On February 25 the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a panel of Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows to discuss a proposed method to address the challenges of teacher development and preparation in both public and private schools. The method in question, called the medical school model, has recently risen in prominence and emphasizes in-classroom experience and increased mentoring opportunities for teachers to take advantage of.
Kent Hughes, Director of the Program on America and the Global Economy, opened the event with a series of questions for the panelists designed to stimulate conversation. He first asked them to describe their experiences with the medical model and their thoughts on its practical application as well as its limitations. He also inquired about possible differences in implementation for different grade levels.
The first panelist to speak was Jonathan Davies, a high school science teacher in Oregon. Davies described his school's version of the medical model as one in which teachers and administrators make "rounds" to other classrooms. He noted that these rounds provided teachers with the opportunity to see different teaching methods and engage in an open and collegial atmosphere in which teachers of varying levels of experience work together with administrators. Davies later argued that the rounds would be rendered meaningless if not followed by an effective debriefing session.
Next to speak was Tracey Edou, a middle school math and science teacher in Washington. Edou noted that the term "medical model" was a misnomer, and that the phrase actually refers to a model of instructional focus. She argued that in order for the medical school model to work properly a number of "nuts and bolts" challenges must be addressed. These challenges include; finding adequate substitute teachers to enable rounds, a departure from judgmental attitudes and style preferences, a supportive administration, and a commitment to sustain the effort. Overall, Edou emphasized the need for systemic change and "cross fertilization" feedback between disciplines and grade levels.
Camsie Matis, a high school math teacher in New York, then remarked that what was most lacking in teacher preparation was adequate practice time in order to develop teaching as a craft, rather than lesson and unit planning. Matis estimated it took about 6 years for teachers to become fully comfortable, yet most student teaching tenures are only 9-18 weeks. She contrasted that with the medical profession in which there is, a "commitment...to allow that craft to develop," whereas new teachers are "like an intern in an emergency room with no mentor." Matis also suggested the implementation of "chief resident" teachers to encourage results, and "EMT teachers" to help save failing schools.
Following Matis was Dennis Newell, a middle school math and science teacher in Kansas, who described his experience going through the National Board Certification process. As part of a peer reviewed portfolio required for his certification, Newell created videos of himself teaching and admitted needing 17 takes to capture the essence of "true teaching" on film. Newell also mentioned that unlike the medical profession, teaching in our society is not seen as a lifelong commitment, which could account for the lack of proper teacher preparation.
Next on the panel was Nancy Spillane, a high school chemistry teacher in Connecticut. Spillane first underscored the importance for new teachers to see more than a single mentor. "We've all had a variety of teachers, all of whom were good, all of whom were different," she said. Spillane then spoke about the mentoring at her private school, and the importance of continuing conversations with other teachers about students and teaching methods. Spillane also highlighted the need to create advancement opportunities for teachers within their profession, as it stands now, the most prominent opportunity for upward mobility is to segue into administration and, "the worst thing that can happen is to take an excellent teacher out of the classroom."
Lastly, Sue Whitsett, a high school biology teacher in Wisconsin, described her experience as a first year teacher in which an experienced teacher provided invaluable guidance that helped her get through the difficult professional challenges that many first year teachers face. While she applauded the fact that her school now requires each first year teacher be assigned a mentor, she noted that the practice was still limited by the fact that the mentees remain alone in the classroom once the bell rings. Whitsett cited observation, feedback and "more time to prepare for your content and your practice" as the most important contributing factors to the development of new teachers.
By Sarah Hutson
Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy