Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Learning to Teach: It's Complicated but It's Not Magic

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Learning to Teach: It's Complicated but It's Not Magic

Article excerpt

In May 2010, Mr. Hemant Mehta completed his first year of teaching math at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois. Shortly thereafter, his reflections on his preparation for teaching were featured in an article distributed widely by the Associated Press. The article, "How Should We Teach Our Future Teachers?" began thus:

Hemant Mehta's formal training taught him how to write a lesson plan and how public schooling began in the U.S., but it was useless when it came to keeping order in the classroom and getting students to pay attention. (Blankinship, 2010, p. 1)

The 27-year-old novice teacher stated that he was able to get through his first year thanks primarily to the help of Twitter, math blogs on the Internet, television sitcoms, and experienced teachers in his school. His list of things he wished he had learned in his teacher education program included "motivating kids to do their homework, dealing with parents, reading a teacher contract, using classroom technology.... and whether it's okay to accept friend requests from students on Facebook" (Blankinship, 2010, p. 1).

Mr. Mehta's perceived plight will come as no surprise to teacher educators, who are well aware of the widespread public perception that teacher education is an archaic enterprise, out of touch with teachers' real-world needs, stubbornly and self-servingly refusing to teach teachers the simple, finite set of skills they need to survive (Lucas, 1999). Teacher educators are all too familiar with the lament of program graduates who claim they learned all they needed to know in the "trenches," not the "towers." Why did Mr. Mehta find his preparation "useless"? Why did he not learn what he needed (or thought that he needed) from his formal teacher preparation program?

The author of the Associated Press article consulted teacher education scholars Suzanne Wilson of Michigan State University, Pamela Grossman of Stanford University, and Deborah Ball of the University of Michigan, who stated respectively that teacher education is complicated (Wilson) but not magical (Grossman), a process whose success is compromised in part by the lack of meaningful continuous teacher learning on the job (Ball). We agree. Teacher learning is indeed a "wicked problem," one that includes a large number of complex, dynamic, contextually bound, and interdependent variables (Borko, Whitcomb, & Liston, 2009, p. 3). Mr. Mehta's wish list for practical tips and managerial advice is neither new nor unique (Kagan, 1992; Veenman, 1984; Wideen, Mayer-Smith, & Moon, 1998). It represents a legitimate part--but only a part--of what teachers need to know and be able to do. Indeed, in their comments to Ms. Blankinship, Wilson, Grossman, and Ball have pinpointed three major obstacles to teacher learning that teacher education programs must address if our enterprise is to be successful: the complexity of learning to teach, the need to demystify the knowledge we do have about how people learn to teach, and the necessity of conceptualizing learning to teach as an ongoing, enduring process.

The seven articles that compose this issue suggest ways to surmount these obstacles. They explore problems of teacher identity, expectations, intercultural development, subject matter knowledge, communities of practice, systematic support for teacher learning, and the construction of classroom culture. But what common thread do they share? All contribute to deepening our understanding of teacher learning.

It's Complicated

If teacher educators are in agreement on anything, it is that teacher learning is complicated (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2002), not only because teachers learn to teach by drawing on a complex array of internal and external resources, which are difficult for researchers to disentangle and understand, but also because it occurs over time and is contextualized, unpredictable, and often idiosyncratic (Darling-Hammond, 2006; Hammemess, Darling-Hammond, & Bransford, 2005; Kennedy, 1999). …

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