Why Teacher-Training Programs Tend to Be Theoretical, Rather than Practical

Siobhan Curious is running a series (Part I) on changes students see that need to be made in education.  Guest-poster Ruth (Part V) complains that teacher training programs spend in excess of three years on theory in the classroom, and only a very short time giving the prospective teacher any practical experience.

Speaking as a teacher, I can explain why teacher training programs exist as they are, rather than, in the view of some, as the practical training they should be.  It is because the law in various states has dictated which courses need to be included in the programs.   Since I was certified in Colorado about 25 years ago, here are a few examples from that time and place.

One new course everyone was required to take was “Instructional Technology.”  The reason for that was that so many teachers got into classrooms and could not run the movie projectors.  So legislators passed a law saying that was a new course so that teachers could run these machines.

When I took this class, I was one of the people who had no idea how to run a movie projector (not being a machine-oriented person) and we had an instructor who announced the first day, “I am NOT going to teach you how to run machines!”  (He was basically saying, “that is for idiots.”)  He said, “I’m going to teach you how to create your own slide presentations (with a bell when it’s time to move each slide).”   When I got out and was substituting in various schools, unfortunately, I STILL did not know how to run the movie projectors and had to ask for students’ assistance.  Within a couple years I was teaching overseas, where I’ve been ever since.  The technology revolution pretty much bypassed our school, which just got desktop computers only for secondary teachers (not primary teachers) in 2010.  I’m no longer in that school, but the last two years I was there, I still had no idea how to use new computer-based slide and projection technologies.  Meanwhile, our school did not even have an overhead projector (only chalk boards).  So, this technology course, legislated by Colorado to solve a specific problem, ended up not solving that problem; furthermore, technology moves on very quickly.  Even if we had learned to run the movie projectors, what we were taught in the class was out-of-date within less than five years.

Another course we had to take (a good one) was about all types of handicaps and about how to mainstream handicapped children in our classrooms, should we find ourselves in that situation.

It involved studying many different types of handicaps (blindness, deafness, and many other conditions) and how to make IEPs (Individual Education Plans) for each such child (as required by law) who might get into one of our classes in the future.  But this was all on paper, no practical experience with actually teaching such a child.  This required course was in response to the law which now required such children to be mainstreamed.  As it turned out, I never did have a handicapped child, although I did have a handful of children over the years with learning problems.  Our overseas school was not equipped to deal with this and I felt what would have been most useful to me was a specific course in how ordinary teachers can help children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities when no specialist exists or is available.

Yet another course (which turned out to be the most useful course of my teaching career) was called “Reading in the Content Area.”  My area of certification was  Secondary Social Studies, and all those who were getting certified in Secondary fields had to take this course.  This was also a course mandated by the legislature in response to a very specific problem, being that a great number of secondary (as well as primary) students are not able to read and get much meaning out of their text books.

I had a fantastic teacher.  She basically taught us many techniques for making up our own study guides which would both help and force students into interacting with the material and getting meaning out of it.  When I moved overseas, I ended up teaching only in elementary, but used the techniques we were taught constantly to my students’ great benefit.

So, the question of why teacher training is so based in theory is primarily because of state legislators making it so in order to deal with specific legal requirements, or as their idea of a way to remedy specific local problems in education.  By requiring all prospective teachers have all these classes, it no doubt reduces the states’ legal liability in case of any problem occurring within the classroom.  In some states, any adult can substitute.  In Colorado, no one except a certified teacher is permitted to step into the classroom, even as a substitute.

The move toward the professionalization of teaching, and away from teacher-training as a practical skill  (as it was 40-50 years ago), now requires the need to constantly update one’s skills and knowledge in order to maintain one’s teaching license (a good thing).  However, practical-implementation knowledge has suffered, which means that it takes teachers at least five years to get to a good level of teaching proficiency in dealing with discipline problems, dealing with student learning problems, navigating administrative requirements, and taking care of parental communication requirements.

–Lynne Diligent

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One Response to “Why Teacher-Training Programs Tend to Be Theoretical, Rather than Practical”

  1. The Ed Buzz Says:

    Thanks for sharing that. I don’t think people really understand that teaching is such a multi-faceted career that is really does take a few years before people get good at it. Which is why it’s such a shame that so many good young teachers are now out on a corner looking for a job.

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