Ideas 2012 July/August 2012

Boot Camp for Teachers

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Before the Air Force technician George Deneault flew combat missions, he had to practice—a lot. “You can’t fool around on combat aircraft.” But when Deneault retired and became a special-ed math teacher, he walked into a Virginia classroom cold. When asked which was easier—being a military commander or being a teacher—he didn’t hesitate. “Commander.”

Now that researchers have quantified the impact that teachers make, we should do more to train them rigorously. And we could learn from the military, where a mantra of readiness is referred to as the “Eight P’s”: “Proper prior planning and preparation prevent piss-poor performance.”

The only way the brain learns to handle unpredictable environments is to practice. Before student teachers enter classes, Boston’s Match Teacher Residency program puts them through 100 hours of drills with students and adults acting like slouching, fiddling, back-talking kids. The brain learns to respond to routine misbehavior, so it can focus on the harder work of teaching. The Institute for Simulation and Training runs a virtual classroom at 12 education colleges nationwide—using artificial intelligence, five child avatars, and a behind-the-scenes actor. Some trainees find the simulation so arduous that they decide not to go into teaching after all.

But these innovations are rare. The average teacher-to-be does about 12 to 15 weeks of student teaching. Once on the job, most teachers get only nominal supervision, and 46 percent quit within five years.

It is time, finally, to start training teachers the way we train doctors and pilots, with intense, realistic practice, using humans, simulations, and master instructors—time to stop saying teaching is hard work and start acting like it.

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Amanda Ripley is the author of the forthcoming book Where the Smart Kids Are.
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Amanda Ripley is the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way (coming August 2013).

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