December 20, 2017

True Life: Teacher Prep Didn’t Prepare Me to Teach

By Ryan Williams-Virden

When I’m being honest with myself, I know I had no business in front of a classroom. I had no business being trusted with the future of young people. Yes, a piece of paper said I was qualified, but anyone could see that I was not. Yet, there I was, standing in front of 30 young people, ostensibly teaching.


The fall of 2006 was a time of turmoil in my life. Having dropped my Education and Cultural Diversity class after storming out one day and calling the professor a racist, I needed to go back and complete the coursework necessary for my Urban Education licensure program. I enrolled in the last two classes I had and started to compile my portfolio to get approved for student teaching.

Before going any further, I need to be honest: I was not a good student. I cared much more about my role on the baseball team than I did in being a student or handling any of the responsibilities that came with it. A perfect example was the simple fact that in order to gain licensure, I had to turn in a portfolio of assignments that aligned with certain standards, and maintain a 3.0 GPA in my Education courses. Yet, I hadn’t kept a single assignment and I needed to get straight A’s in my remaining courses to have a 3.0 GPA.

How did I become a teacher, you ask? I must have repeated courses or had some drastic turn-around, right? Nope. In fact, three days before I was supposed to hand in my portfolio, I hadn’t compiled a single thing. I stayed up for two nights and re-did four years worth of work. I was approved for student teaching that spring at Roosevelt High School, where my mentor teacher told me to give our senior history class worksheets from a middle school workbook because, “They like them and will be quiet.” I got glowing letters of recommendation and was hired as a classroom teacher at a different school the following fall.

I became another mediocre white person in front of a classroom of poor students and students of color.


I look back at my teacher training and cringe. I don’t tell this story now to throw shade or to denigrate any of my colleagues, I tell it because it illustrates a problem: Our teacher training is subpar and excuses white mediocrity.

Often people tell me that it’s shameful teachers don’t make more money. That we’re not treated as professionals. That we can’t attract more teachers of color until we increase teacher pay. I don’t necessarily disagree. But when you can half-ass your teacher preparation program like I did, never be held accountable, and still get the privilege of teaching, it’s clear that the problems run much deeper than how we’re paid or treated once we enter the classroom.

The reality is that most teacher preparation programs don’t require or nurture excellence: Students in graduate education program’s have among the lowest GRE scores, and despite the pathetic effort I put in, I aced the tests I was required to take to receive my license. Even worse is the fact that I walked out of the one course (in an Urban Education program) focused on culture and diversity and still got a license. There was only one person of color in my entire program. If quality teaching matters (we know it does) and if we need more teachers of color (we know we do), then we need to be more serious about standards, intentions, and diversity in the field.

It wasn’t until I became engaged in activism and popular education that I realized how disrespectful I had been towards education, the art of teaching, and my students; how disrespectful my teacher training program had allowed me to be, as long as I paid my tuition bills. I flipped my paradigm and re-engaged with the profession to become the educator my city’s students deserved.

Ironically, it was colleagues who had been trained by alternative preparation programs like Teach For America who became my most trusted thought partners, and to whom I looked for accountability and models of excellence. While my mostly white mediocre teacher training classmates had already left or never even entered a classroom, these folks were (and still are) putting in the blood, sweat, and tears required for great teaching, and they were (and still are) getting results. In every area—classroom management, teacher skills and moves, equity—my alternatively trained colleagues are miles ahead of the program I had come from. They continue to inspire me in ways my professors never could. They know excellence and demand it from me.

This is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of Teach For America or similar programs. It is simply the truth of my experience as a traditionally trained classroom teacher of nearly a decade. It is also an indictment of our existing teacher training programs. And it is a call for us to pursue alternative programs that demand excellence and promote diversity at every single turn.


Pulling a couple all-nighters and handing out some worksheets didn’t prepare that naïve, arrogant, goofy guy for the classroom nine years ago. Instead, I became a teacher when I was pushed to wake up every single day with the goal of upsetting the systems which had put me, unprepared to do anything but perpetuate violence against students, in front of a classroom.

To give our students the teachers they deserve, we need teacher preparation programs that prepare educators for that goal, doing what Paulo Freire insisted: Reading the world before reading the word. And doing that well.

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