One of the fundamental strategies of good teaching is a concept called scaffolding. It describes the process through which teachers provide various supports for a student learning a new skill, then gradually remove them as the student gains mastery. Like training wheels on a bike, scaffolding helps a student bridge the gap between what she can already do and what she aspires to do. Teacher education programs try to scaffold the experience of their students, too. My graduate program, for example, put me through a rigorous process beginning with academic theory, followed by field observation, co-teaching with an experienced mentor teacher, and finally, solo student teaching.
But no amount of scaffolding can fully prepare anyone for first-year teaching. The gap between teacher preparation and real classroom conditions spans a chasm unimaginably wide and unspeakably deep. This is not the fault of teacher education programs; rather, it is simply the reality of the profession. In graduate schools across the country, teacher candidates are being taught to use “proximity” to subtly redirect student misbehavior in the least intrusive manner; they aren’t being taught what to do when an adolescent who has just lost a relative to police violence tells them to fuck off in response to a request to put away their phone. They are being taught to modify complex texts by bolding important passages for struggling readers; they aren’t being taught how to teach the same text, simultaneously, to a student reading at a college level and her classmate who is reading at a third grade level. They are being taught to take time for self-care; they aren’t being taught that self-care will inevitably take a back seat to meeting a grading deadline. They are being taught to hold every student to the same high standard; they are not being taught how to fairly grade the student who works himself to the bone and still struggles to write a claim against the student who rarely attends class but is already writing well above grade level.
Lastly, they are being taught that they can make a difference. Although this belief is true, it is dangerously incomplete, for the difference that teachers can make is both limited and selective. A teacher’s impact is limited because factors beyond the school walls – trauma, poverty, racism – don’t adhere to a bell schedule. And it is selective because no teacher – no matter how talented, passionate, or effective – can be a transformative figure for every student, especially when they might have 150 students at any given time. Among the many things that teacher education programs do not teach, one of the most dispiriting is that committing yourself to giving a student the individual attention she needs necessarily means neglecting five others who need it just as urgently. The unspoken truth about teaching is this: even the best teachers fail much, much more than they succeed. This is a lesson that no teacher education program can – or should – teach. Instead, it is a lesson that is learned only through the hard crucible of experience.
As a first year teacher, I am riding a steep learning curve, or rather, several steep learning curves. I’m learning how to create lesson plans that are effective not only in theory but also in practice. I’m learning how to build social capital in a profession that is notoriously isolating, particularly toward educators of color. I’m learning how to meet my kids where they are, especially when that takes me to difficult places. But mostly, I’m learning that, if we are serious about providing a quality education for every child, we need to radically rethink our priorities and restart a national dialogue about education. We have just endured a presidential election cycle in which, for every major candidate, K-12 public education was hardly an afterthought. This does note bode well for our students. We need to demand that our elected officials bring education back to the forefront of local, state, and national agendas. Even if politics divide us in our approach, we need to agree that education is still something worth fighting over.