Education Opinion

Supervising Student Teachers: Why--and How--We Should Make It Pay

By Patrick Groff — March 06, 1991 9 min read

The problem of inadequately prepared teachers for multiracial, multiethnic schools has many facets. But one of them, surely, is the inadequate practice-teaching experiences these teachers are offered in college.

It is no secret that universities have a less-than-enthusiastic appreciation of the role of practice-teaching in teacher preparation. This is so, even though most teachers report that their student-teaching experiences are by far the most valuable aspect of their training for the profession.

It is common for university departments of education to try to save by employing relatively low-paid individuals as supervisors of student teaching. Generally, the higher the academic rank education professors hold (thus, the more they earn) the less likely it will be that they are assigned student teacher-supervision duties. There is an observable inverse relationship between the academic position and prestige of education professors--for example, the number of publications and consultancies they have, or the graduate courses they teach--and their appointment to field work in schools overseeing the progress of student teachers.

Because of this, it has become acceptable for departments of education to hire some supervisors of student teaching who lack the Ph.D. or its equivalent. The likelihood that such nontenure-track appointees will not have had all the specialized training available in up-to-date methods of teaching in multiracial, multiethnic schools seems not to be a deterrent to their acceptability for this position.

The work of these year-by-year contract supervisors is evaluated largely on the basis of anonymous appraisals by their student teachers. They are therefore highly sensitive to the possibility of being considered “overly demanding,” or one who holds “radical” views about teaching practices. Today, the successful nontenured supervisor of student teachers is most likely to have a “motherly” personality. Student teachers find them “supportive,” or “nonjudgmental,” rather than challenging.

Since student teaching has such low departmental status, no serious attempts are made to attract financial resources to its supervision. For good reasons, then, experienced “master” teachers are also recruited to act as classroom supervisors of student teachers.

Ordinarily, master teachers take on this duty as a professional courtesy. They receive only a monetary pittance for their service. For example, a master teacher might receive as little as $100 per student teacher. The tenured professor who supervises student teachers can earn more than 10 times that much.

The tolerance of university departments of education for these practices is unwarranted. There are feasible plans available for significantly raising master teachers’ pay for supervision, and for eliminating to a great extent the employment of lesser-qualified university supervisors. In short, the low-quality supervision of student teaching that now prevails in multiracial, multiethnic schools easily could be improved.

The first plan for effecting this reform would proceed as follows: With the proper urging from university departments of education, master teachers could be convinced to demand, through their negotiations with school officials, the same scale of payment for supervising student teachers as applies to tenured education professors who perform this function. In contrast to other demands for salary increases, this one might prove instantly irresistible.

The sources of educational finance at the local, state, and federal levels would more than likely have to respond favorably to such a proposal; they would have no other option. For without the cooperation of master teachers, there could be no classroom teaching experiences accessible to teacher candidates. The various states have long since closed most university laboratory schools, which once served this function. If master teachers chose to do so, they could dictate to legislative bodies the terms by which they would accept student teachers. Without master teachers as supervisors, the teacher-education programs of the nation would grind to a halt.

A second plan for directing money for student-teaching supervision into the public schools would be equally easy to implement. It would involve a redistribution of the money that university departments of education presently spend on such supervision. And it would have a noticeable impact on the quality of the undertaking. It is usual for university departments of education to assign two student teachers to an education professor for each semester unit of teaching that professor is responsible for. A professor with a 12-unit teaching load, for example, might teach nine units and supervise for three units (that is, visit six student teachers).

For the sake of explanation, let’s assume that Professor Smith is given six units of coursework, and 12 student teachers to supervise. The professor is expected to observe each of his student teachers once a week. If Professor Smith’s semester (half-year) salary was $24,000, for instance, his university would be paying him $1,000 to supervise each assigned student teacher.

By the simple expedient of obligating Professor Smith to supervise 24 student teachers--and expecting him to monitor their teaching once every two weeks--$12,000 would become available to pay master teachers for their supervision of these same students. Thus, if a master teacher were allotted two students per semester to supervise, he would be paid $4,000 a year, a princely sum in comparison with the miserly stipend he customarily receives.

A highly probable result of either of the two plans I propose would be a surplus of teachers making themselves available to supervise student teachers. This change of heart would constitute the critical wedge into the mode of teaching used in multiracial and multiethnic schools that university departments of education have long said they would like to have.

Once a reasonably attractive payment for master teachers assuming these supervisory roles were established, departments of education could then require that such teachers meet new standards of instructional and supervisory skill. Education departments might require prospective master-teacher supervisors to meet these added qualifications by, say, acquiring a master’s degree in student-teaching supervision, with an emphasis on multiracial and multiethnic schools.

In any event, these proposals for paying master teachers appropriate compensation for the vital and irreplaceable service they render in educating future teachers would help develop more pedagogical practice’ aimed at the special needs of students in multiracial, multiethnic schools than are now in effect.

For one thing, the implementation of either plan would produce better trained and more knowledgeable supervisors of student teaching. The number of non-Ph.D. university supervisors would be sharply reduced. In addition, it would aid collaboration. At present, it is seldom possible for student teacher, master teacher, and university supervisor to meet as a triad to discuss the favorable and unsatisfactory parts of each lesson a student teacher conducts. With two student teachers in each classroom, this three-way encounter would become a regular feature of the university supervisor’s visit.

Above all, the master teacher and university supervisor, who would in either plan receive the same remuneration for their work, would be able for the first time to consider themselves equally important members of a team dedicated to improving the effectiveness of the pedagogy used with at-risk students. At present, the master-teacher supervisor often will defer to the university supervisor in determining the kinds of experiences student teachers should undergo. With the changes suggested, this decisionmaking would be a joint effort. The attitude of the master teacher, who would then become a full-fledged partner in this venture, would doubtless improve in ways that would facilitate the development of a superior program.

There is notable opposition to such plans of reform for student teaching, however. Proposals such as mine are rejected by university departments of education on traditional grounds. These departments oppose them because they would upset the superiority-inferiority relationships between master teachers and university supervisors that have prevailed over the years. To concede that a master-teacher supervisor contributes as much to the education of a teacher-to-be as a university supervisor does (and therefore should earn equal pay for this duty) would be a grievous loss of prestige for the latter party. It goes against the historical “pecking order” that is of such importance in the university.

Also working against the enactment of reform are the teachers’ unions. They consider any such addition to a master teacher’s salary to be merit pay. The assumption among unions in this regard is that all teachers with the same tenure and number of college credits should receive the same pay, regardless of their demonstrated ability to teach or the amount of extra work or effort they in vest during the school day. Extra pay for extra work-which reasonably describes the master-teacher supervisor’s functions, is apprised by the union as sim ply a different aspect of merit pay, and thus is judged as pernicious as any other kind.

The argument that university departments of education would decide on objective bases which master teachers would be given supervision-of-student-teacher pay does not budge the unions from their recalcitrant view that no teacher deserves anything more than a pittance for such work.

University departments of education and teachers’ unions give profuse lip service to the ideal of special preparation of teachers for urban schools. But they can justly be criticized for making few practical applications of their vocal pronouncements for student-teaching reform.

It is unlikely, therefore, that the changes needed to reform the education of teachers who work in multiracial, multiethnic schools will take place in one fell swoop. Instead, we would be wiser to hope that small increments of these improvements will come to pass on a consistent basis, l over an extended period of time. One of the most consequential of these small steps would be to provide master-teacher supervisors the monetary incentives to enlarge their instructional and supervisory skills, so that they could make a greater contribution than is now possible to conveying to teacher-candidates the special understandings, attitudes, and skills needed to successfully teach culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse populations of students.

Whatever type of rectification teachers and teacher educators try to make toward resolving the inner-city school crisis, it will be enhanced by student-teaching programs in which the master teachers involved have more than just their inner feelings of good will to infuse their interest or enthusiasms. To say that money does not (nor should not) act as a provocative stimulant to teachers’ sense of importance and well-being simply is to be naive. Teachers rarely go on strike for anything other than salary increases.

For this reason, significant payments to master teachers involved in student teaching may be the necessary spark needed to ensure the success of any reconstituting or renovation of the education given to at-risk students-and to the redesign and updating of the preparation of teachers for this new curriculum. The sooner university departments of education and teachers’ unions come to this realization the better.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 1991 edition of Education Week