Teachers should succeed because of their preparation, not in spite of it.
The United States has a fractured teacher preparation system. As a
result, many teachers arrive in the classroom with limited coursework,
little real-world experience, and no practice in front of a full class.
We are asking real teachers to share their experiences to help us build
a case for why teacher preparation needs to change to meet the
demands of 21st century classrooms.
Hear from teachers below and get involved by sharing your experience.
Extensive mentoring and sustained practice in schools can shape an educator’s approach to teaching. What is it like to student teach for a full school year before having a classroom of your own?
Maggie spent one semester working half-time in a school followed by two semesters of full-time student teaching—totaling 1.5 years of intensive work in schools. The chance to see multiple educational settings during her practical experiences was key to her success as a special education teacher.
The downside, she says, was giving up her job as a behavior therapist and taking out extra loans to cover her living expenses, an extra burden during an overwhelming time. “During those student teaching semesters,” says Maggie, “I was definitely the most stressed out that I was during all of college because of the magnitude of being in a classroom full-time and trying to soak everything in. Being in a difficult financial situation really added to that.”
Devin applied to a selective internship program that placed him in an urban school for the entirety of his senior year of college. There, he worked alongside a mentor teacher and was able to immerse himself in teaching. It was the full teacher experience, he says—talking to kids, calling parents, grading papers, and going to staff meetings.
But the cost of living in a big city instead of a college town and spending his days in the classroom learning to teach meant taking out significant loans to support himself—Devin puts the number at about $20,000 just for the year he spent student teaching. The experience, though, was profound: “When I left, I was more prepared for the rigors of the school day because I had already seen it while student teaching.”
Eric spent half of his senior year in schools full-time, working with middle and high school teachers and leading a portion of the classes. The second semester of senior year, he was placed in a high school where he gradually taught more over the course of the year. It was an excellent opportunity to learn, especially because he was in schools that served the population he hoped to be hired to teach after graduation. When he ended up in a school that served a similar student demographic, he felt more confident because of his extended clinical experiences.
Eric lived with a relative to make ends meet during his placement. But if that hadn’t been an option, he doubts he would have been able to afford to live during that year without loans or additional distracting jobs.
Because of the way our education system is structured, aspiring teachers have to make decisions about what kind of preparation they’ll pursue based on location, cost, time commitment, and more. What are the factors in choosing a teacher preparation program?
Kris had an established career and a family when she decided to become a teacher. As an activist working in public housing, Kris saw how difficult school could be for students in certain areas of the city and wanted to bring her background in STEM to high-needs classrooms.
To make the switch to teaching, Kris needed something that would allow her to develop her skills while working with students, get foundational content and pedagogical knowledge, and continue to support her family. A one-year teacher residency was the perfect match—it included rigorous coursework, a full year of practice, and a living stipend. Looking back more than a decade later, she’s confident it was the right choice.
After spending three years learning about inequities while studying sociology and political science in college, Erin saw education as a place she could make a real impact. But she was in the latter half of her undergraduate career, and it would have been difficult and time consuming to change majors, so she looked for different options.
She ended up applying to an alternative certification program that would allow her to enter the classroom without spending extra time and money on her undergraduate education. Having a job lined up for after graduation provided some security, and she sought out opportunities and information that would help her get ready for the classroom while finishing her undergraduate degree.
Meredith decided to pursue teaching after graduate school when she realized she spent more time prepping for TA sessions than researching. She found three options to become certified: a graduate program that she could complete while living at home, another which required a move to a more expensive city, and a teacher residency in the city that would pay a living stipend.
When it came time to decide which route to pursue, she went with the residency. The structure of the program would help refine her content knowledge while making sure she would be successful delivering instruction to students. Plus, the combination of one-on-one mentoring and a living stipend made her feel like the program was investing in her success as a teacher.
David was looking for a preparation program that would get him working with kids from the start and allow him to continue living at home and working full-time. He applied to graduate programs that placed teachers in high-needs subject areas and schools, but found they weren’t looking for social studies teachers—but he wasn’t willing to sacrifice what he was passionate about teaching.
He ended up choosing a traditional teacher preparation program. Over three semesters of study, he found himself in mostly lecture-based classes, with field experiences that consisted mostly of classroom observation. Once he was on the job, it became clear that he’d have to seek out feedback and support on his own, a difficult task for a brand new teacher.
Teachers’ experiences getting ready for the classroom vary—some get the chance to build a great foundation before starting their first jobs, but others aren’t so lucky. How are preparation programs structured?
Devin started taking education courses during the spring semester of his freshman year in college. As he progressed through the program, he gained a strong theoretical background and participated in shorter field experiences before heading to the year-long internship placement about 200 miles away from his college campus. There, coursework was mainly online and supervision from program staff was inconsistent.
Working with his mentor teacher, though, meant getting constant feedback on his practice. That mentorship was essential for Devin, and looking back he doubts he would have gotten through the year without it. During that year, he was able to focus on learning to build relationships with students, which is a priority for him at the start of each new school year.
After college, Katherine entered an alternative certification program. That summer, she headed to a five-week training program in a different city with fellow new teachers. During that time, she taught summer school for part of the day and then participated in professional development, mostly on behavior management and elementary school content.
The packed schedule meant that evenings were spent planning lessons for the next day, making it an overwhelming experience. After she was hired for the school year, she continued to receive some supports from the program.
Lisa knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was in school. When she went to college she enrolled in an undergraduate program with small class sizes and a strong social justice focus—two things she knew she needed to become a great teacher.
There, she studied content, theory, and pedagogy to become an elementary school teacher and her experience culminated in a semester of full-time student teaching. During that semester, she worked closely with a teacher, received weekly feedback from a university advisor, and participated in group student teaching debriefs. The time to reflect and hear from her fellow student teachers helped her think through any challenges or questions that came up in the classroom.
The undergraduate teaching program Maggie attended gradually increased her time spent in schools while maintaining a strong focus on child development and content courses. In the beginning of the program, most of the work was completed on campus with instructors. Later on, students would participate in shorter field experiences and classroom-based projects.
In total, Maggie spent a semester in a half-time practicum placement, a semester in a study abroad program to put her on track for bilingual certification, and two semesters student teaching. The immersive experiences during those two years helped her make connections between theory and practice.
Becoming an excellent teacher is hard work, and most teachers agree that it takes time to gain confidence in the classroom. But some skills and knowledge are essential from day one. What do teachers need before entering the classroom?
The most valuable piece of Katherine’s five weeks of preparation was the collaborative aspect. She found that planning with fellow teachers and talking through lessons was helpful while getting ready to teach and she was grateful to end up in a school with other new teachers.
But Katherine found that the summer training fell short on the core developmental and pedagogical pieces of teaching. For her first four years in the classroom, she wasn’t confident teaching her third graders to read. Understanding more about how children learn and what strategies work in the classroom was something she didn’t master until graduate school.
After graduating, David found himself feeling isolated without much support from administrators or colleagues and little insight into how other teachers ran their classrooms. His student teaching had been similar—and he realized that since he hadn’t had the opportunity to learn how to collaborate effectively in the classroom, his colleagues were likely in the same boat. David started to seek out extra opportunities to develop his practice, supplemental resources, and mutually beneficial relationships with fellow educators.
Now, in addition to having his own classroom, David helps other teachers benefit from feedback and reflection as an instructional coach. He pushes for continuous professional learning that benefits all teachers and brings educators together—something that he believes makes more effective and committed teachers.
After graduating from her preparation program, Lisa worked as a paraprofessional before becoming a teacher. Once she entered the classroom, she felt confident in her teaching, but quickly found that she needed to develop a better understanding of the needs of students with disabilities and English language learners. Lisa sought out additional support to help her refine her practice, with a focus on serving diverse learners.
Lisa returned to school and completed additional degrees to ensure she was ready to teach all students, and now advocates for more intensive preparation to serve diverse students.
When teachers are paid to practice alongside a mentor for a full year before leading a classroom, we don’t have to ask them to take out thousands of dollars in loans or learn core skills while on the job. How can teacher residencies make a difference?
When Sean was a child, he loved snowstorms. He went to school for meteorology but realized that what he really loved was sharing his passion with people—so he decided to pursue teaching. Sean considered alternative routes to the classroom, but settled on a teacher residency that would allow him to spend a full year learning with a living stipend.
The support Sean received wasn’t just financial. He also had constant feedback from his professors, his mentor teacher, and his cohort. It was this community that made the residency special, and even after graduating, he’s found ways to stay connected. As a fifth year teacher, he credits his residency program with giving him the tools he needs to be successful. “My residency carries me through every year,” says Sean, “The first thing I focus on is building relationships with my students because I know from that program how important that can be when you’re learning.”
Meredith credits her teacher residency with helping her become a reflective teacher. After every lesson, she would sit down with her mentor teacher to think through what worked and what didn’t. Her mentor teacher and professors were there when she needed help, whether with lesson planning or managing her workload.
The investment that the program made in Meredith by providing a stipend paid off. Thanks to a strong start, she’s been able to stay in the city teaching in public schools since graduating. She’s also maintained a great relationship with the residency program and serves as a mentor teacher herself—something that she says is a huge plus for not only the aspiring teacher she works with, but also herself and her students. It’s just one way that she’s able to give back to the program that set her up for success.
After spending an entire year in a school supported by her mentor teacher, fellow aspiring educators, and preparation program staff, Kris says she knew she could succeed as a teacher. “I was committed,” she says, “I knew I could stick it out. I had been through a year already where I wasn’t on my own, so I knew I could do it and I knew it would get easier.”
Thinking back on her teacher residency, she sees how important it was to build a strong base and recognizes how vital a role residents can play in a school; “It’s amazing for kids to have two teachers in a classroom.” Kris has continued to seek out opportunities to grow her practice and serve her students, going back to school for a computer science certification. She’s committed to sticking with teaching and says that she loves preparing kids to become problem solvers wherever they go.