teacher prep rally

Up next for SUNY chief, finding consensus on a teacher-ed overhaul

Nancy Zimpher has tackled a lot in her four-decade career, but she’s the first to admit she has no business flying a plane.

Yet there she was, strapped into a pilot’s seat in the cockpit at an aviation center at SUNY Farmingdale. To her disbelief, she even got the plane up in the air.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t bring it down,” said Zimpher, who has served as chancellor of the State University of New York since 2009.

Thankfully, Zimpher’s calamitous experience happened on a flight simulator that SUNY Farmingdale’s student-pilots use. But Zimpher likened it to a common practice in education: teachers entering the profession without the experience they need to handle the difficulties of a real classroom. Now, Zimpher is trying to change that, with help from a group of stakeholders who don’t always work well together.

The chancellor’s new “TeachNY” advisory council, which includes a number of researchers, the state teachers union, Teach for America, and the city’s top instructional leaders, Anna Commitante and Phil Weinberg, has been meeting this school year and is expected to settle on new policies for SUNY by June. Their work will be closely watched, as teacher colleges face pressure from federal officials to prove their graduates are successful at advancing student learning and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to close programs with low pass rates on certification exams.

Zimpher, who spent three decades as a professor and dean of teacher education at Ohio State University, sat down with Chalkbeat last week to describe the challenge. She said she was comfortable with increased accountability, but a first priority is finding ways to get colleges and public schools to work together to put more aspiring teachers to work in real classrooms.

“No airline pilot is going to the cockpit without hours of simulated training,” Zimpher said. “But we do not think this way.”

On what ails teacher preparation

Zimpher: I think it’s fair to say that teacher education is, for some, like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s an easy target. It doesn’t have good policy. It’s underfunded compared to other professions. It doesn’t have the structure to do clinical preparation well.

We know from our hospitals that there’s a contractual relationship between the college of medicine and the hospitals where you want your doctors-in-training to get their clinical practice. We don’t have any of that infrastructure in teacher education.

And yet we have a lot of expectations about performance that seem to be driving everything, but nothing really helping us improve the quality of our teaching cadre. Everyone from hair stylists to neurosurgeons have a codified respect for clinical training.

Why public schools don’t want to help teachers in training

Let’s start here: There’s no policy that says, “K-12, you have to take these teachers in training.” It’s all done on a very informal request process. So that leaves colleges knocking on doors and asking, may I please send my teacher candidates to train in your school?

There’s no district incentive for an expert teacher to take on this additional responsibility. For the last 25 years, we’ve been paying a cooperating teacher something like $150 a semester to take a practicing teacher. It’s ridiculous.

Then, enter high-stakes testing. What we see happening is that high-stakes testing has made it difficult for a teacher to say, ‘I can take the risk to have a rookie in my classroom, when I am being the only one here being held accountable for the performance of my students.’

On what kinds of questions SUNY may soon be asking applicants

One very interesting indicator that Michael Allen put on the table today was ‘teaching promise’. This is more intuitive: Do you like kids? Do you respect that children can learn? What is your mindset around whether birth and economic environment or gender limit what you can learn?

So wouldn’t it be good if we had an instrument that would sort of give you a psychological profile of people we want in our teacher preparation programs, what their degree of commitment is?

On Cuomo’s education reform proposals

Since we prepare so many teachers, it’s for us to translate the governor’s message and make it a positive one. So I can’t really control the politics of the situation, but what we can control is the quality of our programs that help us recruit students that really want to come from high quality programs.

I think I’d rather have the governor interested than not. And with that interest comes some regulation that’s controversial and some of it’s hard to meet. But boy, we need to be a player in making things better and I’m OK with that.

On Teach for America

They have a much more abbreviated period of preparation and they have a challenging track record relative to retention. So [TFA] is training — over and over and over again — and not reaping the benefit of a long tenure for those teachers. I think there have been efforts on the part of Teach for America to reach out to higher education and see if we can’t work more effectively together. And I would support that.

I think there’s no benefit in producing teachers who aren’t ready for the classroom and rotate out too quickly. Those are our children they’re practicing on, and I think sometimes we think they’re somebody else’s children. No, they’re our children, and we want to send them the best possible teacher we can.

On using value-added test score growth to measure teacher prep programs

I’ve been convinced by the value-added approach, but I think we’ve not done well at all on the instrumentality. The theory is good. The practice is ailing.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”