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The state of the teaching profession: A conversation with Shael Polakow-Suransky
By / January 20, 2015 /   Loading Disqus...

Here’s a thought experiment for you: imagine you’re a brand new classroom teacher, bursting with enthusiasm, teaching middle school math. You enter your classroom to find a particularly high-spirited young scholar erasing the chalkboard with the classroom rabbit. What do you do?

That was the question Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, posed to more than 75 educators and civic leaders at our first Community Conversation of 2015. And for Polakow-Suransky, that situation was not just a thought experiment, but a real conundrum he faced his first year in the classroom. His point? Our traditional methods of preparing aspiring educators often fall short of preparing teachers for the demanding – and unpredictable – realities they face in the classroom.

We brought Polakow-Suransky to Rhode Island College to kick off a year-long series of public conversations. Organized under the umbrella of our Civic Leadership Fund, these convenings will engage practitioners across our strategic initiatives – education, health and economic security – in meaningful dialogue on opportunities for collective impact in 2015 and beyond.

A former classroom teacher and school principal, Polakow-Suransky is one of the nation’s leading thinkers on educational issues and teacher preparation in particular. He most recently served as chief academic officer for the New York City public school district – a role that placed him in charge of all aspects of teaching and learning for over 1.1 million public school students. Now, as president of one of our country’s most respected graduate schools of education, Polakow-Suransky is rethinking the types of supports and training that educators receive prior to entering the classroom.

First, Polakow-Suransky argues that excellent teacher preparatory programs blend theory with lots of opportunities for practice. He points to residency programs like the Boston Teacher Residency as a great example of alternative teacher preparation programs that give aspiring educators real opportunities to develop their craft and get ready for the challenges of being in the classroom.

Second, Polakow-Suransky maintains that our models of providing professional development to teachers in the classroom are also largely outdated. In fact, he says America spends $18 billion annually on an array of in-school professional development programs, and yet only 30 percent of teachers surveyed said they are receiving the types of learning opportunities they need to improve their practice.

Finally, Polakow-Suransky argues that no amount of state or district policy can create the kind of strong school culture that generates the sense of trust and mutual responsibility required for real professional growth. Polakow-Suransky argues that the challenge with teacher evaluation, for example, is not that our instruments need to be more finely tuned, it’s that they are frequently deployed in school buildings where obstacles persist to developing a healthy professional learning culture. Principals and teachers must first build trusting relationships that allow for meaningful feedback and development.

Don Halquist, dean of Rhode Island College’s Feinstein School of Education and Human Development, sees opportunity to adapt these ideas to teacher preparation here in Rhode Island. “I found Shael’s insights on how we can enhance the preparation of new teachers using a residency model to be practical, relevant and grounded in authenticity.” 

“His thoughts about how we should nest professional development opportunities for practicing teachers in professional learning communities within schools to create opportunities that are personal and germane also holds great potential.  And his recognition of the need for honest and real conversations about what is and is not happening in schools related to teacher accountability warrant real exploration and consideration,” observes Halquist.

Indeed, with new and innovative models for supporting teachers at every step in their career, our students – and perhaps our classroom rabbits as well – will benefit for years to come.

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