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Mentors play critical role in teacher preparation

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on May 2, 2012)

We hear many questions these days about whether teacher preparation programs are doing an effective job of graduating teachers who can help students achieve. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has accused schools of education of doing a mediocre job.

In our state, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission produces an annual report card on the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs. In 2011, THEC’s report card suggested that in the lower grades, Teach for America teachers tended to produce higher student gains than traditionally licensed teachers.
So what’s going on?

Put simply, we can think of alternative licensure programs as emphasizing talent identification, while traditional education schools emphasize talent development.

Programs such as Teach for America are strong at talent identification. They choose their candidates from among the best students in the best colleges and universities in the country. Then they put these talented students through a boot camp and send them quickly into high-need schools, where they do, in fact, have an impact.

In comparison, most education schools enroll individuals who represent a broader range of academic experience and skills, and develop their talents over two to five years. Given this variability in background, early experience with mentor teachers is critical.

The abilities of novice teachers tend to improve significantly during their first few years. This is partly due to their experiences with mentors who provide guided practice. One argument in favor of the talent development approach is that even novice teachers enter the classroom with more prior hands-on experience. The best of these teachers tend to stay in the profession longer, as well.

At my college, our students begin working in schools early in their studies and continue through their student teaching experience the last semester before graduation. Along the way, they are exposed to the challenges of urban education, working with English language learners and teaching students with special needs.

They learn to meet these challenges under the tutelage of teachers with years of experience and wisdom. These mentors help them transfer the theories they learn on campus into practical classroom strategies and to devise solutions to problems that teachers face every day.

I cannot say how grateful we are to the practicing teachers in Metro Nashville Public Schools and other Middle Tennessee schools, both public and independent, who help to train our students for the classroom.

Partnerships between schools of education and their local schools are critical to the success of teacher education. If you know a teacher who works with student teachers or others preparing for the profession, I hope you will say thanks, too.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.