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May 1, 1999
Vol. 56
No. 8

Toward Better Teacher Education: A Conversation with Asa Hilliard

    Asa Hilliard describes how model teaching programs, mentoring, and recruitment can inspire new teachers to realize how good teaching can be.

      Noted teacher, psychologist, and historian Asa Hilliard has been active in the education of teachers for more than 38 years. He has worked in the Denver Public Schools and has served on various faculties of higher education. Hilliard is now Professor of Urban Education at Georgia State University.
      During his tenure in the teacher corps in Liberia, West Africa, Hilliard began to see what he called the two "categories of fundamental weakness" of most teacher education programs. One is that "we fail to call on teachers to immerse themselves in-depth in something that they like and want to study." The second, says Hilliard, is that "the methods that we teach tend to be formalistic, ritualistic, and routine—but not necessarily valid."
      What he observed in West Africa, along with what he has witnessed in his various positions in the United States, helped Hilliard reach the conclusion that "method is not always crucial." What is crucial, he suggests, is that teachers develop a deep knowledge about the subjects that they love because they'll then be eager to share what they've learned. And, in that eagerness, teachers will be inspired to acquire the instructional approaches that best help students learn.
      Is there a model teacher education program that would allow preservice teachers to focus on their interests and academic content areas while giving them a solid grounding in effective teaching methods?
      Some states already have such programs. Take California, for example. When I lived in California, a prospective teacher was required to have a degree to start teacher education. That's four years of academic content. California at that time also required an extra year of methodology, which was split between a methods course in a particular subject and a course called "perspective studies." The idea was that the prospective teacher needed a framework for understanding how method and content knowledge worked together in the classroom.
      I do think it's important for student teachers to build a solid pedagogical foundation that includes basic method, but some of the best teacher educators I know can provide such a foundation in 12 to 14 weeks of clinical work.
      Another model program for teacher preparation is Project SEED, a highly successful approach to teaching higher-level algebraic concepts and skills to elementary schoolchildren. A team of master teachers who are also master teacher educators demonstrate how to raise low-performing students to excellence. Apprenticeship to a team of master teachers, along with a cohort of trainees, gives teachers opportunities for cycles of demonstration, imitation, and critique. Within a few weeks, teachers attain a basic level of proficiency. The clinical exposure and practice in a power teaching environment works. In addition, teachers-in-training get more opportunities to learn more mathematics.
      A lot still has to happen. It's one thing to learn a method; it's another thing to commit to a philosophy. If I'm going to make choices about philosophical, theoretical matters, then I have to know philosophy and theory. So some of my study has to give me opportunities to learn about current ideas and research in education.
      Is this the kind of education that a recent college graduate going straight into teaching will need to succeed in the classroom?
      Learning to be a teacher is a long-term process. Initial teacher competence is manifest most in the skill to deliver instruction. As teachers mature, experience, study, and reflection help develop their perspective and philosophy. Therefore, there must be a pattern of support for continuing professional studies—studies in history, philosophy, and theory. Teachers grow in knowledge throughout their careers. In addition, it is essential that teachers continue to deepen their studies in academic content areas. This is as necessary for teachers of young children as for teachers at the higher grade levels.
      How might practicing teachers also deepen their academic content knowledge and rekindle their enthusiasm?
      Teachers must have opportunities to become deeply engrossed in work that is academically challenging. I saw an example of this in Chicago. Some middle school teachers had a chance to take a course taught by a team of full professors from the University of Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University School for Inner-City Studies, and Chicago State University. The course compared Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek classical literature in the ancient world.
      It was incredible to see how the teachers responded. The experience transformed their teaching because these teachers went back with information that they couldn't wait to share. That would be one simple way—not the only way—to give teachers the kind of exposure they need.
      You have written extensively about the need for preservice and practicing teachers to have exposure to good teaching. Please share your thoughts on mentors and internships for new teachers.
      Many teachers want to believe that all children can learn. Yet few really do believe it, simply because they have never experienced it. Therefore, only successful teachers should be mentors to new teachers. Our current models of teacher preparation rarely, if ever, require successful teaching, especially success-ful teaching with students who tend to be low per-formers, as a prerequisite for assignment as a master teacher. The mentor must above all be a high-level performer. If I were searching for good teachers, I would look for those who have experienced extraordinarily pow-erful results with children.
      One problem, though, is that we don't always see the high performers. It's a political problem because if you identify the high performers, then you also identify those who are not high performers—and we're reluctant to point them out. But if we're going to make high performers typical instead of exceptional, then we've got to put the people who can win—and those who can teach others to win—in the driver's seat.
      It's important, too, that we work with high performers so that they learn how to become better teacher educators. A lot of the people who are really good at teaching don't necessarily know how to describe what they're doing.
      For example, I have often observed an excellent teacher in Oakland, California. This teacher is aware of some things that make her a successful teacher, but I've told her that to truly assess her performance, she must videotape her lessons and then, perhaps with some friends, observe the videotape and really see all that she does in the classroom. That way, she can watch the video a number of times, determine how she is effective, and then share her successful instructional approaches with other teachers.
      Schools and colleges of education can codify and systematize mentoring practice. All that is required is systematic observation and analysis of powerful mentoring approaches. Some approaches are already systematic and formalized. Project SEED in mathematics and Reuven Feuerstein's Mediated Learning are two examples. Both approaches are developed in great detail. Both are the products of more than 30 years of highly successful experience with teaching students and professional development. These and other approaches can fit into schools and into college of education programs.
      What you've described are fairly informal approaches to mentoring. Should schools and colleges of education implement more structured programs?
      I've been asked this question before: How do you set up an effective mentoring or internship program when you've got large numbers of people? It's one thing when you've got two or three teachers who want to work together to improve their practice, but I used to have 200 potential teachers in the secondary education program.
      So I started thinking like a bureaucrat, and my imagination went to the kind of physical structure that would make such a program work. I began to envision a room that had a two-way viewing screen that allowed potential teachers to observe a real classroom with a model teacher. Video cameras would be positioned about the room to capture the instruction from a variety of angles.
      Then there would be opportunities for me and other faculty from the university to hold a class in the observation room and view the videotape with potential teachers. We could review successful instructional approaches as we saw them in action.
      Some teacher educators have been very effective in using videos in this way. Sadly, it is far from common practice.
      That's pretty high end. Is it a "pie in the sky" scenario?
      We have a choice between what works and what does not. The right thing may very well be labor-intensive and costly. It would take a lot of money and other resources to create and support a structure like the one I've described. Yet can we justify cheap and invalid practice?
      It pains me that when we talk about what goes on in the classroom, we always do so in the abstract. People recall their clinical experiences—when they were with real kids in real places and in real time—but each of us has a private memory, an individual perspective, of what took place in the classroom. And even though we may use a similar language, we may not be talking about the same thing, and, therefore, we may not be having a real conversation.
      If we could observe a teacher or watch a videotape together, we would at least have a common reality to talk about—so that we could make the invisible visible. Too much of what happens in teacher education is that both the negative and the positive instructional approaches are rendered invisible. That's too bad, because if you can't see the negative, then you can't change it, and if you can't see the positive, then you can't benefit from it.
      In addition to a mastery of academic content, what other qualities should good teachers possess?
      Teachers must be people of character and commitment. They must take the initiative and be creative. They should be curious. They should learn habitually. Of course, they must have skill in communication. Some of these qualities may not be acquired simply through training.
      From my observation, teachers who are successful have a more holistic approach to teaching. Their methods are good, but they understand that what matters most is the relationship between the teacher and the student. That, above all, is what I want children to have—a teacher who is first a human being.
      These kinds of teachers have been very important in the lives of my own children. When my daughter now writes to teachers she had when she was younger, she writes to the people who really cared about her and to those she cared about.
      I remember one teacher I observed when my daughter was taking his social science class. He had no formal teaching plans that I could see, but he did have a lot of depth in what he cared about—government, health, and physical education. He liked those things and gave that part of himself to his students.
      If you asked about his method—I'm not sure that he had one. But I am sure that what he did stuck with my daughter and shaped her in profound ways. She picked up many of his values. In fact, she once came home and told me that I was going to die. Of course, I asked her "Why?" and she answered that her teacher observed that I was too fat and that my diet of grease, sugar, and salt was unhealthy.
      My daughter also picked up her teacher's love of running. He would take some 200 kids running with him every morning. He encouraged his students to enter the Golden Gate Bridge Race. My daughter ran that mile and one-half across the bridge and back with all the adults in the city. And when I saw her struggling to finish, I told her that she didn't have to finish—it was hurting me to watch her! But she was determined because her teacher had told her that she could finish that race.
      This teacher taught my daughter more than just the technique of running—he also helped her become determined and diligent. Teachers are most brilliant when they know how to relate to students as human beings.
      It's difficult to recruit the kind of teacher you describe. Retaining good teachers is also a continuing challenge. What can experienced educators do to attract good people to the teaching profession?
      Yes, it is difficult to attract teachers like my daughter's teacher, Bob Gehl. It may even be difficult to spot them in the selection process. However, experienced educators can do the most to attract good people by creating powerful learning environments.
      One thing that works against recruitment is the deeply rooted authoritarianism in large school systems that intimidates many potential teachers. New teachers are terrified because they feel that they can be hurt by arbitrary actions—and they hunger for a professional climate and culture that would give them a voice in decision making.
      It's not a professional environment if all decisions are made by administrators and handed down to teachers. Schools can't be places of joy if teachers aren't given a voice. Too often, we tolerate conditions that rob teachers of their initiative and enthusiasm.
      But I see people in all kinds of jobs who are unhappy. My own son, for example. He's a lawyer. He's worked successfully and has received praise for his work. Now he wants to teach. He taught "street law" at Georgetown University and felt that he was in his element. Why? Well, much of what lawyers do is work that they don't want to do. Teachers, in contrast, get to do more of the things that we do want to do.
      We teachers do have an incredible working environment—places of learning that are places of joy—when that environment is properly structured. We don't tell people that. We don't propagandize. We need to tell people how good teaching is. We have—literally—one of the best jobs that anyone can have.

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