Andrew Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.
How has your decades of experience as an educator, head of school, and president of Cana Academy, shaped your understanding of the importance of teacher training? How have you seen thriving schools train teachers? How frequently do thriving schools provide teacher training? What kind of training do these schools provide? What makes their approach to teacher training effective (especially as compared to weak or struggling schools)?
Teacher training is a generally underdeveloped feature of classical and liberal schools.
Typically, there are three major weaknesses I see:
One, teaching at the university level is declining; thus, recent graduates will have largely witnessed deficient models. Their experience of good teaching is often lacking. If they are not trained with clear purpose and content, they will likely slide to what they know, and what they know is generally not very good.
Two, much teaching in schools tends toward the didactic. When heads of school and veteran teachers train newer teachers, they tend to mainly give talks—teach didactically. Thus, teachers fail to get training in two of the three major types of teaching: Socratic and coaching.
Three, an institution called “professional development” has swept the country and is confused for teacher training. PD typically means enrichment, which may inspire or refresh but does not truly develop the teachers; or, it might serve the ends we identify with leisure. In either case, new teachers might be expected to participate in seminars on literature or to attend a lecture on some topic in science, or listen to a musical performance or lecture—any one of which, while delightful, is not targeted at specific skills as a teacher. Neither enrichment nor leisure suffices for training. On top of that, PD is occasional, for 1-2 days maybe twice a year. As an occasional dip into advanced learning, it is neither missional nor programmatic. One could not foster or measure teacher improvement by the content of PD. The consequence of failing to see the shortcoming of enrichment and leisure vis a vis training is this: Because most schools slip into one or both of approaches to PD, few schools adequately train their teachers.
Training should be programmatic. There should be a clear, comprehensive plan for master teaching. I have a post that lays that plan out in full detail. Here are some general steps a school should take to develop faculty:
I. A new teacher boot camp of at least a week and well in advance of school so that other mundane matters can be peacefully attended to: Mapping out lesson plans, doing the readings or the problem sets, practicing the labs, doing the translations, etc.
II. Assigned mentors or coaches from among seasoned veterans who (a) know the mission and culture of the school and (b) are proven, effective teachers should conduct weekly visits to the classrooms of the newer teachers, followed by practical feedback: Correct what is not going well, encourage what is.
III. Twice annual reviews should be conducted in which gaps are identified, tactics devised to close the gaps, and clear evaluation made later of whether the gaps have been closed.
IV. Summer training should be assigned where needed and where it is affordable.
A combination of formal presentations on substantive features of the school’s mission and culture, model teaching by experienced teachers, and new teacher practice in front of experienced teachers.
Formal presentations should definitively lay down the content of the school’s mission and its culture.
Mission is what the school is established to accomplish: What impact on which population.
Culture consists of the most important practices by which the school is a community of
learning devoted to its mission. The teachers need to understand themselves to be and trained to be keepers and practitioners of the culture:
(1) What we hold to be true anthropologically, ethically, aesthetically, and theologically.
(2) How specifically we teach. There are the three major pedagogies: Socratic, didactic, and coaching. Then, there are specific ways within the respective disciplines in which the three major pedagogies are evident: seminars are mainly Socratic, for example; math classes are a combination of Socratic, didactic, and coaching.
(3) The school is devoted to higher culture, not popular culture.
(4) The faculty arranges the school environment, sets the schedule, designs the curriculum, orders or directs behavior, establishes patterns or routines (prayer, lunch, sports practice, etc.) that support and further instantiate the school’s cultural vision. So, for example, while we have a school uniform, and while it serves the culture of the school, it does not constitute a core cultural feature: it does not reach the level of our concept of humanity or our Socratic instruction, for example.
Seasoned veteran teachers need to model how to teach: What to teach (curricular content) and how to teach it (pedagogy). They need to emphasize repeatedly that our
school teaches this content and by these methods. Talking about the courses and talking about teaching are not sufficient. They have to show how our school delivers.
They need to model in ways that point out the best strategies to follow, make clear what the pitfalls are to avoid, and demonstrate some key maneuvers that constitute the most effective means to move students from one proficiency level to the next.
New teacher practice
New teachers need to participate in exercises led by veterans. They also need to lead exercises themselves that are evaluated by the veterans. Evaluation does not consist in a grade; rather, it consists in coaching feedback: what went right, what needs improvement. Then, the new teacher needs to complete more exercises in front of the veteran teachers. It will not suffice for the new teacher to try once; he or she needs to demonstrate proficiency several times and improve with each next exercise.
New teacher training should go on for at least 1 full year, likely 2 and maybe 3 at the level described above. Again, see my comprehensive plan for master teaching.
What questions should we ask school leaders about how they train teachers?
The questions we need to ask of a school relate to features I-IV above:
How are you training the teachers?
What is the program?
What are you doing to evaluate teachers?
What are you doing to help them close gaps in their performance?
What are you doing to train them over the course of their first few years in the school?