Imagine you’re a brand new teacher on your first day of school. You’re getting to know your students, and you’ve been digging into the curriculum your district has provided to support your instruction. Even though you’ve spent several years in training, it’s possible you’ve never been exposed to high-quality instructional materials, an understanding of why they matter, or resources to understand if what you’re looking at meets state standards and your students’ needs. 

New teachers often face a variety of challenges when it comes to instructional materials. Sometimes they’re expected to create their own, spending an average of 7–12 hours a week searching for or coming up with content from scratch. Sometimes a district provides core materials, but the program may not be used in its entirety, making students’ experiences inconsistent. Other times, the curriculum may not be aligned to the standards teachers are responsible for. 

The truth is, both new and veteran teachers receive little to no curriculum-focused professional learning. This means even if the materials are quality, no one has been supported to implement them well. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. New teachers will always have a lot to learn, but one way we can help set them up for success is through reenvisioning teacher preparation programs. Pre-service learning can help lay a foundation for teacher success in the classroom. It provides the opportunity to offer initial exposure to curriculum literacy, and the high-quality instructional materials teachers deserve.

Curriculum Literacy
Curriculum literate teachers are prepared to see the benefits of using high-quality curriculum, they understand what makes a program high quality or not, they know the resources available for vetting curriculum, and they are a general good consumer of content so they are ready to adapt a lesson to make the appropriate changes without sacrificing what is essential.

Dr. Kristina Livingston and Shannah Estep have over four decades of combined experience in education, and both currently teach pre-service teachers. They sat down to discuss what challenges new teachers face, the potential shifts pre-service programs could make to support teachers around the use of high-quality materials, the importance of curriculum literacy, and recommendations for states, districts, and teachers as we move toward a future where all students can learn and thrive.

Challenges for New Teachers

Shannah Estep: So, Kristina, I think it’s really important for us to talk about the challenges that you’re seeing for new teachers as well as challenges within teacher preparation programs with regards to instructional materials.

Kristina Livingston: One of the big challenges that I’m seeing involves information overload, particularly when it comes to materials and supplements on the internet. Without a real foundation in what makes materials high quality, or without an aligned program teachers know how to use well, they are turning to unvetted sources for classroom content. As a new teacher, it’s nearly impossible to piecemeal things that you find from Google or Teachers Pay Teachers together to make a really strong standards-aligned, coherent unit.  In teacher preparation programs, there is a lingering belief that teachers should be creating their own materials. This leads to the pervasive idea that lesson planning and curriculum writing are one in the same.

Shannah Estep: Yes, I am constantly battling the assumption that teachers should write their own materials at my university as well. As an adjunct, I’m often using a syllabus that was written by someone else who has given assignments that require students to write their own lessons and units. Why would you say the expectation that teachers create their own materials is a problem?

Kristina Livingston:  It’s a problem because there’s already so much that you’re having to deal with as new teachers – creating your own materials should not be one of them. The cognitive load is so high. Adding the hours it takes to create or find new materials, which might not even be quality and certainly aren’t part of a coherent program, is an unfair ask. If teachers could just walk in and have great materials with ongoing professional learning to show them how to use those materials, it would make a world of difference. And teachers could spend their time inspiring a love of learning and supporting each and every student to thrive instead of being constantly overwhelmed with the daunting task of coming up with something new for each week, day, or class period.

Essential Components for Teacher Preparation Programs

Shannah Estep: What are some essential learning goals that could be included in all teacher preparation programs—particularly in regards to curriculum literacy and the role of high-quality instructional materials—that could set new teachers up for success?

Kristina Livingston: I’d focus on three big areas: centering curriculum literacy in pre-service learning, rethinking the role of lesson planning, and more strategic coordination of field service experiences.

First and foremost, we need to put curriculum literacy front and center. This means ensuring new teachers are prepared to see the benefits of using high-quality curriculum, that they understand what makes a program high quality or not, that they know the resources available for vetting curriculum, and that they are a generally good consumer of educational content, so they know how to adapt a lesson to make the appropriate changes without sacrificing what is essential. 

We know new teachers are going to walk into schools that have materials that are not high quality, and teachers will be expected to use them for the next three to five years. Knowing how to adapt curriculum to meet the needs of diverse learners, while ensuring the content still meets the demands of the standards, is such an important skill.

Second, we have to look at what knowledge and skills we really want pre-service teachers to have for preparing and teaching an effective lesson (like having a great hook to start off the lesson or being able to close the lesson with some type of review and assessment.) Yes, they need to understand some foundational planning elements. But I think it is equally important for them to see coherent and well-scripted lessons from high-quality instructional materials so they can learn what a really great lesson should look like and how curriculum can support strong instruction.

The third area to evolve is how we organize our field service portion of training where student teachers are going into a school and teaching with a veteran teacher. Sometimes you have to pick local schools, but what if we could establish a partnership with districts or schools that we know are using high-quality instructional materials? And, what if, at the university level, we could have teacher copies of those same materials on hand in our college classrooms for pre-service teachers to read, review, and reflect upon? That would allow student teachers to experience implementing a living, breathing curriculum and see the impact high-quality content has on instruction and student learning.

Recommendations for States, Districts, and Educators

Shannah Estep: How can different stakeholders support new teachers? What recommendations do you have for states and state departments of education?

Kristina Livingston: Signaling and incentivizing quality is huge. We’ve seen this in Mississippi with the creation of a state adoption list that includes guidance for districts on available quality programs. Resources for supporting comprehensive adoption processes and professional learning to implement what’s chosen are also key supports. Collaborating directly with teacher preparation programs and districts is also an option that can lead to all boats rowing in the same direction

Shannah Estep: And at the school level, what would you recommend for new teachers and those supporting teachers such as principals or coaches?

Kristina Livingston: I always tell student teachers it’s so important for them to ask their own questions when going on job interviews. One of those questions includes what curriculum is being used and who will train them on that curriculum. Furthermore, find out if there’s a plan for follow-up coaching and support. I think this goes to the heart of the advocacy power teachers have, especially if we are preparing them to be curriculum literate. 

And as a teacher, you have to be an advocate for yourself and your students. I know it’s sometimes uncomfortable to say, ‘I don’t have what I need to be successful in this classroom,’ but if this is never said out loud, it’s unlikely to change. If we can give pre-service teachers an understanding of what quality materials look like, they will feel more confident walking into a building and saying, ‘I don’t think we’re using the best content for students, and I know resources to help us find curriculum that can make a difference.’

For principals and other leaders, it’s imperative to recognize that you can’t just pick a high-quality program and that it will magically work in the classroom. If you don’t offer ongoing professional learning and coaching, then those materials don’t actually become high quality for those students. Curriculum-focused training is key.

Kristina Livingston is a literacy consultant and adjunct instructor at the University of Mississippi. She has extensive experience working with students in grades K-6 as well as training and coaching both pre-service and in-service educators in the field of literacy. Kristina earned her Ed.D. from the University of Mississippi and holds a National Board Certification in the area of literacy. 

Shannah Estep is currently a senior specialist at EdReports. She brings more than 25 years of experience in education, including writing curriculum and assessments for AIMS Education Foundation, as well as acting as a professional development specialist, and consultant  for states & districts across the country.. Shannah began her career as a math and science teacher and through her years in the classroom, has taught multiple grades K-12, including her local teacher preparation program.