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Educators need to prepare future teachers to be 'shape shifters,' professor says

Friday, January 22, 2016

LAWRENCE — The term “shape shifter” may sound like the realm of science fiction, but millennials training to be the next generation of teachers may need to be just that. A University of Kansas professor has published a study examining how “New Times,” or the era we live in, requires new educators to be flexible in order to be successful.

Heidi Hallman, associate professor of curriculum and teaching at KU, authored “Teacher as ‘Shape Shifter:’ Exploring the Intersection of New Times and the Teaching of English Language Arts.” The study was published in the journal Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, and she plans to expand it to a full-length book in the future. It explores how the current era both affords and constricts possibilities for teachers’ identities. Hallman, who prepares English language arts teachers, had been interested in how the current generation views themselves as future teachers and how they may face different challenges than their predecessors.

“New Times is basically the idea that globalization has led to changes in our world, including technological changes, how socially connected we are, even how we’re trained for our professions,” Hallman said. “Part of teaching is identifying where you see yourself as most effective. A lot of times young teachers have the idea that there is a perfect place or educational situation to aim for. I don’t think that’s often the case.”

Hallman includes the story of a student she was familiar with who dreamed of becoming an English teacher. The student always considered English teaching about the love of classic books, reading and writing. But, as she began her student teaching requirements, she began to realize that wasn’t exactly the case. Standardized testing requirements and other realities made her think she wouldn’t be able to get a teaching job simply as an English specialist. The student then decided to focus on attaining a certification as a teacher of English language learners and teaching English to speakers of other languages to boost her chances of landing a job.

Situations where young future educators realize what they thought teaching would be is not quite accurate is common, Hallman said. Whether it is because of issues of standardization, the necessary acquisition of other skills, technology changing how teachers teach or others, it shows that teacher educators need to prepare students to be open to change.

Teachers now entering the workforce have only known the era of highly emphasized standardized testing. As the national focus shifts away from No Child Left Behind, it is quite likely that new teachers will have to adapt to a new system in their careers. The current era has also been defined by cuts to education budgets, and when combined with the focus on testing, history and social studies are often the first to go.

“It’s important to have mentors in schools that have seen eras change so we’re not just going by what the current mandate is,” Hallman said. “We need to see and recognize that we come from traditions and that each discipline of study has a unique history.”

Teaching has also become increasingly politicized, and educators can find themselves caught between lawmakers and other interests, often feeling like they don’t have a voice in the debate. Making future teachers aware of that reality, showing how they can voice their opinions appropriately and being more vocal about the benefits of public education are all steps teacher educators should be taking, Hallman said.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to address teachers for a rapidly changing educational landscape is to increase field experience and expose students to numerous different educational settings. That would help young people learn what’s expected of teachers and see how teaching is different from one school to the next, Hallman said. For example, young people are often technologically savvy but then encounter schools using a technology they are familiar with in a seemingly rudimentary fashion. Realizing that individuals, students and schools are all unique can help up-and-coming educators realize their practice is always adapting and no one is an expert in all areas.

Ultimately, preparing future teachers to expect change and be able to adapt to it before they enter the profession full-time could help prevent disillusionment, frustration and burnout among teachers, resulting in better education for students.

“We’re constantly in a mode of re-inventing ourselves. We have to align ourselves with what’s being expected of our students in schools and be more collaborative in our approach,” Hallman said. “…It is important that (teacher educators) take stock of how an era of ‘New Times’ intersects with the development of who teachers become – and are permitted to become – in the context of schools and communities. Beginning teachers as shape-shifters may be both rebels and compromisers, and ultimately may be teachers who will adapt to new contexts in New Times,” she wrote.

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