The demand for new teachers has been climbing steadily since the 1990s and is expected to continue in the foreseeable future given the increases in teacher retirement and student enrollment, lower pupil/teacher ratios, and rising teacher attrition rates. New teachers enter the profession with varying degrees of preparation, ranging from extensive coursework and classroom experience to no preparation at all. They often need special attention and support to reach their full potential as educators, but this support is sorely lacking in many schools-which may explain why large numbers of new teachers leave the profession after just a few years of teaching.
The standards movement has put teacher quality at the center of educational reform. Conceived broadly, teacher quality consists of three elements: teacher knowledge, teacher qualifications, and teacher practice. In turn, these elements are affected by individual school factors and by working conditions such as class size, professional support, and school leadership. They are also affected by systemic variables such as state and local policies on teacher preparation, certification, and salaries.
Teachers operate in complex, multidimensional environments, so the direct impact of teaching on student outcomes can be difficult to isolate. However, by linking student achievement to individual teachers, researchers have been able to confirm that some teachers have a lasting, positive impact on student performance, while others have a negligible or negative impact on the performance of students with similar profiles. A simple definition of teacher quality has emerged from this research, namely, the ability to increase student learning during a school year, regardless of a student’s initial academic standing. But this definition, which points to academic growth as an indicator of effectiveness, does not explain why and how some teachers are more effective than others. The research that has been done on teacher credentials, while informative, does not address the actual quality of classroom instruction-a dynamic much more difficult to measure due, in part, to the lack of consensus on what type of instruction is most effective. Definitions of effective teacher practice, therefore, must also factor in variations in curriculum and instruction, along with the relationship between curriculum and instruction and the variables that affect that relationship.
Based on five principles that describe the qualities and attributes of effective teachers, the standards have been broadly adopted by the education community as a measure of teacher excellence:
– Best teachers base their instruction on knowledge of child development.
– They are committed to students and their learning.
– They know the subjects they are teaching and how to teach those subjects to diverse learners.
– They are able to effectively organize the classroom environment to engage students in the learning process and to sustain their learning so that instructional goals are met.
– Accomplished teachers are active members of learning communities; they systematically examine and improve their practice and learn from their experiences, and they are aware of the policies and resources that can benefit their students.
Teacher perceptions and attitudes are, nonetheless, quite important since a teacher’s sense of efficacy plays a large role in the decision to remain in the profession. Some teachers-typically those entering the profession through an alternative pathway- do not receive any kind of classroom exposure prior to their first teaching assignment. They felt this lack of preparation placed them and their students at a distinct disadvantage. One commented on how it was “unfair to students to subject them to teachers who have had no student teaching or internships before teaching a class.” Another reason for why teachers do not feel well prepared is a mismatch between the instructional pedagogy they were exposed to in their education programs and that practiced in the schools to which they are assigned. One teacher commented that the range of instructional strategies she learned in her education program would have helped her reach her students. However, because the district office had different instructional mandates, she had to use strategies that ran contrary to those she had learned during her pre-service education. “Out-of-license” teachers also felt unprepared. A high school teacher assigned to teach a math class dug out old college texts to try to refresh her math skills since she had received no math preparation during pre-service training. Several teachers assigned to special education classes said they had no prior special education instructional experience or background.
Teachers who described themselves as being least prepared were those with no educational preparation, other than a bachelor’s degree, and no educational training or support. Older teachers entering the profession as a career change felt they were able to draw upon prior work experiences to help them in their current teaching roles; most admitted, however, that nothing really sufficiently prepared them for the unique challenges of being a new teacher. The level of student ability also influenced the teachers’ sense of preparation. Teachers felt more prepared to teach students who were advanced or at grade level than students who were English language learners, below grade level in literacy or math, or had other special needs. Some teachers, despite their inexperience, were asked to teach a wide span of grades, as well as special education classes. These teachers felt they needed a great deal of support.
Quality teaching includes not only mastery of subject matter and how to teach it, but a belief in the potential of all children to learn, an abiding ethic of care, and the creativity to inspire children who would otherwise be lost.