About Partnership: Breaching the Walls of Academia

by Fred M. Hechinger

One of the serious obstacles to good teaching is the way new teachers are inducted into their workplace: they are dropped into the classroom, straight out of their largely theoretical academic preparation, with little more than some so-called practice teaching that gives them virtually no experience in the real task of teaching. Worse, they are expected to take on a full load of classes from Day One, usually with little help from experienced colleagues and no time for reflection. It is as if medical students were sent into practice without internship and residency.

There they are frightened, exhausted, with little more at their disposal than a lot of theories, often outmoded and rarely attuned to current efforts at school reform.

The answer to this time-worn practice could readily be borrowed from the preparation of physicians or even from the European concept of apprenticeship: learning on the job under the guidance of experienced practitioners.

Fortunately, a number of colleges and universities have begun to work with local schools to create a more professional way for the transition from academic teacher preparation to the classroom. "Horace," the publication of The Coalition of Essential Schools, in its September 1993 issue, reports on a growing trend toward university-school partnerships aimed at helping new teachers to find a firm footing in their new profession.

For example, the University of New Hampshire has created internships in a local high school that pay candidates for masters in education degrees $3,000 for a year's internship service in the classroom. As an added benefit, the particular school happens to be part of the coalition's network of schools committed to the latest educational reforms. This saves the new teachers from the more usual fate of being pressed into the mold of outmoded ways to which too many schools still subscribe.

"We want to do teacher education only in schools that are in the process of restructuring," said Lynne Miller, a professor of education at the University of Southern Maine which is working with a network of nearby schools.

Theodore Sizer, the coalition's chairman, underscores this view: "You just can't talk about teacher education apart from school reform."

Like all university-school collaboration, the internship concept represents a two-way approach to reform: the schools and their potential teachers benefit from the arrangement; at the same time, the university and its teacher training sector learn from the feedback brought to them by their masters degree candidates' or former students' classroom experience.

Unless the universities are deaf to the message of what reformed schools need, they will update their teacher training curriculum. This could do wonders for the improvement, or even the elimination, of many of those required education courses which have long been the butt of criticism and ridicule.

In the traditional hierarchy of academia, universities usually determine what is important and what should be researched and taught, without paying much attention to what is important to the practitioners in the field. In a university-school partnership, the two establish goals and priorities together.

The idea of the two-way street of collaboration is hardly news to Yale professors who have taken part in the Yale-New Haven Teacher Institute.

If planned in close partnership between the schools and the university, the teacher training faculty will become a vital part of the schools where their interns teach. This could be a step toward eliminating the gap and the mutual suspicions between the two professions: the education faculty and the practitioners in the schools. If the system works, the two sides will emerge as partners in the same enterprise, working together and helping each other in the interest of better education. As the Yale experience has shown, school teachers and university professors learn to view each other as colleagues.

Will the partnership and the internship idea replace the old, usually inadequate, student teaching component of teacher training and put an end to the "swim or sink" induction of new teachers? Probably not rapidly enough. Established turf is not readily abandoned. Academic walls are not easily demolished. Yet, Kathleen Cushman, author of the report in "Horace," lists a number of universities that have established collaboration with schools, including Indiana State University, the universities of New Mexico, Hartford, Louisville, and Florida International University.

Betty Lou Whitford, of the University of Louisville, puts it bluntly: "We're all in the same business not just to help schools, not just to educate teachers, but to collaborate in the education of children. Our goal is to blur the lines so that it will be hard to tell whether I'm a 'university person' or a 'school person'."

It won't happen overnight, but the direction is right.

Back to Table of Contents of the Summer 1994 Issue of On Common Ground

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