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New book gives first look at how English teachers are trained in 20-plus years, evaluation of field

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor has co-authored a book examining how English teachers are educated across the country. The study that informed the book was the first in more than 20 years and provides insight into how the field has evolved as well as different approaches across the country. It also serves as a model for other disciplines to examine their own fields and how they prepare teachers.

“Secondary English Teacher Education in the United States: Responding to a Changing Context” was written by Donna Pasternak, Samantha Caughlan, Heidi Hallman, associate professor of curriculum & teaching at KU; Laura Renzi and Leslie Rush. The book is the first major study of English teacher preparation since 1995 and takes a deeper look at the topic than the preceding study. Where the earlier effort only analyzed syllabi from institutions and categorized how they prepared teachers on the analysis, the book’s authors conducted surveys of more than 250 public and private institutions that prepare teachers. They also held focus groups with program leaders and analyzed syllabi for methods of teaching English courses.

“We thought, given the era we’re in, it’s not enough to rely only on syllabi,” Hallman said. “We wanted to look deeper and get a better understanding of where the field is.”

In part one of the book, the authors give an overview of their nationwide study and analyze the context under which English teachers are prepared, with the goal of enabling teacher educators in other countries to make comparisons to their own methods and approaches. The book’s second part provides a comprehensive evaluation of the practices and skills being taught to future English teachers throughout American universities.

The book updates the study on English teacher education by being the first look at how a “new band of students,” or the changing demographic of American students, is reflected in the way English teachers are prepared. The authors identified “five strands of change” in the way teachers are prepared to reach a much more diverse student body in American schools than they were in the past:

  • Standards
  • Literacy integration, including the debate on how to teach literature and literacy
  • Teaching diverse learners, including English language learners
  • Technological integration, or what new teachers need to know about technology and how it applies to education
  • Field experience and the importance of having partner school sites for student teaching relationships.

The book’s overview in part one provides a portrait of English teacher preparation in America today, including a summary of approaches, trends, where programs are housed within universities, how the field has changed and the importance of awareness versus application.

“I think one of the main tensions we saw was awareness versus application,” Hallman said. “Meaning, taking the knowledge that these new teachers learn and having a way to apply it and sites at which you can work with it.”

The interviews revealed the pairing of the two largely depends on resources teacher educators have. Many programs faced challenges in forming partnerships with schools for their future teachers to student teach; sometimes they were challenges of geography, others were an inability to find diverse populations with which to work or simply finding partners.

The focus groups centered around topic-specific areas such as field experience, technology or state-specific requirements, such as exit portfolios required for teacher licensing and the challenges they presented.

“That is a common frustration, that these external pressures determined what they do more than their own curriculum,” Hallman said. “These teacher educators often feel they’re torn between the mandates and their feel of what the field should be.”

The book also takes a look the evolution of the field, including debates on how teaching should be done, how the views have changed over time and what that means for new English teachers. For example, English education traditionally relied on classic texts and has evolved to focus more on personal growth and a utilitarian approach to literacy for all. There are also many different ways to teach writing, and awareness of the differences often results in “competing paradigms” for future teachers.

“We look at what it means for novices to come into the field and have to navigate those competing paradigms,” Hallman said. “As the field continues to evolve, how do they deal with the history?”

The authors also examine how recent changes in American education have shaped the young people who are becoming the new generation of teachers. They examine the implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2002 and how its focus on standardized testing is the only approach current teachers know. That’s not the case for teacher educators, however, and the authors examined if that created problems in the book’s interviews.

“Teachers are asked to be the ones putting these things in motion and to be judges of how it’s playing out,” Hallman said. “They often ask, ‘Is what I’m having my students do resonating with what I believe in? We saw there are ways for teachers to remain individual professionals, use their own judgment and find value in that.”

An asset to teacher educators across the country, the book is not only an overview of the field and areas of strength and weaknesses, authors say, but also a thorough case study that teacher educators in other disciplines and English teacher educators in other countries can use as a template for more thorough examinations of how they prepare teachers in their own fields.

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