Panelists discuss gaps in teacher preparation during a roundtable at the Capitol. Photo: Jackie Mader

WASHINGTON—Too many new teachers are unprepared for the classroom and especially lack experience working with diverse, low-income students and the trauma that can impact students from those backgrounds.

That was the consensus at a roundtable discussion of educators and teacher trainers, which was hosted by Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) Tuesday in Washington and focused on how to build a better teacher workforce.

Panelists said that a time when the white student population has become the minority in America’s schools, teacher preparation programs are failing to recruit teachers who reflect increasing diversity. During the 2011-12 school year, only about 7 percent of teachers in the nation were black, and about 8 percent were Hispanic. Panelists also said that teacher training programs are not providing authentic teacher residency or student teaching experiences in schools with diverse, low-income students.

“We need to train teachers in schools that actually reflect those demographics,” said Kris Beck, a science teacher from Chicago. “The students that are in front of me have such difficult experiences and I was able to train for that for a year in a school that actually reflected those demographics. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I would have been prepared for the kinds of things I faced when I was in my own classroom.”

Related: Five ideas to improve teacher quality

Increasing teacher diversity and improving student teaching experiences was a common theme in teacher quality improvement plans that all states recently submitted to the United States Department of Education. Arkansas and Oklahoma both included a plan to expand programs that encourage high-performing high school students in high-poverty and high-minority schools to pursue teaching careers, while Maine and Missouri said they would attempt to give candidates a broader, more diverse student teaching experience.

At Tuesday’s panel, educators also provided suggestions to ramp up the content offered by teacher education programs. Boston teacher Colleen Labbe said that in schools with low-income students, many students may be dealing with trauma and the impact of poverty, yet teachers are ill-equipped to support those students. “I think all education prep programs should require completion of coursework that includes understanding the impact of trauma on learning,”Labbe said.

Although most teachers are likely to encounter students dealing with problems like domestic violence, the loss of a family member, homelessness or drug addictions, Labbe said that current teacher preparation programs don’t teach strategies to help teachers identify signs of trauma and how to make a student feel safe. “It’s not always the students who are acting up. Sometimes it’s the students who have shut down,” Labbe said.

Related: New online credential program aims to turn out 10,000 new teachers in five years

Here are a few more panelist suggestions to improve teacher preparation:

1. “We need to continually reexamine traditional [preparation] programs,” said Michael Towne, an instructional coach at the Val Verde Unified School District in California. Partnerships between traditional and alternative programs, as well as between school districts and universities “are critical” Towne added.

2. Teacher preparation programs need to hold “high expectations for teachers in the training process,” said Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.). That means schools of education need to recruit better students into their programs and support those students with scholarships, housing assistance, and early exposure to the field of teaching.

3. Teachers need to learn both content knowledge and “pedagogical content knowledge,” said Michael Towne. “You may be very knowledgeable about calculus but if you can’t teach fractions to 10 year olds, you don’t need to be a fifth grade teacher.”

4. Recruits need a lengthy student teaching experience. “You have to make so many decisions in a day that it can be very stressful,” said Kris Beck, who spent four days a week for a year working with a high-quality teacher during her teacher preparation program. “I think if we don’t prepare student teachers for that diversity of the unexpected then they can burn out and they won’t be as successful as they can be. There’s so many different things that you don’t know you’re going to face…having that [residency] experience over a length of time is really crucial.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about teacher training.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jackie Mader received a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a recipient of the 2012 Fred M. Hechinger Journalism Education Award. Prior to attending Columbia, she taught special education in Charlotte, N.C. and trained first-year teachers in the Mississippi Delta.