Position Statement on Professional Preparation of Middle Level Teachers

The specialized professional preparation of teachers of young adolescents must be a high priority of teacher preparation programs. Regrettably, in the past it has not been a high priority with either higher education or professional practice boards that make policy decisions about teacher licensure. Many of the persons who make up these important groups seem to have largely forgotten 10 to 14 year olds and their teachers (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Lipsitz, 1977; McEwin & Dickinson, 1995, 1996). National Middle School Association through a variety of avenues, has made a commitment to help remedy this situation and promote actions that will assure that all young adolescents are taught by highly qualified teachers. NMSA continues to be the leader in promoting responsive policies, practices, and programs for young adolescents and their teachers.

This publication represents the official position taken by the association regarding teacher preparation and licensure. After a brief section on historical perspective, the importance of specialized middle level teacher licensure is addressed. This is followed by a description of the essential elements of a teacher preparation program which focuses directly and exclusively on the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed by middle level teachers.

A historical perspective

The realization that teachers of young adolescents need specialized professional preparation is not a recent phenomenon. For over seventy-five years, the literature has included calls for these preparation programs (Alexander & McEwin, 1988; Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Cooney, 1998; Douglas, 1920; Elliot, 1949; Floyd, 1932; George & McEwin, 1978; McEwin & Dickinson, 1995; Scales & McEwin, 1994, 1996; Swaim & Stefanich, 1996; Van Til, Vars, & Lounsbury, 1961). Unfortunately however, significant numbers of teacher preparation institutions, state departments of education, licensure agencies, and others have chosen to ignore the need for these teachers and have promoted the widespread idea that when qualifications for teaching young adolescents are considered, the response is often “no specialized preparation needed.” As a result, many of today’s middle level students are taught by teachers who are not sufficiently prepared to be successful in the challenging and rewarding responsibility of understanding and teaching young adolescents.

Barriers to the Specialized Preparation of Middle Level Teachers

A complex set of reasons has caused and perpetuated the failure to recognize the importance of specialized professional preparation for middle level teachers. It is important to examine some of the barriers that have prevented full success in implementing specialized middle level teacher preparation to help prevent the same mistakes from reoccurring. Some of the major barriers are: (a) the negative stereotyped image of young adolescents; (b) too few advocates at teacher preparation institutions and state agencies; (c) desire for flexibility in assignment of middle level teachers; (d) lack of knowledge of the public about appropriate middle level schooling; and, (e) the limited number of instructors in teacher preparation programs who have the depth of knowledge and experience needed (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Holmes Group, 1995; McEwin & Dickinson, 1995; Tyson, 1994). These and other barriers must be carefully considered in the movement to establish strong middle level teacher preparation programs. The most destructive barrier to specialized middle level teacher preparation, however, is the failure of states to establish mandatory middle level teacher licensure. Nationally, 88% of all middle level teacher preparation programs are located in states with some form of specialized middle level licensure or endorsement.

Middle Level Teacher Licensure

A close relationship exists between the type of licensure available and the number of teacher preparation institutions that offer special middle level teacher preparation programs. Special mandatory middle level teacher licensure leads to the development, implementation, and continuation of special middle level teacher preparation programs. Therefore, a major reason specialized middle level teacher preparation programs are not universally available in the nation lies in the failure of many states to design and implement licensure regulations which promote the specialized knowledge, dispositions, and performances needed to successfully teach young adolescents. As well, many states with specialized middle level licensure have plans with wide overlapping grade levels (e.g., grades K-8, 5-8, 7-12). The result of such plans is that most prospective teachers select options with the widest range of job possibilities instead of choosing to focus on specialized preparation for a single developmental age group (e.g., grades 5-8).

Essential Elements for Middle-Level Teacher Preparation Programs

The following essential elements of middle level teacher preparation programs are based on current trends in the field, best practice of middle level teacher preparation, and the field’s growing knowledge/research base. This discussion is limited to those elements unique to middle level teacher preparation and does not include other elements that are essential to all quality teacher preparation programs (e.g., diversity, technology). While the elements include a variety of traditional focuses (e.g., curriculum, instruction), they are set within a matrix of current and future concerns as well as the changing developmental realities of young adolescents, their schools, and their teachers.

Collaborative Partnership

The movement toward collaboration in teacher preparation with school-based faculty is a relatively new phenomenon and is a movement against the historical tide of separation of teacher preparation program from school sites. In the case of middle school preparation, with their own short but unique history as both schools and teacher preparation programs, middle schools preceded the establishment of middle level teacher education programs. To further complicate matters, often when middle school teacher education programs have developed, they have often done so without developmentally responsive middle school sites to use as clinical settings. For these and related reasons, to a large extent, middle schools and middle school teacher preparation have developed on similar parallel tracks, each fighting for recognition and legitimacy, but relatively uninvolved with each other.

To reverse this pattern, collaborative partnerships which move in two simultaneous directions are essential. First, the collaboration with middle school faculty (school sitebased teacher educators) and university-based middle school teacher educators should integrate both faculties in planning, implementation, direct teaching, assessment, and continuing oversight of the program.

A second direction that partnerships should move in is the creation of site-based delivery of middle level teacher preparation programs. To achieve high levels of success, delivery of the program should move out of the university setting to the school where the work of real middle level teachers and young adolescents is an ongoing, daily event and where middle school interns have numerous opportunities for authentic teaching performances with appropriate audiences.

To have the middle level teacher preparation program be totally university based is to: (a) continue to have it be cutoff from the day-to-day realities of school life; (b) avoid interactions between two cultures (university and school-based teacher educators) that have much to offer each other; and, (c) move induction to after graduation rather than having it be a part of the preparation program. To collaborate on teacher preparation means to: (a) establish a dialogue and mutual trust between two important elements of the profession (middle level schools and teacher preparation programs); (b) initiate positive change that will influence all participants; (c) improve the professional knowledge and skills of teachers resulting in increased student reaming; (d) provide opportunities for conducting joint research projects; (e) offer leadership opportunities for teachers, professors, and administrators, and other stakeholders; and, (f) attract resources to the school site. The movement toward professional development school initiatives and school-university partnership programs which emphasize the performance of critical teaching aspects with authentic audiences and settings is already underway in some middle school teacher preparation programs (McEwin & Dickinson, 1995, 1996).

Early Adolescence

Middle school teachers, at their most fundamental level, must be experts in the development and needs of young adolescents. Prospective middle level teachers attain this expertise through formal study of young adolescent development and opportunities to work directly with young adolescent students and to apply this knowledge, all the while reflecting upon the implications of developmental realities. Without a solid grounding in knowledge and experience of young adolescent development, the success of the individual middle school teacher and middle schools as a whole is limited.

Interns should be afforded opportunities to study and observe individual aspects of young adolescent development and then to integrate this knowledge into a usable whole by working in authentic situations with individual young adolescents who have these developmental characteristics in unique combinations. Emphasis should be placed on the creation of a knowledge, skills, and dispositions in middle school curriculum, instruction, assessment, student-teacher relationships, and programs emphasized in performance based assessment.

As well, developmental realities of young adolescents should be set within a matrix of social, cultural and societal contexts. Teachers should know about how developmental realities play themselves out against a backdrop of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, family, and community. The intended outcome of this focus is the creation of developmentally responsive programs and practices for young adolescents.

Middle Level Philosophy and Organization

Just as young adolescents are different from young children and older adolescents, middle schools are different from their counterparts at the elementary and high school levels. This difference is much more than that of appearance, however, and extends to the philosophical foundations of middle level education and the organizational structure that grows from and supports this philosophy. A thorough study of middle level philosophy and organization, therefore, must be a primary element of the student’s preparation program and not merely a superficial exploration. Middle level teacher preparation programs should be anchored within a context that supports and extends young adolescent development. A study of middle level philosophy and organization provides just such a mooring.

A prospective middle level teacher’s preparation program should include opportunities concerning formal study of these essential elements as well as opportunities to work in middle level schools that implement middle level philosophy and support it with distinct developmentally responsive middle level organizational structures. A template for such a school might be the National Middle School Association’s policy document, This We Believe: Developmentally Responsive Middle Level Schools (1995).

Working in these kinds of schools affords prospective middle level teachers valuable opportunities to experience school organizations that utilize: (a) teams, (b) advisories, (c) exploratories, (d) interest/mini courses, (e) intramurals, (f) flexible block schedules, (g) heterogeneous grouping, and, (h) interdisciplinary and integrative curriculum. The emphasis of formal study of middle level philosophy and organization and site-based opportunities to work within these structures should be placed upon a school organization for young adolescents where the creation of a personalized environment that supports and extends their healthy development is the goal.

Middle Level Curriculum

The focus of the study of the middle level curriculum is the uniqueness of the curriculum at this level. Rather than relying on subject matter or disciplinary curriculum organization, the middle level curriculum should be organized around and emphasize interdisciplinary and integrative approaches, approaches that also incorporate young adolescent interests as starting points for curriculum planning (Dickinson, 1993).

Prospective middle level teachers should learn about middle level curriculum through both formal study of curriculum and opportunities to work directly with the curriculum in a variety of forms and formats. Students of curriculum should: (a) study past and present theorists of middle school curriculum; (b) learn about different curriculum designs, formats, and propositions; and, (c) examine a wide variety of curriculum documents at various levels (national, state, district, school, team, and classroom). Part of the intern’s onsite experience should provide opportunities, as members of interdisciplinary teams, to develop curriculum. They need to understand the “big picture” view of middle level curriculum. This view should include, but not be limited to: (a) the advisory curriculum; (b) the exploratory curriculum; (c) curricula in the interns’ teaching fields; and, (d) other curriculum areas outside the interns’ teaching fields.

The program should also place emphasis upon how different parts of the total school curriculum support and extend young adolescent learning. To accomplish this, opportunities should be included that place emphasis on the common core curriculum which provides, at the middle school level, a general education for students.

Teaching Fields

It is important that prospective middle level teachers enter a curriculum organization that emphasizes a general education which includes interdisciplinary and integrative reaming. Therefore interns’ content preparation should expand beyond one field (discipline) to two or more teaching fields. As well, these fields should be broad and integrative. The preparation in the multiple fields should have a thorough academic underpinning of content, content pedagogy, and the connections and interrelationships among the fields (disciplines) and other areas of knowledge. Even while students are working in or studying a single field, they should be on the constant lookout for interdisciplinary connections to utilize in their teaching.

Interns should operationalize their learning by working in interdisciplinary teams with students as they teach their subject (discipline) knowledge to young adolescents. It is essential that they teach in their own disciplines as individual subjects as well as create and teach interdisciplinary and integrative lessons and units that incorporate their knowledge of broad fields.

Planning, Teaching, and Assessment

While middle level teacher preparation programs are founded on the developmental aspects of early adolescence, this foundational knowledge must find its way into action. Planning, teaching, and assessment offer opportunities to translate this developmental knowledge into practice. Opportunities, therefore, should be offered in both systematic study and in practice in authentic settings.

Systematic study of planning, teaching and assessment should include the wide range of developmentally appropriate instructional techniques and the research that examines their most appropriate use. This element should also include short and long-term planning techniques that middle level teachers employ in both daily lessons and interdisciplinary units. As well, the range of assessment techniques should be an essential focus-from traditional testing to alternative assessments, portfolios, exhibitions, open-ended problems, and learning to construct and apply each of these appropriately. Finally, the role of technology as a form of planning, instruction, and assessment should be examined and appropriate techniques developed.

Field Experiences

Early and continuing field experiences provide the context for learning about young adolescents, their appropriate instruction and assessment, and how teachers and schools can further development and reaming. Early and continuing field experiences provide a learning laboratory for interns for formal study and application where education faculties (school site and university-based) can teach, supervise, and advise. McEwin, Dickinson, Erb, and Scales (1995) see four distinct purposes of middle school field experiences: ” (a) expanding and enriching developmental knowledge; (b) contact with diverse learners; (c) practice in finding one’s teaching self; and, (d) practice in operating in a middle level organization” (p. 34).

Because collaborative partnerships are designed as induction programs, interns should begin their school site work early in their college careers. With early middle level immersion experiences, prospective middle level teachers and teacher preparation personnel can make informed decisions about each other. Early field work also provides a developmental sequence for the program, in this case a developmental sequence based upon interns’ development. This sequence should follow a pattern of increasing complexity and involvement, culminating in an extended internship experience where prospective middle level teachers are functioning as site-based teachers responsible for groups of young adolescents. By having a developmental sequence over an extended period of time, prospective middle level teachers can move through various aspects of the essential elements of programs in a three-part organization-introduction, development, and maintenance. Another extremely valuable aspect of field work is that it allows multiple mentors, coaches, and teachers to work with prospective middle level teachers while reflecting and evaluating on their development with these individuals.

The Collaborative Role of the Middle Level Teacher

One of the unique elements of middle level schools for teachers is the heavy emphasis on collaboration. This emphasis is on the day-to-day aspects of teaching with colleagues as well as external constituencies of families and community members. This focus on collaboration should flow from the philosophy and organization of the school where all of the school’s resources are mobilized to support young adolescents and their development. By collaborating with internal and external audiences, teachers are not operating in isolation. This permits insights and understandings about students to be shared with others and therefore maximized.

A second element of the collaborative role of the m dale level teachers is concerned with the multiple audiences with which they must collaborate. These audiences include colleagues, families, and communities to further the education of young adolescents.

A major focus of middle level teacher preparation programs should be providing opportunities for interns to experience and reflect upon the knowledge that they are not isolated individuals-either in schools, in working with families, or functioning within communities. They should come to understand and appreciate the fact that they exist within a complex web of relationships with responsibilities and obligations, and yet with support and resources from others.

Concluding Statement

National Middle School Association strongly supports the specialized professional preparation of m dale level teachers both at the preservice and graduate levels. This support is based on the understanding that one of the most effective ways of improving the learning of young adolescents is improving the professional preparation of those who teach them.

Mandatory middle level teacher licensure that does not overlap with the elementary or senior high school grades (e.g., grades 5-8) is also strongly supported because of the realization that quality middle level teacher preparation programs are very unlikely to be established or maintained in states where no middle license is required, or even available, to award those who successfully complete professional preparation programs. Only when middle level licensure becomes universally required will young adolescents be assured of having teachers who have received the specialized preparation needed to be highly successful.


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