Time for a Seismic Shift in How We Prepare and Support Teachers

No matter our views on education reform, there are some things we can all agree on.

We want our students to thrive. We want them to graduate from high school and college able to think critically, self-motivate, and empathize with others. We want them to realize their fullest potential, achieve their dreams, and lead fulfilling lives. Meeting individual student needs is critical in how students learn, grow and meet new challenges. We need an education system that empowers our students and teachers to make this possible -- and we are not there yet.

The good news is there is greater demand for classrooms and schools that focus on greater student personalization, where students pace their own learning. Blended learning -- which allows teachers to use technology-enabled tools and curricula alongside traditional teaching methods -- is the most promising instructional strategy currently being deployed to drive toward greater personalization and empowerment for our students. (Explore more about how blended learning increases student personalization here or here.)

Today we have a paradox:

In colleges across the country, teachers are still being prepared for the profession using traditional methods for classrooms and with little exposure to a blended learning approach. And in school districts, ongoing learning opportunities to keep teachers up-to-date on new research, emerging technology, and the latest initiatives are often a one size fits all approach, with little attention to individual teacher needs.

At the same time, there is a movement toward greater personalization through technology for students. This movement similarly demands a seismic shift in the way we train and support teachers. If we expect our teachers to personalize learning for their students, shouldn't we personalize the learning opportunities for our teachers?

A shift like this has implications for three distinct but related areas: teacher preparation; support for beginning teachers; and ongoing professional learning.

Teacher Preparation

It's promising to see many initiatives aimed at improving teacher prep, including a state-led effort that we at New Teacher Center are involved in and some strong leadership on the issue from the Obama Administration.

What if, as a result of these and other initiatives, prospective teachers could curate their own credential programs by pulling the best parts of different programs at their own pace and in their preferred learning style? For instance, if an undergraduate mathematics major wants to teach, he/she could begin by taking a self-assessment and uploading current transcripts into a web portal. The portal could then generate customized pathways for that teacher candidate to earn a credential. The suggested pathways could be based on, but not limited by, their local geography. Perhaps a "playlist" for this potential teacher would be to complete three traditional university courses, two online courses from different providers, two webinars and two online performance tasks that bring all of their learning together. This concept -- which is similar to the recent white paper from Karen Cator, Carrie Schneider and Tom Vander Ark on competency-based teacher preparation and development -- could lead to a teaching workforce that's far more comfortable implementing blended learning in their classrooms because they've experienced it in their own learning.

There could also be a way to complete student teaching and embed what they are learning into that experience -- perhaps connecting it to the online performance tasks. Western Governors Association figured this out a long time ago -- how to do distance student teaching as a requirement for a credential.

What if we could do this at scale?

Support for Beginning Teachers

Even when prepared through the best programs, teachers still struggle mightily when they get their own classroom with their own students. The challenges of the beginning teacher become heightened in blended environments. These teachers not only have to help their students adapt to significant changes that blended learning brings, they also have to adapt to these changes themselves. How do we support teachers with creating a classroom culture neither they nor their students have ever experienced before? Imagine a class so radically innovative as the ones at The Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools or Summit Public Schools - two districts we at New Teacher Center work with to design and implement intensive new teacher support systems. In these environments, the teacher is supporting the students through this change. Who is supporting the teacher?

At New Teacher Center, we help facilitate such difficult transitions for teachers through our coaching model for new educators. Our one-on-one mentoring model is the most intensive form of personalized learning. It's the one-on-one relationship formed by the mentor and teacher that creates the condition necessary to facilitate difficult transitions in practice such as blended learning.

This transition is unique and oftentimes the coaches, mentors, and school leaders supporting teachers with the change have also never taught in a blended learning environment themselves. We must collectively think about how we train these support providers who are the first line of assistance for teachers.

When our partners work with us to put an effective mentoring system in place for new educators -- with rigorously-recruited and well-trained mentors -- it becomes a powerful solution to effecting change in their districts and schools. Mentors help teachers turn the "what to do" into the "how to do it."

While districts typically provide mentors from their own teaching population, this model is not always possible. In rural and smaller districts, it's more challenging to do this given limited teacher populations and less ability to fully or partially release an experienced teacher from teaching duties in order to mentor a new teacher. One way New Teacher Center has met this challenge is through distance mentoring. We can expand the pool of mentor teachers to the entire country by connecting expert teachers with specific skills and experiences with beginning teachers on a virtual platform within a virtual community of other beginning teachers and mentors, no matter where any of them live. This can be a powerful way to ensure high-quality induction is accessible for all new teachers. We have been implementing and fine-tuning this virtual model for over ten years. Now, we are beginning to develop a blended approach to the way we train mentors. In districts where our traditional face-to-face mentoring model has been adopted, we're leveraging technology to enhance and improve these professional learning systems for mentors and new teachers.

Ongoing Professional Learning

An additional barrier oftentimes exists for experienced teachers. Many of these teachers who have been in the classroom for two or three decades are not as comfortable with technology as teachers new to the profession. They also have tried and true practices honed over many years that work well for them. For teachers like this -- the majority of the teaching workforce -- the switching costs for implementing blended learning are immense.

In this situation, the school leaders, coaches and mentors who support these experienced teachers need to consider how monumental this change is. Parallel processes are useful tools in this context. A parallel process is when you use the same strategies to deliver content to a group of learners as you are expecting those learners themselves will employ. (We encourage this same parallel process approach in teacher preparation and beginning teacher support.)

We should support the teachers who are required to lead highly personalized classrooms with highly personalized learning environments. We should expose them to the tools and strategies we are expecting them to use with their students. If teachers are using blended strategies or specific platforms with students, we should use those same blended strategies and platforms in their training, development and support in explicit, intentional ways.

That last part about being explicit is important. When we train mentors, we explain to them the strategies we used and facilitate a group dialogue on using those same strategies with their new teachers and those teachers' students. It's so important to explain the processes and to set an expectation that learners model how they've they learned with the next series of learners. Summit Public Schools is modeling this work for their teachers and students.

It comes down to this:

We need to ensure that our students thrive. So it's critically important that teachers personalize their students' learning experiences even more via blended learning. But to make this happen, we need to support our teachers through more personalized learning opportunities than they're currently getting.

My colleagues and I are committed to leading this seismic shift in teacher support and student learning with others who are at the forefront of this work. We owe it to our students to deliver on the promise of an education to help them reach their dreams.