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Nobody Ever Flunks This Course

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The most important part of the training of aspiring teachers does not occur on the college campus. Yes, courses with names such as "Ed Psych" or "Design and Implementation of Interdisciplinary Curricula" are needed to create thoughtful practitioners. But the crucial test for those future teachers takes place not in college classrooms, but in our local elementary and secondary schools, where the college students do their student teaching.

While colleges and universities give lip service to the fact that student teaching is central to the preparation of future teachers, they persist in treating this important part of teacher training in an off-hand manner. This failure to recognize the gravity and magnitude of the student-teaching experience is reflected in the selection of the schools and mentor teachers to which the student-teachers are assigned.

It is not unusual for this student-teacher-placement process, which should be a decision based on research and observations by the university or college of the elementary and secondary schools and their teachers, to be reduced to two questions: (1) Which schools are willing to take student-teachers? and (2) In those schools willing to take them, which teachers are willing to be mentors?

Once a school has agreed to take student-teachers, the second half of the question is addressed to the principal and the teachers. The answers they give inevitably create three general categories of mentor, or supervising, teachers.

Category One: Vera and Vin, the Virtuosos, are stimulated by the challenge of mentoring. They find that not only the student-teacher can gain new insights into both teaching techniques and academic materials, but so can the mentor teacher. This type of mentor knows that the ultimate responsibility for the classroom students' learning and evaluation rests with her, yet she encourages creative thinking by allowing the student-teacher to have a role in the decisionmaking for the classroom. This pays dividends for elementary and secondary school students. Their interest is aroused by the presence of a young person, with a new outlook, in a leadership role.
Category Two: Molly Maternal and Peter Paternal are unwilling to take the time needed to coach and interact with a student-teacher away from their work with individual students or the creation of a new and challenging lesson plan. This type of teacher often has a wonderfully proprietary feeling toward his classroom: "These are my kids, I really care about them, and I do not want to subject them to a novice."

This situation presents both an irony and a tragedy, because the student-teachers are deprived by these master teachers' very interest in their own classrooms of having the outstanding mentors that might have come from this category. Compounding the tragedy is the probability that this is the fastest-growing category of student-teaching mentors, with its ranks constantly being added to by transfers from the "virtuoso" category.

These former virtuosos have usually been involved in the training of student-teachers before and have a tale to tell about a blatantly incompetent or irresponsible novice teacher. It is a story that always has the same ending. The college or university ignored the experienced classroom teacher's evaluation and simply moved the student-teacher to a new placement with a less-demanding mentor.

Category Three: "You have a student-teacher for the spring term" is a cause for celebration for teachers like Ina and Ira Indolent who are card-carrying members of the I.J.A.J.A. (It's Just Another Job Association). For them, mentoring translates into two or three fewer classes to teach and more time in the teachers' lounge to gripe about "the system," the principal, and the kids. Some principals insist that mentor teachers stay in their classroom at all times when the fledglings are teaching rather than "appropriately nearby." For Ina and Ira, this means an opportunity to catch up on recreational reading and contribute no more than they would if they in the teachers' lounge. When this happens, the student-teacher misses opportunities to test his own classroom personality and autonomy, for the mere presence of "the real teacher" negates any chance for the student-teacher to become the "real teacher."

Colleges, then, are faced basically with a choice of two groups of mentor teachers, an ocean of mediocrity and a puddle of perfection. But, in their teacher-education admissions policy, there is no consideration given to how many effective mentor teachers are available. Substantial numbers of students are allowed into teacher training programs with little thought of what resources will be there to turn them into true professionals. That is why the ocean of indolents is constantly blessed with student-teachers whom they can quickly assign to the role of classroom serf.

Is this phenomenon unusual? Is it just happening in my corner of the world? Over the past few years, during which I have had the opportunity to work with teachers from all over the country, I have gotten a pretty good answer. In group discussions, there is always a rush by the teachers to tell their own Vera, Peter, and Ina stories, and to give their firsthand accounts of strained town-gown relations. The operant phrase is usually, "You think that's something? Wait till you hear this one."

Though my own experience as a student-teacher was a superb preparation for my development as a teacher, many of my fellow student-teachers were not so lucky, being placed in classrooms led by teachers who were either incompetent or disinterested. More than two decades have passed since that time, and little appears to have changed in the teacher-education process.

For this, I cannot forgive those involved in the nation's teacher-education programs whose practices (never their words) give credence to the idea that anyone who has the ability to pass college courses can be a teacher; whose practices (never words) underestimate the significance of the novice's student-teaching performance; and whose practices (never words) espouse the belief that any teacher is qualified to act as a mentor to the neophyte. To create superb teachers who in turn create youngsters who take pleasure in learning is a demanding process. It is a process that is being subverted by higher education itself.

Each spring, graduation day arrives and almost all teacher-education candidates receive a diploma from an institution of higher learning and certification by the state as teachers of our children. I have never seen a university or college with the courage to say to an aspiring teacher, "This is not the field for you."

Moreover, by allowing students to spend the most vital and complex phase of their preparation for teaching in placements that demand little and inspire less, both college graduate and undergraduate programs gain little insight into a candidate's ability to perform in today's classrooms. This lack of attention to field experience is best demonstrated by the time-honored clich‚ that "nobody ever flunks student teaching." Some should.

Elaine Temkin has 25 years of experience in teaching, curriculum development, and the training of student-teachers. She lives in Pawtucket, R.I.

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