Ensuring Content Mastery
A Special Guest Post Written by Mary Stephens
“The quality of any school relies on the strength of its educators at the front of the classroom.”
– Arne Duncan, Education Secretary
Getting certified to teach is tough….and it should be! It’s a huge responsibility—preparing people for life, adulthood, a career, citizenship. We can all agree with Secretary Duncan: a class is only as strong as the leader at the front of the room. One important characteristic of a successful educator is a strong grasp of the content that they must teach. Throughout a teacher’s career, this knowledge will be tested and evaluated, starting with the stress-inducing certification exams.
The coursework for teacher candidates tends to focus on instructional methods, education theories, and practice teaching. But what about the core knowledge that these future instructors will be expected to pass on to their own students, the critical concepts in math, reading, writing, and other subject areas? When the time comes, will the teacher’s own skills be up to that task? Maybe it has been years since he or she last conjugated verbs or worked algebraic equations. Perhaps he was once a sentence-diagramming superstar, but that information may now be on the dusty shelves of ancient memory. And what if she always struggled with fractions?
College-level education programs should integrate this type of assessment into their curriculum, but not all of them do. With evaluations and the rigors of completing a degree programs, individual learners often struggle to make time to validate content knowledge in key subjects. But the effort reaps great benefits, especially if you want peace of mind that you will pass your exams on the first try. With that in mind, here are four straightforward steps that a future teacher can take to ensure that they are ready to teach with confidence.
4 Ways to Prepare:
1. Research the requirements. Perhaps this seems obvious, but many people make the mistake of letting it slide. At least 6-9 months before you expect to take a certification exam, schedule a two-hour block on an evening or weekend to visit your state’s education department website and read up on the specifics of their certification tests.
2. Take the practice test. If your state offers one, download it. If not, see whether someone has designed one for purchase by asking at the university bookstore and researching online. If you cannot find one for your specific state then get a general one. Set aside a few hours on a Saturday to take the practice test and review your results. This is the best way to find out exactly where you stand.
3. Take advantage of workshops and supplemental courses. If a practice exam reveals a weakness or a gap, your future career may be in the balance. It is imperative to be proactive and master those concepts as early as possible. So what are your options?
▪ You can tutor yourself. Preparatory books and materials are cost effective, and self-paced. Just make sure that the curriculum you purchase is designed for adult learners, not children. Your brain’s wiring has changed since you were a kid, and you acquire information in different ways now. If you are lucky, someone will have designed materials with your state’s specific requirements in mind.
▪ You can seek professional help. Sometimes working alone is more frustrating than helpful (after all, who do you ask when you get stumped?). If that is a concern for you, find out if your school offers extension classes for exam preparation. The best courses will be written with a focus on creating a deep understanding of the material, not just for passing an exam. In a prep class, you will get the benefit of expert knowledge, plus the company of other prospective teachers who know your pain, and a fixed schedule to provide external motivation. However, be willing to sit through material that you already know well in addition to your problem areas, as the courses are generally “one size fits all”.
4. Take an online review class. As with traditional prep classes, an online course can help alleviate the intimidation many adults experience when reviewing content that they may not have seen for years. An online curriculum acknowledges that every teacher candidate is unique; strengths and weaknesses vary from person to person, and no one wants to waste time focusing on topics they already know. Once an assessment has showed you where you need to focus your efforts, you can select the content areas that apply to your needs. If your online class includes diagnostics, you can track your progress and build confidence.
The self-paced format is also attractive: there is no class of bored peers waiting for you to catch up on a concept, so you can take as much time as you need with any material. Plus you can access the lessons and practice problems at the most convenient time of day for you—no need to alter your schedule to accommodate a class, no fighting for a parking space.
Strong content knowledge is one of a prospective teacher’s greatest assets (well, that and a winning personality). Methods are important, of course, but don’t neglect content mastery. Remember that it is a key to your goals, including passing your certification exams so that you can start your career. If you take these four steps, you will have what you need to teach well, and teach with confidence.
Mary Stephens is the founder of ICTSprep (www.ictsprep.com), which develops online, self-paced courses designed to help teachers develop a deep understanding of fundamentals. Mary’s enthusiasm for e-learning combines extensive education experience with a love of technology, beginning with BS and MS degrees from MIT in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. For over 15 years, Mary has designed curricula and taught all levels from discrete math at MIT to K-12 math, computers, humanities, and science. Her technical expertise emerges from years in industry with companies including Edusoft and Oracle, where she worked in product management, strategy, and engineering. Mary has spoken at international education conferences and has served as research and development manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, professional math consultant at Merrimack College, founder of Omega Teaching, and adjunct faculty at UMASS. She currently is the founder of MTELprep (www.mtelprep.com), ICTSprep (www.ictsprep.com), and PrepForward (www.prepforward.com). You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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