When the National Council on Teacher Quality released last month its report on teacher training programs, I was not shocked to read that the vast majority of colleges and universities do a poor job of preparing their students to teach. I imagine that many other people who have gone through such programs were equally unsurprised.
I went to a highly ranked liberal arts college and graduated with a special major in sociology, anthropology and education as well as an elementary teaching certificate. I immediately found a job teaching breathtakingly underprivileged students in a persistently failing elementary school in Prince George’s County. I wasn’t prepared to teach my students how to tie their shoes, much less to make up for years of institutional neglect, hunger, poverty, family transience, isolation and other ills. My first year was a nightmarish blur; my second was only slightly less awful. My third had its highlights but was still a daily struggle. There are stories from that time that my parents never heard.
One of the perpetual concerns I held through those three years was how to teach the many special-needs students in my third- and fourth-grade classes who were not being served by the school’s special-education teacher. To gain practical skills to serve the students I now understood would be in my classes, regardless of where I taught, I decided to go to graduate school for special education. I started a one-year master’s program at Teachers College, Columbia University, which has long been regarded as among the best education programs in the country.
I quickly realized that I had made a terrible mistake. My professors seemed uninterested in teaching me anything practical. At that time, in 2000, the academic hero du jour was Lev Vygotsky, with his theory of the zone of proximal development. It seemed not to matter what I did in my teaching placement as long as I wrote every paper and approached all of my lesson planning from a Vygotskian perspective.