In August 2012, I entered a first-grade classroom as a teacher — my very own classroom. I had dreamed of this moment for so long, and it was finally here. Looking back, I realize my first year of teaching was a year of trial and error — like when you are trying to perfect a recipe and want to use only the best ingredients but also have to make sure those ingredients work together.
I had to figure out which classroom management techniques worked best for my students, create a structured classroom routine, learn how to communicate with parents, and determine how to implement the district’s literacy and math curricula. Being provided with curricula to use felt like a luxury. I had not encountered this through my Educator Prep Program (EPP) and student teaching experience. Having curricula was the ingredient I had been missing throughout my EPP.
Throughout my first year of teaching, I saw a need to supplement the curriculum materials I had — which weren’t comprehensive — to cover all of the standards that needed to be taught. I turned back to what I had learned from student teaching and educator prep courses — teaching “themes” and skills in isolation. The extra time and effort I put into finding additional resources seemed to be meeting the needs of most but not ALL of my students. At year’s end, not all of my students were reading on grade level, so I began to think that maybe curriculum wasn’t the ingredient missing in my EPP. After all, I was right back to creating and searching for resources.
It wasn’t until my fifth year of teaching that I discovered the missing ingredient. It did have to do with curriculum, but the key was to use an effective curriculum. That year I learned how to identify high-quality instructional materials and what effective reading instruction looked like. Through research, I came to understand the science of reading.
With training and support, I learned there were several missing ingredients in my classroom. Students need content that builds background knowledge and vocabulary around science and social studies topics. Students need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. They need to be able to write in response to a text or experience that they are all familiar with. And they need to know that I believe in them. Today, my classroom instruction looks very different from my first year of teaching.
If you bake a cake without baking soda, it will never rise. A new teacher needs support to be fully prepared as they begin teaching students to read, otherwise their students will not rise. So, what’s the missing ingredient from the recipe of an effective educator prep program? High-quality instructional materials.
Colleagues of mine who recently studied at the same university I attended did learn about the science of reading, but — just as I had — they still had to create their own curricula and resources. How could the university teach about the science of reading but not provide training on high-quality instructional materials and how to use them?
We have a literacy crisis. An important step to fixing this problem is to make sure that new teachers are more prepared to teach students to read. This should start with educator prep programs. EPPs should be more involved with local districts to know how to identify high-quality instructional materials and to put them in the hands of pre-service teachers.
We’ve all heard the saying “know better, do better” applied to literacy instruction. We must also apply this to how we’re preparing new educators. When I think back to my first year of teaching eight years ago, I wish I’d known then what I know now. It’s time for EPPs to perfect their recipe and give new teachers the ingredients they need to rise.
Lize Bailey is a first-grade teacher with Sullivan County Schools.