Puppet Media and Teacher Education

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 22, 2009 11:38 am
PostPost subject: Puppet Media and Teacher Education
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Somewhere in the attic is a slip of paper that I received upon completion of my student teaching and course work for my secondary level teaching certification. I recall how proud I was to receive that certificate because it classified me as an "honors" candidate. Nevertheless, in my real-life teaching experience I raised many questions about my own abilities. Once in the field, I was not as satisfied with my own performance as my training institution was.

For many teachers, their supervisors, and the public at large, questions of this sort are still being raised more vociferously - and with greater concern than they were in the early 1970s. The issue of teacher competency and instructional excellence is in the spotlight, coupled with, rightly or wrongly, the issue of higher salaries and merit pay.

Going Into Teaching

Has teacher training changed significantly since the early '70s? Going into teaching and learning to teach are very personal turns to negotiate at the outset of a teaching career. In retrospect, my heart was in the right place. For example, I had rejected a career opportunity in public relations that might have sent me to Europe. I had made a commitment to teaching. However, in spite of the honors certificate, which had been based on course work and a positive student-teaching experience, I was still inexperienced when I faced my first days on the job at the end of August.

As a student, I read voluminously, wrote papers, studied handouts and explored so many resources that the process of selecting them seemed as great a challenge as the prospect of teaching itself. Suddenly, I was underway, up the creek, as the saying goes, with some kind of paddle, not really sure how well I would do. What were my resources? What was my guiding philosophy? What techniques had I mastered? Surgeons learned to make incisions in one or a variety of ways. They learned to use equipment directly applicable to the body they would operate on. In contrast, I felt my training had been vague and somewhat overwhelming. I was getting the message: "You can use this material....and this...and this...and this...." until my head spun. I completed learning units successfully. They looked thorough on paper, but left me uneasy about actually conducting the lessons I had so neatly outlined.

As a student teacher, I was expected to cover certain material. One day, there I was in front of a classroom. Yet I had not had an opportunity to practice standing up before a group, to get a feel for what it is like to present an idea; to study techniques and rehearse the act of idea presentation. My education had not addressed the real nuts and bolts of teaching.

What bothered me most was something I could not verbalize. I knew that teaching was a highly personal and passionate process. I knew there was a feeling of conviction and a sense of spirit that made the process deeply satisfying and meaningful. Why, then, was I feeling disconnected from all that I had learned? Perhaps answers to these questions would emerge with time and experience. But what I was observing in other teachers and in the system was not a sense of growth and shared direction, but increased isolation, apathy, boring routine, and no opportunity to sustain the personal element that had moved me into teaching in the first place. That element - so vulnerable and yet so powerful - had been either ignored or taken for granted in my training.

As a new teacher, I wondered what would happen to it? How would I look after it myself? Its welfare was not a priority - not even in the small, innovative storefront high school where I taught. Even with the freedom of a non-traditional setting and a chance to develop my own curriculum, I felt isolated. I talked with colleagues from time to time - commiserating or consulting - but the process of teaching was still a mystery. We talked about the students, schedules, paper work, curriculum - everything but the act and process of teaching.

Teacher Training

The isolation and lack of disclosure among teachers may have less to do with teachers themselves than with the structure and priorities set by system tradition and administration. But the tone is also set in the training institution where teachers themselves mirror what their students will do when they become teachers. And that is why teacher education needs to involve the student actively and physically, spiritually and conceptually, philosophically and comprehensively. A guiding experience is required that can integrate the requirements of presentation, voice, technique, delivery with materials and concept. Like theater majors, student teachers should come away from hours of training in which their bodies, imaginations and oral expressiveness have been exercised and developed; an experience in which their fears and concerns, questions and observations can be shared among peers. They should come away taxed yet exhilarated by the powers they are developing in themselves.

True to the spirit of the word, "training" could develop conditioning and pride in prospective teachers through a regimen that readies them for enemies they will face at different times in their career: Stress, Disillusionment, Isolation. Training could prepare the student to think on her feet, build self-confidence, cultivate a taste for risk and the capacity for endurance, self-pace and guile.

Along more positive lines, teachers can be taught techniques for networking and developing support systems. The teaching environment - the "quality of work life" - can range from quite good to extremely poor. Student teachers need to become familiar with every part of the terrain. Nobody ever put it quite this way to me when I was a teacher in training: quality education begins and ultimately ends with you. How you feel. How you relate to your students. How much of yourself you choose to make part of your teaching. The personal element transcends considerations of cost and setting. It not only makes or breaks a positive learning experience; it is what makes or breaks your ability to survive as a teacher who enjoys teaching.

Perhaps fewer teachers might resist this assertion, indeed boldly accept these challenges, if they knew what difficulties realistically lay ahead; if accountability were addressed realistically from within, rather than imposed from outside sources such as disgruntled taxpayers or an unsympathetic press. Perhaps more teachers would be willing to sign this blank check of responsibility if such responsibility were part of their training philosophy and orientation. Quality - bottom line - is you. Perhaps more teachers would support each other, share with each other if such activities were on their training agenda and declared crucial to teacher performance and teaching excellence.

Merit pay or no, if competency pressures are increasingly imposed from outside sources without addressing and developing the human resources in teachers, then we will whip our schooling into a brand of education that is competitive, but devoid of soul and dimension. Without merit pay, many teachers feel threatened by supervisory input and evaluation. In fact there is a tendency to promote the idea that all teachers should be viewed as basically equal. Yes, the techniques vary, they say, but everybody is making an effort. Besides, how do you really identify a good teacher?

The Example of Marva Collins

There is safe anonymity in this homogeneous view of teachers at work. 'Don't stand out too much, don't promote your talent because it will make your colleagues uncomfortable.' The undercurrents in a given school - the push and pull of competition, jealousy, resentment, recognition - are a tide of discontent felt but rarely acknowledged. This is energy left to itself, untapped and misdirected. Marva Collins is a case in point. Founder of the controversial West Side Preparatory school in Chicago, Collins was attacked because her strong personal example reflected obvious shortcomings in her peers; in the way teachers and schools systems evaluate and relate to children. She believed that any child could learn and stood with deep conviction behind the techniques and approaches she used.

The extent to which Marva Collins was attacked by her peers is remarkable. Collins refused to have children mislabeled, their ability to learn mistaken. She took pride in her talent for not letting any child slip by. It was her touchstone as a teacher.

Instead of looking within themselves for similar strengths, many teachers resented Marva Collins' success and the recognition she received. Still, many teachers felt that her success had been gained at their expense, so severely did Collins criticize the schools. "If you are going to claim the goodness and sanctity of every child as a positive statement," teachers might have said, "then don't leave us out of the picture. After all, we're people, too." Perhaps their resentment was less a statement about Marva Collins and more a reflection of the lack of recognition given teachers.

Care and Quality

Much has been said about the caliber of people now entering the teaching profession; that they are "bottom of the barrel" students who have not done as well as their peers entering medical, business, or engineering programs. In terms of society's ladder of values and economics, there may be an element of truth in this. But such an observation does not focus on the basic integrity of a good teacher and that rare ability to care.

Instead, it focuses on people as racehorses, able to move and excel for the financial profit of others. You can pay anyone to teach. But you can't pay them to care. Caring teachers appear in any system, under any circumstances. Our challenge is to find ways to cultivate more of these teachers.

Care comes from deep inside a teacher. It is not to be confused with enthusiasm, which quickly dissipates when the going gets rough. Care is influenced and developed through training - or impeded - by the kinds of materials a teacher chooses to use. If the materials used are part of you, an natural extension of yourself, then your sense of self and overall feeling about your work will reflect that wholeness. Whereas if a teacher uses materials for which no personal inroads or roots have been established - regardless of their high price or beautiful packaging - her relationship to these is that of the pinball to its volley of ricochets; all motion, some skill, a little luck- but no sense. What we take into the hand, said the poet, we take into the heart.

For all its headaches - administrative, structural, economic - teaching is still one of the few careers in which personal values, convictions, and vision can be cultivated, pursued and enjoyed. Teaching is for people who love children, who enjoy a struggle and can place themselves at its center; where self-respect, not self-profit, is a dedicated and moral imperative. If modern society, as Michael Rossman, former editor of Family Learning magazine, put it, is a kind of wilderness, of which the institutional nature of school is an inescapable part, then teachers are those, for better or worse, to whom we have entrusted the future of our children's trek through that wilderness.

How these so-called "low caliber" students view and experience their development as future teachers in training will be the determining factor in whether our educational system can be made the pride of the world and the envy of others. Low grade teacher trainee or not, only each student knows why he cares enough about education to pursue teaching, and whether he has what it takes to continue caring as his career progresses. And now more than ever before, the issue of competency compels prospective teachers to raise deeply personal questions about their potential effectiveness and responsibility.

The prospective teacher should ask herself whether she will become the traditional, burned-out bureaucrat who collects her paycheck and recuperates on academic calendar vacations. Or will she find ways to develop a personal style that breathes life into her career? Will she adopt methods and learn to develop her own materials which enhance her growth both personally and professionally? Or will she rely, as do to many of her counterparts, on prepackaged ditto masters, fill-in-the-answer exercises as the complacent heart and soul of her lessons?
To avoid these questions is to court a career of disappointment and dead ends.

For the teacher trainer - an explorer and developer of methods - the challenge of transforming teacher education so that it addresses the whole student has never been greater. If, as the doom-sayers tell us, society is confronted with waves of poor teachers, they need to remember that good teaching has less to do with qualifications than with a love of self. Good teaching should be a universal quality cultivated in each one of us regardless of our career. However, those who teach will sustain their spirit and sharpen their skills if trained in such a way as to harness both intellect and emotions.

Some students will love teaching from the start. Others, forced into teaching by other factors, may have second thoughts. Nevertheless, their training can make them involved and dedicated teachers. It is my view that any certification program for teachers, primary or secondary, should include a requirement that addresses the personal development of the student through a skill or core specialty; puppetry, magic, voice, storytelling, mime, drawing. This specialty can be chosen not on the basis of talent, but with the idea of enjoyment. It will be a medium that facilitates involvement in the classroom, and through which excitement for teaching finds expression.

The best way to teach teachers is by the power of teaching itself. Consider this example based on fact: In a college-level methods class, Teacher A covers a unit on "creative learning." Puppetry is touched upon in her overview, but she does not actually use a puppet. Teacher B happens to use a puppet to teach Spanish to her class of college-level students. She makes no reference to puppet-use; she simply uses the puppet as part of her teaching. Hence, A's students have been told about puppetry's usefulness as a teaching tool; B's have been exposed to the medium at work, but have not been told to use it. Assuming students of both classes become teachers, which students - A's or B's - will feel more inclined to try something new? The students of Teacher B's class. Even though they didn't learn specifically about puppets, Teacher B's example is memorable and experiential. But Teacher A is a "methods" instructor. His job is to train and encourage students to use a wide range of multisensory techniques and approaches. It may not be Teacher A's "style" to have a puppet sidekick accompany him in his teaching. He may even be uncomfortable about the idea. That is the challenge facing teacher trainers. If they are to "empower" teachers, they will have to empower themselves.

There is pedagogic power in puppetry. If it hasn't been evident, I am suggesting that puppet-use should be put into practice on a broad scale; that it become the core of the training process. With increasing emphasis on computers and the increasing academicization of early childhood programs, teacher educators need to focus on media and techniques that will enable their students to make learning warm and human. Teaching, like any creative activity, loses its life-force if personal means are not found to nurture and sustain it. As physical exercise becomes spiritual when combined with music, so is the process of teaching transformed by the puppet. Let us explore puppetry's potential as educational technology. Enough sparks may fly to ignite an instructional renaissance.

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