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How to Turn Out Successful Teachers

March 26, 2000|Sigrid E. Bathen | Sigrid E. Bathen, an adjunct professor of journalism at Cal State Sacramento, has written extensively on education

SACRAMENTO — Nancy Ichinaga has been principal of Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood for 26 years. Half of its 850 students are Latino, the other half black, with a smattering of whites. Three-fourths qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. It has been recognized as a "high-achieving" school for nearly two decades, with a teaching staff whose average length of service is 16 years. Three of the 40 teachers are Ichinaga's former students.

Pressed to divulge her magic formula for retaining good teachers and helping poor students perform, Ichinaga laughs: "I'll give you the secret. I'm very supportive of the teachers, and I tell them I want them to have the same attitude for their kids. I can't yell at teachers and treat them badly and then expect them to be nice to kids. So there is this internal consistency. I create a situation for everyone to succeed. Teachers are not successful because they are not given manageable situations."

It's estimated that 30% to 50% of teachers leave the public schools in California within five years. No reliable statistics are kept by the state on the number of credentialed teachers who are not teaching, but experts agree it is substantial. Yet, the reasons why teachers leave the profession--burnout, low salaries, abysmal working conditions, bureaucratic interference, among others--must be addressed before true education reform can occur. The focus should be on replicating successes in schools with low teacher turnover, like Bennett-Kew.

Ichinaga, who was recently named to the state Board of Education, has three requirements for good teaching and learning, in what she calls a "teachable classroom": 1) "The environment is clean and safe"; 2) "The teachers have all the materials necessary for them to teach"; and 3) "Children are grouped in a class so that there are not excessive numbers of children in one class who are extreme [behavior] problems or have learning or emotional problems."

To deal with disruptive student behavior, that most complex of barriers to classroom success in many schools, Ichinaga uses several methods, startling in their simplicity. "Every once in a while," she says of her classroom-placement strategies, "I have a saboteur, a disruptive kid, especially a smart kid who is older. If it's a naughty boy making life difficult for a young woman teacher, I put him in a class with a big man teacher, so he can't be a smartass."

Former Secretary of Education Gary K. Hart, who shepherded Gov. Gray Davis' education-reform package through the Legislature last year, has frequently visited Ichinaga's school. "She has a very strong curriculum program, and she studies the data of the kids," says Hart. "When she finds that a student is not doing well, that student has an interview with the principal. Nancy is the instructional supervisor, and she develops a corrective strategy." Hart and others say that a consistent curriculum, along with close monitoring of student progress--and failure--are key elements of classroom success.

Ichinaga and other critics of teacher-training in California, which is largely the domain of the California State University system, disdain the current teacher-training schools as ineffective, even destructive to good teaching. "The teachers are not taught to teach," she says. "They take the Methods courses, and they develop preconceived notions about what schools are like, what kids are like. Then they complain that nobody has ever told them. The colleges give them a whole lot of B.S. When they come here [to Bennett-Kew], we have to train them."

Others say that college training programs, often slow to change, are convenient targets, that a balance must be struck between theoretical and clinical training for new teachers. "Too many people expect a new person to come in from teacher prep and be a full-fledged teacher," says Elaine Johnson, a veteran teacher and past president of the California Council on the Education of Teachers. "When a person does well, she's described as a 'born teacher.' When she does poorly, they blame teacher preparation."

Whatever their differences, critics of teacher education in California say student teachers must be introduced to classroom teaching much earlier in their preparation. Although all teachers-in-training spend time in the classroom, some districts are implementing intense "apprenticeship" programs. Among them is the 45,000-student Elk Grove Unified School District in suburban Sacramento. Its Teacher Education Institute, staffed largely by district teachers and administrators, works with universities and community colleges in the area to provide student teachers a strong clinical program in the classroom, much like physicians train in hospitals as interns and, later, as residents.

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