How to Build a Teacher

How to Build a Teacher

By Timothy Dohrer

It’s the holiday season, and along with all the many gifts being shared with us, the federal government is offering a new education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As with many gift-wrapped packages, we are excited about the possibilities of what is hidden inside. There is great promise here to reduce the reliance on standardized tests and even increase funding to some programs. But there also may be some surprises in this mammoth law that few people have read in its entirety.

One of those surprises is the language around teacher preparation, a hot topic among educational reformers, politicians, and pundits. The logic goes that if we want to improve schools then we need to look at the initial preparation of teachers, either for blame or as a path for reform. Several researchers are focusing in on this part of the new law and are unsure about what it might mean. One of the first was written by Kenneth Zeichner in The Washington Post and the latest comes from Sarah Garland from The Hechinger Report. Both articles point to the ESSA’s support for alternative teacher preparation programs, as well as residency programs that would put new teachers into classrooms with experienced teachers early in their training. Neither idea is new, but the new law certainly places them in the spotlight.

Here’s my disclaimer and then I’ll get to my main point: I oversee a fairly traditional teacher preparation program at Northwestern. I am also a product of traditional teacher preparation. Almost all of the teachers I have hired over the years as an administrator came from traditional programs. And I believe that teachers need training before taking over as the teacher of record.

So what content, skills, dispositions, and experiences do I believe teachers need before stepping into the role of teacher? The answer to that question is the first we must agree upon before deciding how to do it. And I believe we CAN come to some agreement on this topic. Indeed, in many ways we already have. Lots of researchers and educators have weighed in on this topic. Every state has minimal standards for teachers that must be met for licensure. And almost everyone agrees that candidates should spend some time working with kids and veteran teachers in classrooms before they take over, usually referred to as field experience or student teaching.

 But generally speaking, here is what I would call essential building blocks for being a teacher:

  • An understanding of how people learn.
  • An understanding of human growth and development.
  • A high level of competency in skills related to planning, instruction, interpersonal relations, communication, and assessment.
  • The ability to accurately evaluate performance (of others and oneself) and make adjustments in that performance. 
  • Deep knowledge of relevant content area.
  • A strong sense of professionalism, ethics, and responsibility.
  • The ability to motivate and engage kids in learning.
  • Creativity, innovation, collaboration, empathy, awareness, and humor.

This is what I look for in hiring a teacher. It is also very similar to the evaluation criteria we use to determine whether a pre-service candidate is ready for licensure. And while some of it is, I think, very specific to the profession of teaching, some of it is also what any of us would want in a new employee in any profession or job.

As the details of ESSA become clearer and the scrutiny of teacher preparation continues into the New Year, I hope we can stay focused on the essential building blocks to becoming an awesome teacher. In the end, that may be more important than courses and credit hours.

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