Ky. Voices: Students should have say in college training of classroom teachers

February 17, 2013 

Like many of my peers nearing the end of high school, I have spent a good part of my life studying teachers up close. If I've learned anything from them beyond the academic content, it's that the quality of my comprehension is directly proportional to the skill level of the person teaching it.

Apparently, I am not alone in this revelation. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, whose top public-policy priority is education, describes quality of teaching as "the single most important factor in students' academic success." And over the last three decades, the Prichard Committee, a national model for civic engagement in education advocacy, has identified teacher effectiveness as a primary focus.

Recently, I had the chance to observe one of the Prichard Committee's Team on Teacher Effectiveness meetings in Frankfort. The team consists of legislators, parents, teachers, business leaders and other education advocates who are charged with studying Kentucky's approach to training and retaining high-quality teachers and making policy recommendations.

I observed as part of the Prichard Committee's Student Voice Initiative, a group of Kentucky high school students tasked with making the case about how to better integrate student perspectives into the committee's work.

From my seat with other observers, I watched as representatives from both Asbury College and the University of Louisville described their approaches to training new teachers. They were proud of their programs which include providing teachers with hands-on, classroom experiences from the very start of their education. By partnering with local elementary schools, these college students insert themselves into the culture of the school and become a part of the students' lives.

We also heard from Deborah Ball, the dean of University of Michigan's College of Education, who offered insight into the effectiveness — or rather ineffectiveness — of the common practice of throwing new teachers into the classrooms before they really know how to teach. She drew a stark contrast between learning the content material required to be a teacher and learning how to convey that understanding to young people.

The meeting in Frankfort was energizing. It gave me a new respect for the teaching profession and ideas of how to go about addressing teacher effectiveness from a policy perspective.

And the more I thought about it, the more I was struck by the idea of what students like me could bring to the decision-making table. When it comes to policies around training new teachers, for example, we might raise some different questions:

■ When teachers-in-training do their student teaching in a classroom, what is done to ensure learning is not disrupted for the students in the classroom?

■ How can students in the classroom help new teachers get the most out of their experience?

■ What opportunities, if any, are there for students to provide formal comments to teaching colleges about what is working — or not — in their classrooms?

Students offer unique perspectives on the problems facing education in this country. We are there every day witnessing school-related issues that oftentimes go either unnoticed or unaddressed. Students also have the greatest stake in the education system.

We care, and many of us want to be involved in applying our years of experience in the classroom to making that experience better.

Wouldn't it be something if, when it comes to improving our schools, more adult decision-makers would start to see us as policy-making partners?

Andrew Brennen, a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, is a member of the Prichard Committee's Student Voice Initiative.

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