A disconnect between the life experiences of young teachers and the students they serve is little addressed in training programs but widely known. At the UW, one education professor experimented on ways to improve those relations.

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Teacher-training schools have long been punching bags for those unhappy with public education and its results.

Some critics complain the programs accept low-skilled teacher candidates. Others point out that teachers-in-training rarely interact with the communities where they will soon work, which often leads to misunderstandings and mistrust when most educators are from the white middle class and their students are, increasingly, low-income kids of color.

Ken Zeichner, Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Washington, agrees with many of these criticisms. He’s seen the problem play out here and in his previous 33 years at the University of Wisconsin. In both places, teacher-trainees arrived brimming with idealism and a passion for social justice, yet often saw their students’ parents as the enemy, he wrote in a research paper published this month.

“Typically, teachers connect with families in negative ways — getting hold of parents when there’s something their child did wrong,” Zeichner said in an interview. “And a lot of times, teachers feel that they’re trying to save kids and get them out of their communities. I think that’s a big mistake.”

To address this disconnect, Zeichner devised a research project. He matched 70 mentors with 129 young teachers-in-training at the UW.

Some of the mentors had Ph.D.s; others had never graduated high school. All were deeply rooted in Seattle’s lower-income neighborhoods. They held panel discussions about family “Hopes and Dreams,” “Civil Rights and Education,” and “The School to Prison Pipeline, Prisoners’ Perspectives.”

Elementary-school trainees went on neighborhood walks with local families, meeting residents, touring the library and a community garden. Another group sat with Latina and biracial moms, who spoke about their less-than-perfect experiences with parent-teacher conferences.

Many of the trainees reported a revolution in their understanding, Zeichner found.

“I came to education with an idea of why I wanted to be a teacher, but then experienced a really powerful paradigm shift to hear what parents want for their kids,” one young educator said.

Another acknowledged that she’d never taken institutional racism into account.

“I never realized that there’s people who didn’t have the same opportunities as me,” she said.

For all this goodwill, the yearlong journey was difficult, complex and “filled with tensions,” Zeichner says.

Sometimes family members were galled to see how ignorant the young teachers were about their communities.

Other times, teacher-trainees complained that their mentors had little to offer of academic value and would “just tell stories.”

But afterward and through their first year in school, the newly minted educators found that these connections significantly helped their early days on the job.

And this, in turn, helped their students.

“I had this little girl who hates science, anything that has to do with bugs,” reported a young teacher who, inspired by her work in Zeichner’s experiment, decided to call the girl’s home and ask for guidance.

“I can’t get her to do this,” she explained to the girl’s mother. “What do I do?”

Within a half-hour, she had an answer. And the very next day her student was examining worms.

“’How powerful is that,” the teacher exclaimed, “to use the voice that knows this kid better than anyone else?”