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Strengthening Teacher Preparation: Aligning Curriculum

This article, part two of a three-part series, originally appeared on the Education First Blog and is reprinted with permission.

Tackling curriculum in a teacher preparation program is complicated work. At Jackson State, we have three pathways and 18 teaching faculty members across multiple course offerings in the junior and senior course sequence run by the college of education. But we knew that if we wanted to truly transform the experience and eventual effectiveness of our teacher candidates, overhauling the clinical experience—which I described in my previous post—wasn’t enough. And we knew we needed to come together as a team of administrators and faculty to develop a strong vision for the why and how to do it successfully. 

In 2016, we set two goals for ourselves: first, we needed to tightly align each course to the Mississippi Teacher Intern Assessment Instrument (TIAI), the instructional rubric we use to measure our candidates’ proficiency with teaching. (As I described in my previous post, US PREP was a key partner and critical friend in all of our transformation work, including the curriculum work.) This alignment work included revisiting the early field experiences embedded in coursework that precedes candidates’ formal clinical experience. Second, we revisited the sequence of courses to ensure within each pathway, faculty could build teacher candidate skills in a logical progression.  

Fast forward to today: although daunting, we did it. With US PREP’s support and the momentum from our clinical experience work, we channeled the urgency we all felt to achieve our goals. With the exception of a few legacy candidates, our teacher candidates are right now taking revamped courses. And by this time next fall, we will have fully implemented the program-wide curriculum changes.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll tell you how we approached the work and what changed. It was hard at first. Not surprisingly, we had professors say, “What’s wrong with my course? I’ve been teaching this way for years.” We had to work hard with faculty to establish trust and a collaborative approach to help everyone involved understand that this was not an indictment of them or their professional credentials. Many understandably saw their courses as extensions of themselves, which made it difficult for them to depersonalize feedback. We made the time and space to have lots of conversation and provide assurances to engage in the work safely. 

More specifically, three foundational activities anchored our work together:

  • Crosswalk of course syllabi against standards. We assembled a team of discipline-specific faculty and leadership team members to complete detailed crosswalks of their course syllabi against the instructional rubrics. These reports proved crucial, because they not only provided a common way to assess existing coursework against pedagogical expectations for our teacher candidates, but it also depersonalized the work, helping faculty members to feel less threatened as professionals and more engaged as a team.
  • Integration of social and emotional learning (SEL) into core courses. US PREP challenged us to consider how to embed SEL into our preparation program. With our partners at Jackson Public Schools, we reviewed state reports detailing the experiences of our graduates one and three years after completing our program. Mirroring a nationwide trend, we saw high turnover rates. When we asked district leaders why new teachers were leaving, they pointed to new teachers’ struggles to manage student behavior. Working with the positive behavior intervention support specialist and executive director of student success, we created three SEL modules featuring video vignettes, discussion prompts and other content that we then integrated into our core coursework. These modules focused on helping teacher candidates first understand themselves, then how to work successfully with their peers and ultimately, how to understand and support their students.
  • Faculty professional development. Our first step was to engage in norming sessions with our faculty around our instructional rubrics. We then convened a full faculty retreat to conduct the crosswalks of the instructional rubrics against individual course syllabi together. 

We used these core activities to revamp what we call the “Big Five” core preparation courses:

  • Classroom management. We fundamentally redesigned this course by adding two elements: a SEL component and the teaching strategy of rehearsal. The SEL work focused on building teacher candidate skill in documenting, evaluating and addressing student behavior. We also integrated rehearsals—a teacher educator pedagogy, adopted from TeachingWorks, that features whole class simulations of interactions between teacher candidates and students—into this course. One course instructor has reported that having candidates engage in rehearsal allows him to more effectively assess and support their fluency in implementing strong pedagogy and applying clinical/trade terminology.
  • Clinical placement. We made significant changes to this course to align to our revamped approach to clinical practice (see my earlier post).
  • Assessment. In this course, we incorporated opportunities for candidates to analyze K-12 student assessment data and practice making shifts in their instruction based on those data.
  • Teaching special populations. We implemented one of the SEL modules into this course, focusing on developing teacher candidate capacity to understand the behavior of their peers and students.
  • Introduction to teaching reading. We embedded a SEL module into this course which focused on candidates understanding their own behavior and factors that may cause them to exhibit implicit or explicit biases.

This past summer, with the COVID-19 pandemic restricting in-person interactions, we had to pivot yet again to deliver these courses virtually. Of course, we all had a crash course in Zoom. Additionally, instructors have had to rethink the many courses with field experiences embedded within them, because schools have restrictions on who can enter school buildings. Pre-pandemic, we had over over 100 teacher candidates going into schools for these field experiences. Now, we are using strategies like video vignettes to help candidates engage with real interactions as part of their coursework without physically being in schools. One of our professors presented strategies for facilitating virtual observations of candidates. Details about the presentation were highlighted in a US PREP April news e-blast

And the work will go on. Throughout all of our work to both transform clinical practice (my last post) and align coursework (this post), we looked at data to point the way. In my next post, I’ll tell you more about the data we collected, analyzed and used to transform our preparation program.

Nadine Gilbert is a coordinator at Jackson State University.

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