Monday, October 8, 2012

Learning (Subbing) by doing?

This year marks the first year since 1996 that I haven’t had my own classroom in which to teach but I was gaining teaching experience before that. Sure, I come from a long line of teachers; my grandmother earned $960 in 1933-34 as a teacher and I helped grade my Mom’s schoolwork before I had her as a social studies teacher myself in high school. But the experience I’m talking about is something that should be a part of every teacher certification program, that of a substitute teacher.
In 1994 I entered the teacher certification program at Western Michigan University despite being sure for much of my life that I definitely didn't want to be a teacher. So what changed my mind? As a recent graduate of Michigan State University with a political-science degree I was floundering about in Houston, TX trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. As I looked for a job and a career I started substitute teaching. With much of my energy focused on resumes and interviews I needed a job with flexibility and subbing provided just that. Think about it this way…how many employers will call you in the morning and ask if you want to come to work and will actually call you back the next day if you turn them down? So there I was, substitute teaching in a 1st grade classroom in Katy Independent SchoolDistrict. After getting over my initial shock I was hooked and before I knew it was back in Michigan and enrolled as a full time student again in a teacher preparation program. Not having the luxury of Mom and Dad paying the bills meant I needed an income so I returned to substitute teaching. Among other things the pay was decent, it was flexible enough to allow me to work on days I didn't have class, and most importantly I began learning to be a teacher by doing.
Teacher preparation programs are quite often set up to model the industrial model of teaching many of us grew up in and that’s a shame. These pre-service programs need to be at the forefront of pedagogy where teachers and students and schools work together like a laboratory to produce the best teaching and learning possible. Much too often pre-service teachers get very little experience as teachers in classrooms until the very end when they do their intern or student teaching. This leaves many unprepared, uninspired and quite often they turn away from the profession after all that “preparation” because of a negative experience.
Why not expect students in teacher preparation programs to substitute teach while they are working their way through the certification program? This could help solve the fairly common problem of districts not having enough quality subs while providing some income and networking possibilities for these future teachers. Most importantly it would inform their coursework because they would be learning by doing. Substitute teaching helped refine my classroom management and planning skills and when I brought those experiences into my college classrooms as a student it gave my learning context. 
Recently while discussing this idea with friend and colleague, Tim Kubik, he pointed out that my thoughts on this are philosophically consistent with Project Based Learning and while that hadn’t struck me I couldn’t agree more. Why would we front load instruction for pre-service teachers and then put them in front of students? Good pedagogy embeds the instruction organically in the challenge where students identify what they need to know, seek that knowledge and understanding and practice their skills. Requiring future teachers to substitute teach allows for more opportunities to do just that while giving them experience that will help shape them as professionals. Drew Perkins is an Educational Programs Specialist with the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning and member of the Buck Institute for Education National Faculty.  For more information on project based learning visit