“Teach like a researcher. Read your students and adjust your teaching to their response as learners.”
This advice was given to me as a fledgling teacher so many decades ago that I can no longer give credit to the source, but I’ve shared this advice with countless young teachers over my years as a school leader.
Recently, a young teacher sent his resume to me with a cover letter that described the early part of his journey as a teacher. His letter was for the most part an explanation of what on paper looked like an ambivalent path away from and back to teaching. He’d been through a graduate level teacher training program and was optimistic and enthusiastic about his first teaching experience. He was surprised, however, when he landed a middle school assignment only to find himself overwhelmed by kids who did not respond to his lessons and discouraged by his lack of preparation to be a truly effective teacher. Like a notable number of other education school graduates who had not had a strong mentoring experience with real students and daily learning dilemmas to work through, this young man had walked away from teaching.
Five years prior to receiving this resume, I attended a Progressive Education Symposium at The Putney School in Vermont, where I discussed this very problem with three other school heads. I was sure that if we could encourage talented young college graduates to explore teaching in progressive independent schools in programs that were front-loaded with real experience, we would have a good chance of their committing to a teaching career. We had all seen programs that, minus the cohort model and a strong mentoring program, had led to young people exploring teaching for a year or two and then moving on to other careers. We imagined building a fellowship that would help curious college graduates to see that a teaching life in a meaningful learning community could be a powerful path. Our proposal for such a fellowship program resonated with the E.E. Ford Foundation, and The Progressive Education Lab (PEL) grew from that conversation in Vermont. PEL will graduate its fourth cohort of teaching fellows this June.
Independent schools have long understood that the relationship between student and teacher, and the relationship between beginning teacher and mentor are at the heart of learning. As Barnett Berry points out in his book, Teaching 2030, university-based teacher education programs often don’t have the resources to allow their students to learn how to teach in actual schools under the tutelage of master teachers and with real kids. But strong educators know that it is only in a real-life setting of learning by doing –teaching students in tandem with a seasoned mentor–that allows young teachers to successfully practice and hone their craft.
At the college level, teacher training programs are beginning to respond to the notion that learning by doing must come at the very start of a teacher’s career path. This year, in fact, marked the first cohort of Harvard Teacher Fellows and many other universities are following suit. But formal independent school fellowships such as PEL not only train new cohorts of teachers each year but are also improving the ongoing practice of mentor teachers as they work with colleagues from other schools to craft the coaching of young teachers. Such discreet independent school fellowship programs, which are popping up nationwide as alternatives to traditional teacher training programs, are adding to the decades of strong, committed teachers in our nation’s schools who have had the benefit of beginning their careers as assistants and co-teachers in the classrooms of veteran independent school teachers, learning both from them and from their students.
The lofty but essential goal of all schools must be to send young people out into the world as personally happy, professionally satisfied and ethical adults. To keep that goal alive, school leaders must continue to convince talented, optimistic and justice-oriented young people that the teaching life is both rewarding and powerful. When young people can explore teaching careers by diving into vibrant learning communities of eager kids and committed mentors who encourage them to “teach as researchers,” our chances of making that goal a reality are strong.