For well over a decade, I’ve visited, studied, interviewed, and learned from countless innovative and experimental K-12 schools throughout the United States. These range from Montessori to project-based, experimental to STEM academies, game-based learning schools to those that specialize in personalized learning plans for each student. Then there are the many other schools that blend these and other ideas to create inspiring and engaging learning communities. They might be local public schools, independent schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, or even organizations designed to support students who are officially registered as homeschoolers. These schools are quite different in their methods and their underpinning philosophies, but when I speak to leaders in these schools, there is a consistent and common problem, finding teachers/guides/mentors/coaches who resonate with the school mission, embrace the philosophy, an are well-equipped to plan a needed and active role in these distinct schools.
Opinions range on this matter, but some founders and leaders of these schoools are so frustrated and consistently disappointed when they try to hire people who came out of traditional teacher education prorgrams that they consider a BA/BS in Education to actually be a mark against a person in the applicant process. As one school founder explained to me, “By the time they get through one of those education programs, they know all about standards and teacher-driven communities, but they struggle to even imagine how a learner-driven community could possibly work in the real world.” Even those who want to be in a different type of school sometimes get hired only to find themselves completely lost and frustrated.
I’ve had this conversation with colleagues before. Some think that getting a teaching degree equips you to be agile and teach in any type of school. That is not the message that I hear from leaders in these innovative school models. They often find people who have set recipes and methods for “doing education.” Or, more than that, they come with a fixed idea of what school should be, how it should work, the role of the teacher, and the role of the student. When they do experiment with something new, like project-based learning, some persist long enough to develop the competence and confidence to be a strong guide for students in such an environment. Others give up after one or two attempts, blaming the method for the disappointing results and experience.
This has led to what I call the great experimental education teacher shortage. Or, in some cases, it is the great experimental education teacher turnover problem. What can we do about it?
I’m only a week into my new role as President of Goddard College, a college launched in the 1930s with a bold and compelling vision for learner-driven community. Goddard has gone through different experimental models over the years, but today, it is a leading voice and model for low residency degree programs. Students come to our rural Vermont campus (or one of our locations in Washington) twice a year for intensive community and learning. Students work with guides who help them each design their own personal learning plan for the semester. Then they head back to their home and communities, learning while living the rest of their lives. They touch base with their guides often and get rich narrative feedback on their packet of self-designed work (we don’t do letter grades or traditional tests and assessments at Goddard). What I’ve come to learn is that Goddard offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, and the faculty members are well-versed in learner-driven pedagogy. Not only do the students at Goddard experience it firsthand. It is a place where they can grow in their competence and confidence to launch a new school or to lead in any number of distinct school models.
Of course, I’m biased, but as I explored the possibility of coming to Goddard as the next president, I was excited to contribute to a college that is exceedingly well-equipped to help nurture the next generation of teachers in experimental and alternative schools. Similarly, it delighted me to know that our programs help current or future teachers bring learner-driven practices into more traditional schools. This is an important and needed niche in the education space, and I’m excited to spread the word about it.
I didn’t start this article with the intent of promoting Goddard’s programs, but I’m certainly proud to do so. The experimental and alternative school teacher shortage or challenge is real, and Goddard’s learner-driven programs offer a promising solution.