A Month in the Life of a Prospective Teacher: 'I Feel Called To Do It'

Teaching Our Teachers

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The students fidget in their seats as the professor lectures about how to work with clay. Several times, he stops speaking until the noise level recedes.

"He talks too much," whispers Joyce Potochney, who, in less than a year, will be a teacher herself.

Ms. Potochney and the other prospective elementary teachers in this undergraduate class are receiving one of countless, unwitting lessons about teaching.

It is one of many they will receive--both on campus and off--before their teacher-education program is completed.

The 30-year-old Ms. Potochney is a student at Towson State University. The largest producer of teachers in Maryland, Towson graduates about 500 teachers a year.

There are more than 1,200 teacher-training programs like Towson's nationwide, housed in everything from small religious colleges to large public universities. None can be called "typical."

Each is shaped to a remarkable degree by state rules and regulations, the characteristics of the larger college or university, and the size and talents of its student body.

But it is probably safe to say that Towson resides firmly in the mainstream.

What follows is a brief description of Ms. Potochney's training, as observed over the course of a month spent on the Towson campus, in order to provide a personal glimpse of teacher education today.

A transfer student, Ms. Potochney is in the first semester of her senior year. In addition to her "Art and the Child" class, her required education courses this semester are "Teaching Reading in the Elementary School," "Teaching Music in the Elementary School," "Foundations in Education," and "The Child and the Elementary Curriculum."

To receive her diploma, she has also had to take and pass a state-required media-competency test that proves she can make photocopies, dittos, and transparencies; operate a video-cassette recorder; and run an overhead projector.

Next semester, Ms. Potochney will spend most of her time student teaching. When she is through--assuming that she passes the National Teacher Examinations and all of her courses--she will be on her own: a brand-new teacher, responsible for anywhere from 25 to 35 students.

The First Interview

A native of Joppa, Md., located northeast of Baltimore, Ms. Potochney is one of three children--and the first in her family to attend college.

Neither of her parents is a college graduate. Her mother quit school at age 15 to marry her father, who spent most of his life working in the coal-chemicals division of Bethlehem Steel.

For as long as she can remember, Ms. Potochney has wanted to teach.

"I can remember as a young child, playing with a blackboard and wanting to be the teacher," she recalls. "I never wanted to be the student. The other kids would get mad at me, because I was too bossy."

Shortly before graduating from highschool, the 17-year-old thought about going to college to earn her teaching degree. "But when I graduated in 1978, there was an oversupply of teachers," she says, "and I was told by my guidance counselors that it would be foolish to go into education, because teachers could not get a job."

Unable to do what she wanted, Ms. Potochney worked as a secretary in a dental office, then as a clerk-typist for an insurance company, and eventually as a claims-examiner for the same firm.

When her father died suddenly at age 55, she decided to take stock of her life. "It was a turning point," she says. "I decided life's short; you've got to be happy."

"And then I heard on the news that they were going to need teachers," she recalls, "because they had turned people away from the profession in the 70's and early 80's, and so many teachers with tenure were coming up on retirement."

With her husband's support, Ms. Potochney took a deep breath and headed back into the classroom, first as a student at Harford Community College and then, in 1989, as a junior at Towson State.

Towson is a regional state university, the sort of institution that produces the bulk of the nation's teachers.

Begun in 1866 as the state's first normal school, dedicated to the preparation of elementary teachers, the name of the institution was officially changed to the Maryland State Teachers College at Towson in 1935.

In 1946, an arts-and-sciences program was introduced. And in 1963, the name of the school was changed to Towson State College to reflect its broader offerings. In 1976, the state legislature authorized a name change to Towson State University.

Today, only 10 percent of the university's approximately 15,000 undergraduates are preparing to teach. Most of those come from the immediate area and plan to stay and teach there.

Approximately two-thirds are commuters like Ms. Potochney; more than half work while attending college.

For most, their education-school experience begins in their junior year, when they first enroll in the mix of education courses required for graduation and state certification.

Ms. Potochney is an honors student and a member of Kappa Delta Phi, the national honors society for prospective educators. But she is well aware of the image that teaching conveys.

"People assume that because you're a teacher-education student, you can't do anything else," she complains. "And that isn't true."

"I'm an honors student," she says. "I'm a member of the honors society for education. It's not because I'm blocked out of all these other professions that I'm choosing to do this. It's because I feel called to do it."

Until last year, most of her courses were in the college of arts and sciences, side-by-side with non-education majors. "We have to make it or break it with every other major," she says. "I'm an honors student not just in my education courses, but in every other course I've taken: science, math, English, history."

Nonetheless, while her friends did not discourage her from becoming a teacher, neither were they enthusiastic. "It's not that they think education is bad," she says. "Most of them have children. I think a lot of my friends realize that teaching just doesn't have a very good image at this point."

Wednesday, Oct. 3

At 9 A.M. on a brisk fall morning, Ms. Potochney heads for her first class, "Foundations in Education," which she refers to as "everything you wanted to know about education but were afraid to ask."

The required course is the only introduction that most prospective teachers here will get to the history, philosophy, and sociology of education. Its curriculum reflects that broad mandate.

Governing and administering public education is covered in a day. School finance takes a day; so does the legal aspects of schooling. Issues of social class, race, school achievement, and equal educational opportunity are covered in a week.

One class each is devoted to such philosophical ideas as "realism," "experimentalism," "existentialism," and John Dewey's book Experience and Education.

To date, Ms. Potochney says, she has learned about the two national teachers' unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers; the status of teachers; alternative certification, which she terms a "danger to the professional teacher"; and the pros and cons of merit pay.

Today's class examines the governance and administration of the public schools. But the professor begins by wrapping up a discussion from last week on whether teaching meets the criteria for a true profession.

One criterion for a profession, says the professor, Michael H. Jessup, is the acceptance of broad personal responsibility for any judgments made.

"Is this true of teaching?" he asks. "If Johnny can't read, who is responsible?"

"Someone else," pipes up one student. Teachers are responsible for not passing along to the next grade students who do not know the material, contends another, even if pupils have to repeat the course.

What about the trend in Massachusetts and elsewhere not to retain children? Mr. Jessup asks. "I don't think that's right," another student says, and the debate moves on.

After class, Ms. Potochney notes that most of her peers think passing a student on to the next grade who is having academic difficulty is ''poor practice"--even though research now shows the negative effects of retention far outweigh its benefits.

Asked if her courses force her to take a stand on such issues as grade retention or student tracking, Ms. Potochney says "no."

"I think mostly it's, 'Here it is. Here's what one side says. Here's what the other side says,"' she observes. "It's, more or less, this is an issue you're going to be faced with, you'd better think about it."

"Not that you can do anything about it," she adds. "As a teacher, you don't have much control."

Back in the classroom, when Mr. Jessup asks whether there is a code of ethics for teachers, the room falls silent. "I've never heard of it," one student says.

"Aren't there different codes of ethics for elementary- and secondary-school teachers?" asks another.

"We will, when it gets to values, talk about ethics in teaching," Mr. Jessup assures them.

Soon after, the class breaks into small groups to answer questions from the book about the governance of public education. A question about which level of government--federal, state, or local--is responsible for various rules and programs appears to have them stymied.

"What do they do?" asks one student about the role of the federal government. "They make all these reports that tell us what's wrong with education," says another.

"They declare the public schools," says a third. "That's a law by the federal government." Concludes a fourth: "Government doesn't do shit."

Mr. Jessup wanders from one group to another, listening to the discussions and occasionally posing a question. Although the students are engaged, many appear just as confused at the end of the lesson as they were at the beginning.

According to Mr. Jessup, the amount of material covered in the "Foundations" course could easily consume four semesters. "We do it in one," he says, "or try to."

"The point," he continues, "is what do they need to know? What are they going to remember? ... I'd be just as happy if my students walked out asking some questions about some of these things and thinking about them. Not so much that they know a lot about finance, but that they have questions about finance."

The problem of cramming too much content into too little time is one faced by virtually every teacher educator on campus, according to James B. Binko, dean of the college of education.

"If we tried to cover everything that we needed to cover to put somebody into the classroom as a solid novice--as a solid beginning teacher--we probably couldn't," he asserts. "And so, in some cases, bluntly, to meet external requirements for accreditation and state approval, we simply build something as a module into a course and teach it that day in order to be able to show that we did it."

In other instances, he contends, instructors motivated to do as much as they can for students organize a curriculum "that is so tight and full it's overwhelming, and still admit, 'I didn't get it all done."'

From "Foundations," Ms. Potochney heads downstairs to her next class, on "Teaching Reading in the Elementary School." A sign on the door lets students know that the teacher is sick. They are supposed to use the time to work on an assignment.

Ms. Potochney appears relieved. "This semester is a real killer," she explains, "because not only are we in school, but we have lesson plans to do, and four classes. We're like zombies."

During the week, she spends at least three hours a night on homework. Most weekends, she makes a large pot of coffee and sits at the dining-room table for six or seven hours, trying to stay on track. "I'm usually home in the evenings," she jokes. "I don't do much but study."

In fact, she maintains, her work in professional education has been more, not less, rigorous than her preparation in the arts and sciences--a view shared by teacher-education students nationwide in a recent survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

"It's not as much book learning," explains Ms. Potochney, referring to her education courses. "For me, the methods courses stretch me more."

While arts-and-sciences courses emphasize memorizing and regurgitating what is in the textbooks, she says, "education courses require you to analyze and apply what you've learned."

But she admits that some of her assignments--ranging from doling out alphabet cereal into individual bags to help students learn about vowels to making posters to accompany lesson plans--could be construed as busywork.

"It's very time-consuming," she sighs.

The other professional-education courses that Ms. Potochney has taken so far are: "Children's Literature," "Writing and Communications Skills for Teachers," "Teaching Math in the Elementary School," "Field Studies in Elementary Teaching," "Educational Tests and Measurements," "Introduction to Special Education," and "Life Sciences for the Elementary Teacher."

She also took two electives, educational psychology and an introduction to education, while at Harford Community College.

"Teaching Music in the Elementary School," the class she is headed to next, is not one of her favorites. "A lot of it's kind of disjointed," she notes, adding that it often feels a bit ridiculous.

"You learn play and clap," Ms. Potochney says. "You pat your knees and then clap and then get up and dance around. The other day, we had to learn an Egyptian dance."

According to Ms. Potochney's instructor, Jeanne R. Knorr, the course is designed to give students a broad introduction to basic musical concepts and practical classroom techniques.

"My broad goal would be to encourage the students to utilize music within the classroom," she explains, "because many of them come into the course feeling inadequate in that area."

"I have students coming in who do not have a music-fundamentals background," she continues. "They don't feel comfortable in matching pitches. ... It's hard enough for most of the students to understand concepts of melodic contour, or the direction and difference between melodies that use stepwise and skipwise progression, unless I use very, very elementary kinds of songs."

On any given day, students might play musical instruments, sing, move to music, or work on lesson plans that incorporate music into a social-studies course. In addition, Ms. Knorr says, she tries to use materials that would be readily accessible in most public schools. "I try to make it as practical as possible," she asserts.

The class itself takes place in the Lida Lee Tall Learning Resources Center on campus. An independent state agency that reports directly to the governor and the state legislature, the elementary school is used by Towson and other higher-education institutions to help train prospective educators.

The back of the resources center faces Hawkins Hall, where most of the education classes take place.

Students file in and take their seats at tiny chairs, better-suited to 6-year-old bodies. Today, they are having a test. But they begin by singing a song to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" that involves holding pieces of red paper in the air at song's end. Then they review the terminology used to teach young children about rhythm: Ti, Ti, Ta, Ta, the class chants.

Shortly before class, a group of students congregates outside the building, where they chat casually about their professors. One education professor "had a terrible way of explaining things," recalls one student, "but he was real nice." Another professor "never says hello.''

A third is more like a high-school instructor. "It's so easy it's ridiculous," says the student. "We get out early every day."

"I don't like easy classes," Ms. Potochney complains. "You figure you're paying all this money, I want something that I can use."

In general, she adds, "You can tell the difference between an education professor who used to be a teacher, and the other professors who've never learned a thing about how to teach." The former are usually better, she says.

Although lectures predominate in all of her classes, Ms. Potochney continues, in the education courses, professors also model what they teach, provide opportunities for students to work together, and supply lots of practical examples.

Unknown to Ms. Potochney, the college of education's philosophy is to create teachers who help students engage in active, rather than passive, learning.

The education faculty adopted the theme in September in response to a new requirement of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which mandates that programs be built around an identifiable philosophy and body of research.

The theme is now being woven throughout the education school. As part of that effort, faculty members in teacher education have been asked to provide to their colleagues campuswide demonstration lessons on how they engage students in active learning.

But when Ms. Potochney is asked what kind of teacher Towson hopes to produce, the phrase "active learner" never comes up.

"I think someone who takes care of the whole child," she says. "An intelligent, caring teacher." Someone who can present the same lesson several ways, until the student understands it, she adds.

Thursday, Oct. 18

On Thursdays, Ms. Potochney usually begins her day with "The Child and the Elementary School Curriculum." But today, that class is meeting in the college of education's computer laboratory, to learn more about how to evaluate computer software for schools.

They are given a set of criteria and a form for evaluating educational software; they are then asked to judge several programs of their choosing.

The form asks them to look for such criteria as whether the directions are clear; whether the exercises mirror good classroom instruction; whether the screens present information in a consistent and self-explanatory manner; and whether the built-in "help libraries" are intelligible to students.

After reviewing such basic information as how to turn the computers on and off and install the floppy disks--information that many of the students, including Ms. Potochney, appear not to know--the students are on their own.

While the evaluation criteria appear serious, the programs the class is given to evaluate do not. Most consist of games that help students learn how to use the machine or identify things in a picture that are out of place--like a monkey on a farm.

"That's cute," comments Ms. Potochney about several of the programs. But it is clear she will have to come back to find a software program that she can use to complete the assignment.

According to her professor, Elizabeth A. McAllister, the dubious quality of many of the programs is the whole point of the exercise. "That's what I wanted them to see," she says. "Publishers can sell a lot of attractive-looking things to teachers if they don't know what to look for. The purpose was to get them to ask: 'Is this really a good teaching tool or is it reinforcement in game format?"'

At 10 A.M., Ms. Potochney leaves Hawkins Hall for the fine-arts building, where her course, "Art and the Child," is held.

Today, the professor is instructing the students in how to work with clay. As in most of Ms. Potochney's classes, the students are overwhelmingly white and female. Most are young.

As the professor lectures and demonstrates, he gives them pieces of plasticene to play with at their seats. The students' attention drifts in and out; most look bored. Some are visibly trying to stay awake by supporting their heads in their hands.

The instructor refers to the students periodically as "you education people." The lecture is almost wholely practical: How do you mold clay? Pinch it? Keep it pliable enough to work with?

Their assignment will be to construct a clay figure that uses the three principal techniques for modeling clay.

According to the professor, his primary concern is to instill a "little bit of interest" in art among students of varying backgrounds. "A lot of these kids come to me with no experiences at all," he explains. "If they can become comfortable in handling these materials, that's the whole thing. Then, they'll do it in the classroom."

"I'm sure many times I could be replaced by a 'how to' book," he adds. "But then, that 'how to' book doesn't really do the job. It's mainly trying to give them encouragement."

Thursday, Oct. 25

Ms. Potochney was up until 3:45 A.M. last night typing a paper and finishing her clay assignment. She walks into "The Child and the Elementary Curriculum" weary and a little bleary-eyed.

The lesson today is about classroom management and focuses primarily on Madeline Hunter, a controversial educator whom the teacher refers to as "a guru in education."

Ms. Hunter's system for managing student behavior is "so logical," says the professor, Ms. McAllister, "you wonder why we even have problems in the schools."

There is no reference to recent criticisms of Ms. Hunter's work, or to what some see as its overly rigid application in many districts.

According to Ms. McAllister, she purposefully avoids discussing the pros and cons of Ms. Hunter's ideas with the students "because I don't want to confuse them."

Students spend most of the lesson watching a videotape of Ms. Hunter lecturing about her approaches.

Before the tape starts, Ms. McAllister warns her students, "You need to right now start developing what style of discipline techniques you are comfortable with."

As part of the class, students spend one day a week in the field, working with a supervising teacher. Several discuss their teachers' use of "assertive discipline": a popular behavior-modification technique used widely throughout the Baltimore area.

Ms. McAllister expresses her general support for assertive discipline and refrains from commenting on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of what various classroom teachers are doing. She notes that most of the students will probably have to use the technique if they teach nearby.

During the class, Ms. McAllister tells her students: "I am trying very hard to give you the reality of what's out there. ... It's a combat zone out there, and I'll try to arm you well."

"We need to desensitize you," she says at another point, when a student mentions that one of the children in her 3rd-grade class recently bought live bullet casings to school to show his friends.

Ms. Potochney has nothing but praise for Ms. McAllister, who also teaches her class on "Teaching Reading in the Elementary School."

Ms. McAllister, who still supervises students in the field, is good because she's "so relevant," Ms. Potochney says. "She's full of ideas. She knows her stuff." She has lots of "helpful hints."

And, indeed, Ms. McAllister sees herself as a purveyor of the practical. "I think these students need to go out armed with 'Here's how you can do it, and here's what needs to be done,"' she says. "As they grow and become mature teachers, they can develop their own theories."

"I try to stay very, very application-oriented with them," she continues. "They can try anything they want to when they get their jobs. But at least, they're going to go in with a big bag of tricks."

From the curriculum class, Ms. Potochney goes on to art class, where students turn in their clay projects and receive another lecture on how to construct murals.

At one point, the professor volunteers to let students redo their homework because many of the clay pieces are so poor that he would prefer not to grade them. He holds up several as examples.

"I wish he'd give us a little more credit," sighs a student.

"Sometimes I feel I don't talk enough," says the professor, in reaction to a comment that many students think he lectures too much. "If you don't talk about it, how are they going to understand?"

He adds: "I had those kinds of experiences, too. Even the people that taught me were the same way."

Monday, Oct. 29

In "Foundations," the class is finishing a discussion from last week on the role of heredity versus environment in shaping a student's abilities, and the implications for classroom teachers.

One student complains, "If you treat every kid as an individual, you have to have 30 different lesson plans." How can a teacher do it? she asks.

"You're probably going to individualize by groups," Mr. Jessup warns. Teachers do not have the time and the talent to individualize instruction for everybody, he explains.

Several students continue to insist that they would prefer a homogeneous class of students who are "all at the same level"--a mythical concept that few have learned does not exist.

After the discussion winds up, students break into small groups to talk about why compensatory education is an important national issue, a topic covered in this week's reading assignment.

But it is soon obvious that most students do not know how Chapter 1--the federal compensatory-education program--works. They think the program benefits only low-income students.

They believe it involves some kind of enrichment activity. And several question whether it is fair for such activities to be limited to poor children. Won't other students feel bad when they don't get such special attention? they ask.

After class, Ms. Potochney mentions that the textbook had a couple of paragraphs about Chapter 1, but not much.

Nonetheless, she explains, most prospective elementary teachers know about the program from their other courses.

It is the prospective high-school teachers, who major in the subject they plan to teach and take fewer education classes, who are unfamiliar with Chapter 1, she asserts.

Ms. Potochney says she has mixed feelings about requiring prospective elementary teachers to major in an academic subject and then complete a fifth year of professional study before they can receive a teaching certificate--ideas that are now being debated in Maryland and elsewhere.

If it just means extra academic work, that's O.K., she states. But if it means fewer education courses, or delaying those courses until the fifth year of preparation, "I'm against it."

"I just don't think I would be as prepared or knowledgeable if they took all those education-methods courses and tried to cram them into a fifth year," she explains. And if prospective elementary teachers were allowed to major in whatever academic subject they wanted, she says, "I think that would be detrimental to the profession."

Ms. Potochney's own preparation in the arts and sciences is limited to the general-education courses required of all Harford Community College and Towson graduates--a series of electives from which students can choose within such broad domains as the humanities or the natural and mathematical sciences.

In addition, each elementary-education major must take three or four courses within one of the domains that go beyond the general-education requirements.

Ms. Potochney's selection has included physical education, English composition, speech fundamentals, U.S. history I and II, world literature I and II, earth sciences, concepts in math I, physical geography, psychology, contemporary health issues, an inction to sociology, English composition and research writing, physical science (including a laboratory), concepts in math II, the fundamentals of biology, a survey of Jewish history, cultural anthropology, introduction to philosophy, and bowling.

She has had few upper-level courses in any field.

According to Dean Binko, the "willy nilly" nature of the general-education curriculum is an issue that effects all undergraduates, not just prospective teachers.

"The general-education requirements here at Towson are, in part, a legacy of the 60's and the 70's, when institutions bent over backward not to be terribly prescriptive," he says. "Kind of: take a little of this, a little of that." Now, the provost has acknowledged, the requirements bear reconsidering.

In "Reading," the class is starting to learn about reading in the content areas. Ms. McAllister explains the problems that children run into when they are required to learn technical vocabulary that is not part of daily, spoken language, such as "photosynthesis."

She cautions that most expository writing in such academic subjects as history and biology is crammed with facts and information and difficult for children to comprehend.

Her goal, over the next few weeks, will be to help students bridge the gap between what children know and these more abstract materials.

She refers to "semantic webbing," a method for assessing what students already know about a subject, and "graphic organizers," visual techniques for helping students summarize what they have read, as two of the most helpful tools for providing instruction in the content fields.

At one point, Ms. McAllister mentions a teacher she observed in school who was using a textbook with students that the teacher had not yet read. "I just felt very sad," she comments. "What a waste."

But, she adds, "I bit my tongue," because as a representative of Towson State University, she had no right to tell a teacher what to do in her classroom.

In music, the students are learning about "tone sets"--a group of two to four notes used to help children match pitches.

The students practice by playing several songs with simple melodic patterns on instruments and bells, including "Humpty Dumpty" and "Rain, Rain Go Away."

Earlier in the class, they used similar nursery rhymes to review the use of hand signs that accompany every pitch of the musical scale and that are designed to help children feel the spatial relationship between pitches: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.

At the end of the class, several students stay behind to practice using white fabric scarves to illustrate to children the concept of "melodic contour," or the general shape of a melody. As the melody ascends the scale, the scarves fly up in the air. As the melody descends, the students bring them down to the ground.

Asked her opinion of such skills-oriented demonstrations, Ms. Potochney says: "Oh, that's cute. Kids would eat that up."

Tuesday, Oct. 30

Today, Ms. Potochney is visiting Victory Villa Elementary School in Middle River, Md., where she spends one day a week observing and working with a 3rd-grade teacher as part of "The Child and the Elementary Curriculum."

Ms. Potochney is assigned to one teacher in the school, Kathleen A. Dengler, who has been working with Towson State students from the curriculum course for four years.

Before Ms. Potochney appeared at her doorstep, Ms. Dengler says, "I got a name and that's it."

Shortly beforehand, Professor McAllister had been given the names of four schools in which she could place students from the curriculum class.

"I try to place them closest to where they live," she says, "but it's all random. It's the luck of the draw." Sometimes, she does not know the names of the supervising teachers until a few days before the semester begins.

Teacher and student have never met, never interviewed each other for compatibility. But Ms. Dengler says all the students she has worked with from Towson have been "really good."

"I've been lucky," she comments. "Not everyone has had such a nice experience."

On most days, Ms. Potochney will teach three lessons to the class and observe and assist during the rest of the day.

Today is a little unusual, because, as one of her assignments, Ms. Potochney has been asked to observe one of the other Towson State students in the building and then critique her performance--a technique known as "peer coaching."

Although Ms. Potochney is one of five Towson students at Victory Villa for the semester, she has never observed another student's class, or, for that matter, another student's supervising teacher.

Back on campus, students say they rarely--if ever--see videotapes of exemplary teachers, meet with classroom practitioners, or engage in laboratory experiences that simulate real-world situations.

If the Towson students at Victory Villa meet at all, it is through informal greetings and conversations snatched passing in the halls.

Ms. Potochney, who usually appears on campus clad in jeans, a flannel shirt, and a sweatshirt, today is wearing a grey corduroy skirt, a white turtleneck, a light blue sweater, and nylons.

In front of the class of 27 children, she is gaining confidence. After her first day at the school, Ms. Potochney went home and cried for hours. "I went home and wrote in my journal, 'Am I crazy? Do I really want to become a teacher?"' she recalls.

Today, she notes, "The children like me. They were all excited to see me, which was the first time. ... That was pretty neat."

Such experience, she maintains, is invaluable. "The only way to get to be a teacher is to get in there and get experience. You really can't get that from a book."

That perception is shared by many Towson students. "Your training really starts when you get in the classroom," one student notes during a discussion in "Foundations." Several have said they would like to spend more time in the schools.

Ms. Dengler is good, Ms. Potochney argues, because she is patient and experienced with children.

The 3rd-grade teacher keeps the classroom moving at a lively pace. In general, the children appear engaged. There is a lot of positive reinforcement and opportunities to work with youngsters individually. Compared with Ms. Potochney's still halting, less relaxed instruction, the class functions like a well-oiled machine.

As the day proceeds, Ms. Dengler and Ms. Potochney chat during lunch or recess. The only scheduled time for the older teacher to give the younger one advice or feedback occurs during a 40-minute planning period, when the children are at the library.

Both adults leave shortly after the bell rings. Opportunities for reflection and discussion are minimal. Sometimes, they talk on the phone during the week.

Ms. Dengler says she tries to talk with the college student about what she is learning on campus. "I'd like to see her use some things that she's been talking about in her theory courses," she asserts.

But Ms. Potochney says she feels uncomfortable asking for permission to experiment with innovative teaching techniques.

"It's not your classroom," she explains, "so really a lot of the neat things that I learn on campus I don't feel that I can go into her classroom and take over that much time to do. She has a lot of things that she has to get done, too. She might be willing if I asked, but I feel it's an imposition on her time."

Other students' experiences have been less positive than Ms. Potochney's. One fellow student has a supervising teacher who advises him not to go into teaching. Another says her supervisor leaves the room when she teaches. "It was horrible," recalls one student about her classroom experiences. "I learned everything about what not to do."

"Some of you are in situations where you wonder if there's a lot of learning going on," Ms. McAllister comments at one point during the curriculum class. "I've heard you speak."

Creating better field placements for Towson students is a perennial--and delicate--problem. Each semester, the university discharges approximately 1,200 to 1,300 students into the surrounding school districts for clinical experiences. Most supervising teachers receive $150 or less for their time and minimal, if any, training.

"Being objective ... if I'm over in school system X, and I have this flood of students," Dean Binko says, "I'm going to be hard-pressed in every case to find a supervising teacher who is highly willing, motivated, skilled, and accepts this student enthusiastically. And when we find them, it's easy to overuse them, semester after semester after semester."

"I think we're fortunate to get as many good teachers as we do," he says.

Ms. McAllister says that she cautions Towson students not to make judgments about their supervising teachers. "They are guests in their classrooms, and they're not going to be able to go in and make any demands," she says. "I tell them, 'Anything that you disapprove of, you just sit on it. Because someday you will have your own classroom, and you can do what you want.' It's really a very sensitive thing."

Nonetheless, Ms. Potochney says, she feels sorry for prospective high-school teachers, who receive far less field experience than she does.

By the time they begin student teaching, most future elementary teachers at Towson have completed about 220 hours of school-based observations and fieldwork. Most prospective high-school teachers have completed half that amount, because of the greater constraints on their time.

At least she has been eased into teaching gradually, Ms. Potochney notes--beginning with observations in her junior year, proceeding to one day a week of field experiences in the first semester of her senior year, and culminating in student teaching.

Eventually, she would like to teach in her hometown or in a nearby school district. Like most prospective teachers, she would prefer not to work in an urban area.

"I didn't grow up in the city," she notes. "I really haven't seen enough of it. But from the limited amount I've seen, and from what I've heard, they just don't have the supplies, the books; the staffing is not there. So you end up doing a lot of extra duties. The salaries and benefits aren't as good."

"It's not the kids," she adds quickly. "They're wonderful."

Monday, Nov. 5

Today, the "Foundations" class is discussing the book The Saber-Toothed Curriculum by J. Abner Peddiwell. The slim 1939 volume describes the development of a mythical curriculum in prehistoric time, to illustrate why school reforms so often fail.

The conversation sometimes meanders. Several times, the professor answers his own questions.

At one point, he mentions the currently popular notion of teachers as leaders of their schools. But, he cautions, "That's not what the general public expects. They expect teachers to be the followers; perhaps now even more so, with all the criticisms of education."

In "Reading," the class focuses on the use of tables, graphs, diagrams, and maps to help students learn.

Ms. McAllister frequently models the kinds of teaching she would like to see, by posing questions about the material that would be appropriate for young children or throwing out suggestions for how to structure a lesson.

In "Music," the students are observing a teacher at the learning-resources center conduct a 1st-grade class. They have been instructed to take notes on the kinds of activities and skills they observe, on how the teacher achieves rapport with the children, and on the goals and objectives of the lesson. They are also supposed to observe one child more closely than the rest.

The students will see the same group of children next week, when they will have a chance to work with one or two of them individually and try out what they have learned.

If she can, Ms. Potochney says, she would like to stay in teaching forever, "but I think it's too early to say."

"Right now, as a novice," she adds, "I really don't know what it's like day after day."

"If I found ... that I wasn't relating to the children, and I was getting what they call 'burned out,"' she cautions, "I think I would leave because of the children. The children would lose out, and they're what's important."

The Final Interview

"At the beginning of the semester," Ms. Potochney says, "I did not feel ready to teach, because I didn't have a lot of experience up in front of the classroom."

Now, she comments, "I've been teaching the kids this semester. And I've been alone with the kids. ... It's hard, but you can do it."

Asked if she will be ready to take on a class of her own next fall, she answers: "I think I'll be O.K. I think I'll be good."

From both Harford Community College and Towson, she adds, "I think I've received a very good education. And I'm very happy that I was able to go to college at this age and do what I want."

"From everything that I read in the Kappan and all the other education publications," she observes, "it seems like my education has been right in the mainstream of what education is working toward."

Vol. 10, Issue 15, Page 11

Published in Print: December 12, 1990, as A Month in the Life of a Prospective Teacher: 'I Feel Called To Do It'
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