This article originally appeared in the November issue of BiBimBap magazine, an online journal for EFL teachers in Jeollanamdo, South Korea. You can view the ISSUU version here.
The Teacher Certification Debate
In America, there are two debates going on about teacher preparation programs; one is happening in the media, among education policy experts and at the highest levels of education administration. The other is happening around kitchen tables in the homes of career-changers, and in coffee shops with college graduates and undergrads, who are interested in becoming a teacher. Both debates are concerned with the structure, quality and quantity of preparation needed to sustain an effective teaching career in U.S. schools in the 21st Century. However, the latter debate also includes concerns about the costs associated with taking a year or two off from making money and instead taking on the prohibitive costs (read: student loan debt) of getting a teacher certification from a traditional school of education.
Case in point: my own path as a teacher has been varied and circuitous because I was most interested in gaining actual experience in the classroom over acquiring more formal theoretical knowledge in grad school. And I found many opportunities in my own community and around the world to get into the classroom, develop a style and a toolkit of my own and grow immediately as a professional. Adding to my uneasiness about grad school was the fact that I was debt free when I finished my undergraduate studies and vehemently wanted to stay that way.
Furthermore, I knew many alums of the many prestigious teacher prep programs at the local universities while working as paraprofessional in a Seattle public school. Many of those teachers told me that the experience I was gaining in the classroom as a teacher’s aide was preparing me as much as or more than a formal Master’s In Teaching program would by itself. I felt frustrated by the limbo between having the relevant experience and lacking a flexible, affordable and high-quality path to teacher certification. It turns out I had to come to Korea to discover the answer to my teacher prep woes!
|We should not forget Martin Haberman’s research showing that long-serving “star” teachers are often from low-income backgrounds, have graduated from non-elite colleges, or are people of faith. Others, like Alex Caputo-Pearl, have somewhat radical politics. What makes these nontraditional teachers special is that they are mission-driven to help struggling students succeed, and they are enthusiastic about holding all children to high intellectual standards. Those are the attributes teacher preparation programs should seek.
-Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession
Emily Feistritzer worked for the U.S. Department of Education studying alternative-route teacher certification programs across the country. After 30 years as a preeminent expert on the subject, she decided to create a program which addressed the holes and inadequacies that she saw in many alternative-route teacher prep programs. Thus, Teach-Now was born; a rigorous, practical and affordable teacher certification program aimed at “preparing tomorrow’s teachers for tomorrow’s learners in tomorrow’s world”.
Apart from the student-teaching portion of the program, the Teach-Now classes and coursework are completed fully online. Assignments, readings, teaching videos, discussions, and professor interaction are all facilitated via the Teach-Now online learning platform which is similar to those of EdX and Coursera. Small cohorts of 15 or fewer teacher candidates and their module instructor meet weekly online, in real time, using the AdobeConnect video conferencing program. Lectures, discussions, flash collaboration mini-projects and analysis of exemplary teaching videos happen in the VC’s (virtual class) by the cohort members and their instructor who could be many thousands of miles apart. In fact, my cohort consisted of three English teachers in three different Korean provinces, five international school teachers in three different provinces of China, an American school teacher’s aide in Germany, and a paraprofessional working in an Arizona charter school.
Teach-Now relies on open source readings and resources from the web, as opposed to expensive textbooks. The resources range from podcasts about Lev Vygotsky and the importance of play in learning, Rick Wormeli YouTube videos on differentiation, and, of course, the writings of John Dewey on progressive teaching methods.
Where the Teach-Now program really excels and differentiates itself, thanks to Ms. Feistritzer’s vision, is in the hands-on experience teacher candidates get with valuable education technology tools. Assignments ask teacher candidates to analyze and dissect the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in an electronic mind map, create an academic data infographic, collaborate on a debate about blended learning via Voicethread, participate in an ed policy Twitter chat or develop a Pinterest board rich with lesson plan ideas. All individual and group writing assignments are completed, shared and submitted in Google Docs.
The final module or unit of the Teach-Now program is in the mold of a traditional student-teaching practicum in which teacher candidates need to complete 250 hours of in-class instruction in their subject area or grade level of certification. Similarly to traditional student-teaching models, teacher candidates need an experienced mentor teacher to support, observe and evaluate the candidate’s performance. What is different with Teach-Now, is that you also record a class once a week, upload the video to your Google Drive, share it with your instructor and cohort-mates, receive notes on your performance and discuss it at the weekly VC. This professional development method is precisely what the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project calls for in order to better identify and develop the best teachers and teaching strategies.
My Experience with Teach-Now in Korea
I had a wonderful experience completing the Teach-Now program from here in Yeosu. The opportunity to achieve my goal of becoming a certificated elementary teacher while living and working abroad, and not going into serious debt, has been a huge gift for which I am grateful. However, there were a few key factors which made the experience possible, as well as a truly rigorous and meaningful preparation that was flexible enough to work with my unique teaching situation. Keep these in mind if you are reading this and are interested in the program.
First, I had some great cohort-mates who were located in similar time zones in East Asia. They were serious professionals with years of teaching experience before joining the Teach-Now program. I learned a lot from them and received a lot of valuable feedback on my teaching as well.
Second, my Korean co-teacher at my elementary school in Yeosu is a wonderful, progressive teacher with nearly two decades of experience in the classroom as a homeroom teacher, head teacher, English teacher and low-level administrator. Despite her years of experience in Korea, she was eager to learn from my American-style teacher preparation and therefore allowed me to experiment with some distinctly Western-style teaching methods in our English classroom.
Last, I teach a few extra classes on my own, without a co-teacher and without a curriculum. This also allowed me huge amounts of freedom during the practicum especially, but also during the academic modules. I used those free form classes to complete an assignment or put into action an emphasized teaching method.
If you do not have these elements; solid cohort-mates in your time zone, a great Korean co-teacher and some flexibility in your teaching schedule, then you may need to think twice before applying to Teach-Now. Otherwise, go for it!