Teacher Success Requires Teacher Prep Rooted in Classically Liberal Education
Twenty years ago, we sought to teach all students “21st century skills.” A decade ago, we wanted educators to provide all learners with “STEM” or “STEAM” skills. Most recently, teachers and teacher educators have focused on the importance of providing all with the “soft skills” needed for success.
The labels may change, but for decades now, the intent has remained the same. At its heart, we seek students who are critical thinkers. We want learners who move beyond rote memorization and develop the analytical and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in a global, digital, information economy. We yearn for students who embrace innovation, collaboration, communication, adaptability, social responsibility, and balance on their path to life-long learning.
If we seek these in today’s students, we must ask what we are doing to ensure that prospective K-12 teachers both possess these same skills themselves AND have mastered the ability to teach them. More directly, we must ask if our teacher preparation programs are focusing on these essential attributes.
For many, the battle over the future of teacher education is a fight over content versus pedagogy. Do we focus on subject matter expertise or on classroom management skills? This has meant the scrutiny has largely been only what happens in the second half of an undergraduate teacher education program, focusing on the classroom instruction designed to supplement what is happening during the clinical experience in a real K-12 classroom.
But what if we also focused on those first two years of the undergraduate experience, the time when most teacher candidates are taking a hodge-podge of “general studies” requirements, largely a series of survey or 101 courses that provide no connection and knit no common learning or skill sets. By using those first two years of undergraduate education to largely take a collection of stand-alone courses, prospective teachers — and those responsible for preparing them — are squandering a valuable opportunity to ensure that all teachers of record possess the skills and knowledge to pass along the 21st century/STEM/STEAM/soft skills we want all students to possess.
Imagine if prospective teachers spent those first two years of college obtaining a broad and substantial classically liberal education. Imagine if those initial four semesters were focused on a liberal education curriculum that translates into stronger content knowledge of all classroom teachers, regardless of the academic subject they ultimately are licensed to teach. Imagine if formal teacher preparation programs provided a foundation in the liberal arts that serves as a scope and sequence for each content and skill area.
Such an approach is not limited to old-school liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Colgate, St. John’s, Hillsdale, or Kenyon Colleges. It can also be found on campuses like Furman University and the University of Dallas. And it is the foundation of graduate teacher education efforts on the campuses of Duke University and Boston University, to name a few. By rethinking all years of a student teacher’s education, these institutions are working to ensure a far better-equipped teacher of any age and any subject.
The recent events of the past few months have demonstrated how challenging and fluid teaching is. With each passing academic year, we are asking more and more from classroom teachers. We want educators to serve as teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, and psychometricians. In the new normal of teaching on hybrid platforms during the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, we now expect teachers to also serve as tech support, social and emotional learning experts, social justice leaders, and advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion in all corners of society. And that’s just what is expected in July of 2020.
Successful teacher preparation is largely about equipping prospective educators with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to rise to the current and future challenges of the classroom. It is about preparing generations of classroom teachers who themselves are lifelong learners, investing the time and effort to continuously improve their craft and bring to their classrooms what the students under their charge both want and need.
There is value to all educators demonstrating a broad range of writing skills, world literature knowledge, foreign language aptitude, elementary epistemology, and exposure to math, natural sciences, history and geography, and government and economics. This approach is critical to ensuring strong and nimble teachers, particularly if this background content is knitted together to provide a clear scope and sequence of the first two years of undergraduate courses for aspiring educators.
Ultimately, a foundation rooted in classically liberal education provides educators with the intellectual tools necessary to rise to the challenges of an unknown instructional future. It is a time-tested means for fostering citizens capable of judging our history with prudence and developing an understanding of human nature through historical events, providing common elements fundamental to unity.
To ensure long-term learning growth and success, students must acquire deep content knowledge, develop frameworks of understanding, and mobilize their competencies to solve complex, sophisticated, and challenging problems. For students to acquire such skills, they need teachers who both have them and know how to teach them. The surest path to that is providing prospective teachers with a classically liberal education.