teacher preparation

What if students designed their own schools?

“When Sam Levin was a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., he realized that two things were in short supply at his school: engagement and mastery. He also noticed that he and his peers were learning plenty of information, but not much about how to gather or create their own data. And he noticed that students were unhappy. So he took it upon himself to design a school where students would feel fully engaged, have an opportunity to develop expertise in something, and learn how to learn.” (source)

The program Sam designed, The Independent Project, debuted in 2010 and is still going today. Students applied, proving that they could manage their time well. The majority of the semester is structured into half-days. For half of each day, per week, students choose a question to investigate and then share with the group at the end of the week. The other half of the day is filled with a semester long individual project that could be learning a musical instrument, writing a book, etc. The last 3 weeks of the semester the students work collaboratively to create a project for social impact. The only requirements of the various projects are “effort, learning and mastery.” There are no grades; it is pass/fail. 

This student-guided experiential education is the key! Parents of students at Sam’s school were concerned about not having letter grades for the project, but colleges were excited to read about students who did something different. Not only that, the project helped students develop skills: they were more proactive, self-motivated, good with managing time, focused, collaborative, communicative, curious, and engaged. 

For me, one of the unexpected positive outcomes of this project is that it has shown the teachers what the students are capable of, and has encouraged teachers (of regular school subjects) to give ALL of their students more choice- what to read, which topic to study, how to present. And through this process the teachers are also discussing their own roles in student education. Holy reflection, Batman! The teachers are trusting the students to make decisions about their own learning! 

“Students who have gone through the program ask more questions and have a greater awareness of how to answer them; construct their questions more carefully; became more thoughtful in the way they consider ideas and evaluate sources; and became better at managing their time.” Win. 

What if instead of just talking about Social Emotional Learning, we restructured all of the ways children learn to include adults who are trained in developing these skills?

Donna Housman, EdD, clinical psychologist and founder, CEO, and president of Beginnings School, the ONLY PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY that has developed a comprehensive curriculum around self-regulation, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, discusses the reasons children need to learn these skills before they turn 4 years old as well as how their learning and social development are compromised without these skills.

It seems obvious; when you feel good about yourself and your relationships and can listen, process, and communicate your ideas, then you are open to more challenging tasks and learning. In other words, when children are not preoccupied or worried about their most basic emotional needs, they can flourish.


This is not new information. There is just more and more research pouring out of school-laboratories, graduate programs, psychological case studies, and comparisons of educational models worldwide. So why aren’t we changing what pre-school looks like in light of this information? Why aren’t we offering classes, workshops, and training to new parents around developing these skills in the first three years of a child’s life? Why aren’t nanny agencies picking up on this and offering trained SEL professionals to spend time with your young children? Why aren’t graduate schools offering Masters in Early Childhood Education focusing on Social Emotional Learning? With all of this research why is there only ONE PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY implementing this curriculum?

What if teachers were the most prepared people to do the teaching?

As a country we spend more money per child than any of the top performing countries in the world. When I say "top performing" I am referring to countries that focus on critical thinking, creative problem solving, and persistence as the gateway to deeper learning in academic areas like reading, writing, and mathematics. In these countries, while spending less per student, teachers have class sizes that are noticeably larger than here in the States and they have considerably less outside support for student's with special needs. And the students are still outperforming ours. How is this happening with less money and less individualized support? The reason is teacher training. In Finland, which is so often talked about as a model for better education, teachers spend 6 years training!!!! Teach for America and NY Teaching Fellows churn out teachers in less than 2 years and place them in extremely difficult schools. No wonder there are crazy high teacher attrition rates! In some countries teachers get a Masters in their intended field so they can become experts, and then they go to a teacher-training school for 2 years. In order to get licensed, teachers write persuasive arguments about how they would solve hypothetical classroom problems, instead of taking 3-hour multiple choice tests about content that's often not even related to what they'll be teaching. What if instead of pouring money into students we poured it into teacher training? 

What if great, progressive graduate programs got some state funding to train more teachers?

What if a degree from a "critical-thinking school" meant a higher salary? Unfortunately, spending $1.3B on smaller class size or more professional development for teachers is not hitting the target. Teachers need to be prepared BEFORE they are in the trenches. Teaching is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming job. And it should be. As a teacher you usually have more than 20 children's lives in your hands for 180 days. And that's often more time than they are spending with their families. Being able to have that large an impact on someone's life is a huge responsibility and not something an hour of coaching once a week in a subject area is going to improve that much. Teachers need to learn how to teach critical thinking and creative problem solving. Not better reading. What leads to better reading are children who can come up with strategies on their own instead of being given them by the teacher. What's needed are way more restrictions to become a teacher, with teacher assessments that match those high expectations. If we want our students to do better we need our teachers to be better.

What if ALL teachers had certification in general AND special education?

Can you imagine a classroom where all teachers have a "toolbox" to work effectively with all kinds of learners? Teachers who can read a child and know what strategy to use in a particular moment are rare. In my experience they are not the teachers who have had the most experience, rather they are the teachers who had a variety of experiences and time to reflect on them and share them. We live in a world where everyone, including typically-developing children, needs a little extra help at least once in their lives. Teacher training programs, in essence, Masters in Education programs, give teachers 2 important pieces of becoming a skilled teacher for all populations. In both general and special education programs, the 2 components are taking classes (ie. reading and learning within a teacher-community), and real world experience, often called field work or student teaching, where the student shadows a master teacher and gets first-hand experience in a particular educational setting. I am here to invent the possibility that there's only ONE license and it is a combination of BOTH general and special education. If this were the case, all teachers would have field work from a special education setting. They would have seen master teachers in action, tried out lessons as well as created their own in a master teacher's classroom with feedback from that master teacher, and networked with master teachers through email and social media, and develop relationships with them so that years down the road when they are confused about a child they have a network of professional colleagues to connect with for ideas, resources, collaboration, and help. Special education teacher training programs differ from general education ones in that the field of special education is aware of and celebrates the whole child. As a teacher in a special education program you learn about all kinds of child development, what it looks like in the child, in the home, in the classroom, and what kinds of strategies teachers can use to reach all students. How invaluable! This is how we can meet every child's needs. This is how we can best prepare teachers.