative leave to complete their student teaching.

Expanding course offerings. Adjustments in course schedules and location are often needed so that the program becomes accessible to nontraditional participants. Because paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, and emergency-certified teachers work during the day, they cannot take courses on a normal workday college schedule. Teacher education programs serving these populations can expand the number of courses offered during evenings, weekends, and summer sessions. Programs also should consider convening some classes at community agencies or school buildings in the partner district. When courses are taught on-site, instructors can use those settings as teaching laboratories. This measure can also reduce travel complications for participants who lack easy access to transportation.

Course offerings can also be expanded by adding workshops, seminars, and special courses on topics specific to the needs of nontraditional participants. These course offerings can be taken for credit or for no credit. Some Pathways programs, for example, have offered workshop series devoted to urban problems or issues of diversity in the classroom. Other topics have included whole language, science, AIDS education, math anxiety, technology and schools, site-based management, and classroom management. Pathways scholars are also encouraged to attend professional conferences.

Working Together to Adapt the Curriculum

Because the partnering college/university in Pathways programs is the agency with legal responsibility for the teacher education curriculum, its faculty must take the lead in adapting the curriculum to the needs of the target populations. This is not to say that school district personnel have no role whatever in planning the curriculum. School and district staff must help identify the specific teaching strengths and needs of recruits, important insights that should inform subsequent curriculum development.

By the same token, curriculum decisions made at the institution must take into account the district staff ’s willingness to find a satisfactory solution to the student teaching income barrier; to provide school locations for on-site courses; to supervise participants’ field experiences; to serve as guest speakers for seminars and workshops; and to teach selected courses in the program.

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