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Opinion: Equipping future teachers for today’s classrooms

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Recently, my colleague reminisced about her college days as a business major: “I had homework from an accounting book 3 inches thick with problems that took hours to solve while my roommate sat on the floor cutting out laminated ducks for her assignments.”

With my undergraduate work also over two decades in my rearview mirror, I replied, “Yes, as an elementary education major, I remember completing crafts as well. But today’s education majors are preparing for the front lines of society, and it is intense!”

Equipping and empowering the teachers our world needs today is increasingly complex and challenging. Currently, at a moment’s notice, teachers must be prepared to deploy engaging online learning opportunities, redirect negative behaviors without punitive consequences, implement ever-changing curriculum effectively, feed a child who arrives at school hungry, capture the attention of highly distracted and unmotivated students, make time for learning new technology and new curriculum, and report evidence of abuse and neglect to the Department of Social Services. Essentially, teachers are expected to build strong relationships enabling them to attend to the needs of 20-150 students while engaging these students in meaningful, real-world learning experiences. Thankfully, in southwest Missouri, we are blessed with organizations such as Care to Learn, Women in Need and Least of These working to meet students’ basic survival needs, providing a huge lift to teachers in our classrooms.

Traditionally, educator preparation largely focuses on curriculum and instruction, methods of teaching and learning, and strategies for classroom management. This approach assumes a teacher is working with students who come to school ready to learn. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reveals our students cannot focus on learning and reaching their full potential until their more basic needs are met. These necessities include our physiological needs required for survival (food, shelter, etc.); our needs for safety, love and belonging; and esteem-related needs, including self-worth and respect. In today’s classrooms, an overwhelming number of students arrive each day with an ever-increasing number of unmet needs. Teachers can easily become buried in these burdens, unable to move students forward academically, leading to burnout.

An early-career second-grade teacher recently reflected, “You never know what being a teacher is really like until you become one. Especially in today’s classroom, because we have so many students that come in with needs, trauma and lack of social-emotional skills.”

It’s not enough to possess strong content-area knowledge and to deliver high-quality, engaging lessons; educators continuing to thrive in today’s classrooms must create communities where students can consistently count on safety, belonging and respect. Educators need to be equipped to quickly diagnose and treat problems in order to effectively meet students’ needs, creating a positive classroom environment of growth.

As a community, we can work together. Our universities partner with our local schools to provide rich mentoring experiences for aspiring new teachers. Many education programs in recent years shifted to yearlong student teaching opportunities. They include more field experiences for all education majors to provide real-world teaching experience and hands-on learning. These ongoing and extended field experiences equip new teachers as they receive and respond to feedback and coaching from more experienced educators.

Ultimately, today’s new teachers need strong role models and ongoing support. They need to be equipped with the grit to overcome classroom challenges, the empathy to build positive relationships with diverse students, and the confidence and enthusiasm for effectively engaging students in seated and online instruction. According to one young educator I spoke with, strong preparation focuses on practice, experience and feedback. “The ability to be in many different types of classrooms with teachers and watch day-to-day interactions, observe best practices and experience hands-on learning with my own lessons were invaluable to me as I prepared for my own classroom,” they said. Essentially, mentor teachers and professors in educator preparation programs can best equip future teachers through modeling strong, positive relationships that demonstrate respect, safety and belonging while providing in-the-classroom coaching and feedback. Now is the critical time to invest in educators. As a community, we can work together to help meet the needs of students and, in turn, equip teachers to thrive in the classroom for years to come.

Shonna Crawford is education department chair and professor of education in literacy at Evangel University. She can be reached at crawfordsh@evangel.edu.

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