The unspoken ingredient to teacher prep success—context. Knowing the context, the linguistic and cultural backgrounds, resources, and issues of neighborhoods is of tremendous value. Context makes the difference between student trust and effectiveness.

This year, I’ve worked with a group of fellow alumni of Bank Street College of Education on developing ideas for what teacher preparation should look like in the future. We discussed this along with a parallel group of Bank Street faculty members, as well as visiting scholar Barnett Berry, to build on ideas from the book he and 12 other teachers (including me!) co-authored, TEACHING 2030.

We pulled together our recollections of what was best about our teacher preparation experience—i.e., what to keep moving forward—and what was missing. At Bank Street, we had wonderful advisors who led cohorts of teacher candidates in making sense of our student teaching experiences where we got to learn from master teachers. We also had strong foundations in child development and curriculum building. These were the essential elements of our teacher preparation experiences.

There were a few things we felt unprepared to face as we entered teaching. Most notably, we all believed that preparation to work in the specific neighborhoods in which we ended up teaching was very much needed but we’d had to go about this task ourselves in our own ways. We agreed that understanding where our students were coming from, their linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and the resources and issues in their neighborhoods is of tremendous value once you’re in the classroom. This understanding on the part of the teacher can be the unspoken ingredient that makes the difference between whether or not students trust the teacher and even whether or not the teacher is seen as effective in their early years.

No part of teacher preparation mentioned above is dispensable. It’s just that mentorship, child development, and curriculum are generally understood to be necessary, while understanding student contexts/communities is often not. The image to the left was created in one of our meetings by Bank Street alums Renata Robinson-Glenn, Sam Rosaldo, and Nancy Toes Tangel (with suggestions from the TEACHING 2030 team) to show the significance and interdependence of these pieces of a student’s experience.

Teacher candidates need to be conscious early on about the ways that the teachers must interact directly and indirectly with the communities from which students come. We thought having alumni share about the contexts in which they teach, how they got to know their students’ worlds, and how this informs their teaching would be a good place to start. In student teaching placements, teacher candidates should be asking questions about this and making observations in the surrounding neighborhood in addition to in school.

Advisors would make sure that candidates had the opportunity to teach and investigate a variety of contexts during the student teaching. Then when it was time to apply for jobs, advisors could help teacher candidates make informed decisions about where they wanted to work, including their knowledge of the community in terms of culture, needs, and resources and their knowledge of themselves—What makes me a good match for these students? How long am I planning to stay? What is my level of commitment and how might that affect my students and families’ willingness to trust me? These are all questions teachers should consider when deciding on their first job.

We’d like to see a course—probably taking place the summer before candidates begin in their the first teaching position—devoted to getting to know the school and its surrounding community or the various communities from which students come in the case of schools that draw from several neighborhoods. They would research the neighborhood’s history and demographics, find out about community organizations, businesses, and politics. These experiences would be part of what we call the observation stage of preparing teachers to work with families and communities.

Ideas on the middle and final stages of preparing teachers for this valuable aspect of our work will be coming in our forthcoming piece on Teacher Preparation 2030. I will include links and more information soon.

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