Perspectives and profiles: The professional preparation of middle level teachers

Perspectives and profiles: The professional preparation of middle level teachers

Thomas S Dickinson

There have been many calls for the specialized professional preparation of teachers of young adolescents (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Dickinson & Butler, 1994; Douglass, 1920; McEwin, 1992a; Van Til, Vars & Lounsbury, 1961). The majority of teacher preparation institutions, however, have not heeded these calls. The reasons for this failure are powerful and complex. Although many reasons are based on false information and stereotyped myths, they remain powerful and must be debunked. Factors that complicate this issue include:

* ignorance about young adolescents’ special characteristics and needs

* insufficient advocates in the profession

* desire for a plentiful supply of teachers who are licensed to teach any age group

* lack of public knowledge about middle level curriculum, teaching and schooling

* expense of new teacher preparation programs in a time of too few resources

* limited number of model middle level teacher preparation programs

* problems, real and / or perceived, with other teacher preparation programs

* willingness of schools to settle for hiring teachers who are only prepared to teach in settings other than middle schools

* licensure regulations that do not require special middle level preparation

* lack of prestige for teaching this “difficult and crazy age group”

* undiminished appeal of teaching younger children interest in teaching a single subject area “in depth”

* lack of confidence among teachers about effectively teaching this age group

* general tendency to ignore the needs of young adolescents and their teachers.

A major reason for the lack of teachers with special preparation to teach young adolescents lies not in the unwillingness of prospective and practicing middle level teachers to enroll in these programs, but in the unavailability of undergraduate and graduate middle level teacher preparation programs. In a 1993 study of 2,139 middle school teachers, researchers found that 71 percent did not know a special middle level teacher preparation program was available when they began their professional preparation (Scales & McEwin,1994).

Other studies reveal that the majority of institutions in the U.S. with teacher preparation programs have not established specialized middle level programs (Alexander & McEwin, 1988; McEwin, 1992b). In his 1991 study of institutions with special middle level teacher preparation programs McEwin (1992b) found that only 31 percent of all institutions had undergraduate middle grades teacher preparation programs, and 91 percent of the institutions with a specialized middle level program at the masters or doctoral level also had an undergraduate one. The master’s degree was the second most frequently offered (McEwin, 1992b).

At institutions with middle level teacher preparation programs, the major specialization, one equivalent to a full degree program in elementary or secondary education, is the most popular undergraduate plan. Even at this basic teacher preparation level, however, 43 percent of programs consisted only of add-on requirements or special middle level courses. The same pattern existed for the other degree levels (McEwin, 1992b).

Progress in establishing special middle level teacher preparation programs has been steady, but extremely slow. The percent of institutions that offer undergraduate middle level teacher preparation programs has increased from 23 percent in 1973 (Gatewood & Mills, 1973) to 38 percent in 1991 (McEwin, 1992b), a gain of only 15 percent in 18 years! At this rate, a long time will pass before all teachers of young adolescents have the opportunity to receive professional preparation focused on middle level teaching (McEwin,1992b).

Special Preparation and the Middle Level Teacher

It is not surprising that the majority of middle level teachers received no special preparation for teaching young adolescents, considering the scarcity of specialized preparation programs for middle level teachers and the licensure requirements that sustain them. A survey of 5th- through 8th-grade teachers from eight states conducted in 1991 (Scales, 1992) revealed that most middle level teachers have been prepared in elementary education programs that focus on teaching young children, or in secondary ones that focus almost exclusively upon content area knowledge. As a result, many middle level teachers’ interests and professional preparation are focused on other grade levels and other developmental groups.

In the aforementioned 1993 study (Scales & McEwin, 1994), which examined the impact of high quality middle level teacher preparation programs, the researchers sent survey instruments to middle schools (serving grades 6-8) in five states. These states offered “authentic” (Valentine & Mogar, 1992) middle level teaching certificates. Even in these states (which contained 57 percent of the special middle level teacher preparation programs in the U.S.), however, only 22 percent of middle school teachers reported receiving specific undergraduate professional preparation for middle grades teaching. Fifty-six percent of teachers with graduate degrees in these states indicated that their most recent preparation was for the middle level. When both undergraduate and graduate degrees were considered, approximately 55 percent of middle school teachers in these five states had some special middle level teacher preparation at some degree level.

Additional findings from this study also strongly support comprehensive middle level teacher preparation programs. These findings show:

* teachers prepared in special middle grades programs were more likely to have had program components considered in the literature to be essential for successful middle grades teaching

* the more middle level courses taken by preservice teachers, the more likely they were to rate their preparation program highly

* teachers who held the authentic middle level teaching license were significantly more likely to have participated in comprehensive programs and to rate those programs more favorably than teachers whose certificates were not as authentically focused on the middle level.

Middle Level Licensure

The failure of most states to design and implement licensure regulations that promote the specialized knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to successfully teach young adolescents is a major reason for the dearth of specially prepared middle level teachers. A national study of licensure practices found that only 33 states had specialized middle level teacher licensure (Valentine & Mogar, 1992). Although this represents a substantial increase from previous years, many of these states have overlapping licensure regulations that fail to encourage prospective teachers to choose middle level preparation.

The fact that compliance with middle level licensure regulations is frequently not required weakens their impact. Only 11 of the 33 states in the 1992 study required middle level teachers to have special licenses. Furthermore, overlapping grade levels included in many plans discourage many undergraduates from specializing in middle level education.

A close relationship exists between the type of licensure available and the number of teacher preparation institutions that offer special middle level teacher preparation programs. Eighty-two percent of all middle level teacher preparation programs in 1991, for example, were found in states where middle level licensure/endorsements were available. In addition, 57 percent of all special middle level teacher preparation programs were found in only five states (Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia) states where special licensure is required for middle level teaching (McEwin, 1992b). The authors’ message here is straightforward: special mandatory middle level teacher licensure leads to the development and implementation of special middle level teacher preparation programs.

Profiles of Successful Programs

Two excellent middle level teacher preparation programs will be profiled: an undergraduate program at a major state institution, and a graduate program at a small, private liberal arts college. The authors hope that these programs will serve as models for educators who are planning new middle level teacher preparation programs or revising existing ones. These two programs and 12 others are portrayed in The Professional Preparation of Middle Level Teachers: Profiles of Successful Programs (McEwin & Dickinson, 1995). Each of these programs reflects the kind of dedicated, courageous professionals who make good things happen for young adolescents and their teachers.

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

The original Middle Grades Education Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNC-G) began as a series of courses and internships that encouraged development of accepted middle level teaching competencies. Many aspects of this program were successful and preservice teachers began to develop a middle grades identity. Even so, much more integration between courses and internships was needed. An intensive program review identified six key areas that needed to be better addressed:

* most undergraduate students did not begin intensive internships until late in their junior year

* some students were assigned to teachers more oriented toward secondary education

* much more integration between courses and internships was needed

* students needed to make enlightened career decisions by their sophomore year

* the faculty desired the opportunity to develop close, ongoing relationships with their students

* an ongoing collaborative set of relationships with public school teachers and administrators for exemplary middle level teaching preparation was deemed desirable and necessary.

Program administrators explored ways to extend the developmental emphasis and attend to the areas of concern, and developed a series of new courses and related internship experiences. The new Inquiry Team Middle Grades program was approved in 1990. Preservice teachers now spend extensive blocks of time in classrooms, beginning in the sophomore year. They become members of a cohort team when they are admitted to the program and stay with that team until graduation. To facilitate greater collaboration with middle school teachers, a consortium of Professional Development Schools (PDS) was initiated in which teachers and administrators act as teacher educators. Genuine public school partnerships are considered by most to be essential to meaningful teacher preparation programs.

The Selection Process. To be admitted to the middle grades program, students must successfully complete two prerequisite courses as sophomores and have a 2.75 cumulative grade point average. In addition to rigorous academic expectations, students enroll in “Curriculum and Instruction (CUI) 202: Human Development” and “CUI 250: Teaching As a Profession.” The human development course examines early adolescence through developmental psychology research and a careful analysis of young adolescent literature and case studies.

The second course, Teaching As a Profession, is structured to help prospective majors understand, through immersion, what teachers do on an ongoing basis. Students work at a school under the direction of a classroom teacher. They also participate in a myriad of activities that include observing, tutoring, teaching small groups, analyzing management/discipline systems, providing ongoing instruction that is videotaped and evaluated, and keeping a journal of reflections. These activities reflect what teachers do in reality and the workload is very demanding. Consequently, by the end of the semester, prospective majors know quite well what middle school teachers do. About 60 percent of the students in sophomore classes apply for admission and are accepted into the professional program.

An Experiential Overview of the Program. From the time of their first experiences with the program as sophomores until the time they graduate, students are exposed to a set of critical themes woven into the program’s activities. These themes are: teaching of and learning by young adolescents, multicultural education, working with exceptional students and using technology. These themes are covered in a spiral fashion, with depth increasing as students advance through the program. In addition, one theme receives particular emphasis each semester. For example, a specialist in the area of exceptionalities or multicultural education works with the cohort teams as part of his/ her teaching responsibilities for one semester. The assignments also reflect that semester’s major theme. Through this dual coverage approach, these critical areas are addressed developmentally across a span of two years and in depth for a minimum of one semester.

Students in the professional preparation program, beginning in their junior year, are assigned to an inquiry team of about 25 students. For the next two years their team operates under the guidance of a cohort leader (a full-time faculty member) and a part-time assistant. At least one of these staff members visits each student each week and coordinates closely with the on-site teacher educator. Weekly, open-ended seminars held at one of the public school sites address students’ most pressing concerns. Guests at the seminars usually include teachers, administrators and university staff with special expertise. The students also routinely discuss successful approaches or helpful resources. These seminars are a consistent base of support, and they help maintain a sense of community.

Students teach three half-days a week during the first semester of their junior year. Beginning with their second semester, students teach even more extensively, and conduct all instruction for at least one half-day. In the first semester of their senior year, they teach several half-days and at least one full day. This gradual immersion into instructional planning and delivery, based on recommendations from on-site teacher educators, is designed to provide maximum preparation for full-time teaching for several months during student teaching.

The professional development school staff, the university cohort staff and the students themselves all examine these student teaching experiences. Each student’s “living” portfolio contains written plans, materials, resources, videotapes and verbal portrayals that become vehicles for extensive reflection. Students are not only on a journey of self-discovery, but also are learning from their interactions with fellow students and professionals. By the time they complete their program, they should realize that their journey of reflection and discovery is a lifelong pursuit.

The Role of the Cohort Leader. Coordinating a team of students is very labor intensive. Cohort leaders must be willing to be in schools and interact extensively with teachers and administrators. Forging new relationships is exciting and worthwhile. Faculty members must have educators’ respect and trust to be effective, however.

The cohort leader also is the students’ key contact person. As close relationships develop, students interact more frequently and seek guidance on a range of concerns. Issues about program experiences emerge through numerous discussions. Cohort leaders must be sensitive and supportive. This may call for the occasional candid, yet professional, discussion that challenges a student to alter his / her perceptions and behavior.

The cohort leader also orchestrates students’ overall set of experiences over the two years. Close coordination with the methods course instructors, as well as onsite teacher educators, ensures that students’ diverse needs are met.

Clearly, cohort leaders are central figures in the program. The wide range of human challenges requires a great deal of strength in interpersonal relations and an inordinate investment of time and energy. The success of the program is contingent on this investment.

Maryville University

Maryville University, located in St. Louis County, Missouri, offers a Master of Arts in Educational Processes. Since its development in 1982, program designers have added more specific areas of study. Areas of concentration now range from early childhood, gifted and middle level teaching, as well as environmental education and multicultural education.

A Middle School Task Force, composed of several middle school teachers, building and district level administrators, and Maryville faculty, spent more than a year designing the middle school teacher preparation program. The following development strand provides a sample of the competencies that were crafted as initial program guidelines.

Development StrandThe Young Adolescent

The student will:

* understand the cognitive, affective and physical development of the preadolescent

* explore how the preadolescent learns, and adapt curriculum and instruction to meet the profiles of this age group

* explore strategies that facilitate the preadolescent guidance programs, exploring the advisor / advisee roles, as well as the teacher/ pupil roles and how they affect all development

* develop strategies for assessing middle level students’ growth and development.

Faculty began to understand how to best configure the program’s coursework as the competencies for middle level teachers emerged. Working from competencies specified for all middle level teachers, the Task Force focused upon already licensed teachers seeking a second area of licensure. These teachers arrive at Maryville with a variety of backgrounds and licenses, yet the Task Force developed a body of coursework that would become the common core of the program. This core was a sequence of three semesters of coursework and experiences, with accompanying field work:

* Introduction to Middle School (2 semester hours): An understanding of the philosophy, history, structure and future direction of middle level education, as well as how these topics relate to young adolescents’ characteristics.

* The Middle School Child. Curriculum and Instructional Strategies (4 semester hours): An integrated exploration of the cognitive, affective and psychomotor growth of the young adolescent, as well as the appropriate curriculum and instruction for meeting their needs.

* The Middle School Teacher (3 semester hours): The role of the middle school teacher, with an emphasis upon teaming, collaboration, integrated curriculum and participatory classroom management.

Programmatic Components. Not surprisingly, one of the most powerful components of the core sequence is the opportunity for teachers to work and plan together. This collaboration is intended to provide the groundwork for interactions within team settings when teachers return to their schools.

Programmatic components throughout this coursework include a careful, in-depth look at issues of equity gender, race and socioeconomic status, as well as tracking and grouping. Other components address structural and instructional issues for the middle school, planning and experience with an advisory system, flexible scheduling, exploratory cycles and attention to middle school students’ needs and interests. A curriculum component that has received a great deal of attention is teaching integrated and thematic units, which forces a close look at both professional education and liberal arts coursework. The program mandates that middle level instruction model many of the recommended components of curriculum and instruction.

Beyond the core courses, each teacher’s liberal arts and general education preparation was examined. Many teachers lacked the necessary broad-based content background required by the Task Force’s competencies. Both the faculty and the Task Force believed that teachers needed preparation across disciplines to accommodate variations in team composition, integrated teaching and a level of generalized preparation. Furthermore, new state licensure requirements prescribed reading, writing and language arts competencies for all middle school teachers. This work was incorporated into the core courses, as well as a Reading and Writing in the Content Area course required for those who did not have reading and language arts preparation. Teachers with minimal preparation in mathematics and science were required to take a newly developed, integrated and team-taught course that would explore those content areas through a constructivist teaching model. Although requirements in both professional content and the liberal arts could have been a disincentive for enrollment, this has not been the case.

The keys to success in the Maryville University middle school program include:

* faculty willing to look at new programs and ideas

* two key faculty members with specific, extensive middle school experience and preparation

* a holistic program model that focused directly on middle level students’ developmental needs

* the belief that teachers and students will actively construct knowledge

* a core of excellent middle school professionals who work closely with the program.

The program’s success has attracted a large number of graduate students. And, by modifying the undergraduate field experiences to include middle schools, students find that they have developed an undergraduate middle school program as well. A beginning core of 10 preservice students is now working in field sites, which are the classrooms of the graduate program students.

Creating a Sustainable Future

Middle school teacher educators have two related missions. Their primary mission is to prepare students to teach young adolescents. A deeper, often unarticulated, mission is the continuation of the middle school movement and creation of a sustainable future for the education of young adolescents. No school, at whatever level, can succeed in its stated mission without the influx of specially prepared professionals.

The programs profiled in this article and in The Professional Preparation of Middle Level Teachers: Profiles of Successful Programs (McEwin & Dickinson, 1995) successfully pursue the two missions described above. They share other commonalities, as well as differences. What truly binds them together, however, is their focus on the special preparation of middle school teachers to teach young adolescents. In educating another generation of middle school teachers, these programs are helping to secure the future for the middle school movement.

Copyright Association for Childhood Education 1997

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