Student Well-Being

Better Teacher-Candidate Mentoring Targeted

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 26, 2012 10 min read
Fourth grade teacher Andrea Coulter, and her student-teacher, Kelsey Frost, background, instruct students using a co-teaching method at Clearview Elementary School in Clear Lake, Minn.
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Summer Brewer’s first student-teaching experience taught her many things, all learned the hard way.

The teacher she was apprenticed to gave students worksheets for whole class periods and never got up from her desk. By Ms. Brewer’s fourth day, her mentor was spending most of her time in the teachers’ lounge.

“I was essentially a full-time teacher,” said Ms. Brewer, now a second-year high school English teacher in the Henderson County district, in Tennessee. “I’m not sure how [she] still gets student-teachers, unless the principal does it because he knows it’s the only way any teaching will get done.”

Ms. Brewer’s second student-teaching placement was, fortunately, far more productive. But her experience is illustrative of an unnerving truth about teacher preparation: All other training notwithstanding, the quality of the guidance and feedback from each candidate’s classroom mentor can make or break a teacher-candidate’s student-teaching experience.

With state and national policymakers eyeing ways to improve teacher preparation, a handful of education programs are becoming more intentional about how such “cooperating” teachers—as they’re known in the lingo of teacher preparation—are selected and trained. That interest could grow as programs wrestle with the finer points of how to transform student-teaching from a haphazard, sometimes hastily tacked-on experience to the central component of preparation.

The quandary of cooperating teachers is “an issue of qualifications, training, and support in the context of a strong partnership with a district,” said James G. Cibulka, the president of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which commissioned a 2010 report calling for programs to significantly expand and improve their student-teaching.

“Many programs have one or two of those things, but it’s relatively uncommon to find one with all three,” Mr. Cibulka said. “The challenge is really to make this the norm in the field, not perpetuate wide variability in the role mentor teachers play.”

Vetting Mentors

The challenges seem to begin with the selection of cooperating teachers, a process that is often left to districts. Principals typically nominate faculty members as cooperating teachers, or allow teachers themselves to volunteer for the job. And while that can attract the most enthusiastic individuals, it’s also an opportunity for those whose primary motivation is getting a break from the rigors of daily teaching.

There are other obstacles, too. For cooperating teachers, the rewards for taking on a teacher-candidate are generally paltry, and new teacher-related policies have added wrinkles: A nationwide push to make teacher evaluation more rigorous, sometimes using test scores as a factor, has made teachers hesitant to invite novices into their classrooms, educators say.


This is the first story in an occasional series about improving teacher preparation.

Still, some preparation programs have determined that leaving the choice of supervisors solely up to one party leaves far too much to chance. That’s the philosophy of the directors of the Denver Teacher Residency, a yearlong, hands-on preparation program that couples slimmed-down coursework requirements with a yearlong classroom apprenticeship.

“We have to provide our residents with the utmost set of experiences that will allow them to come out of the program and hit the ground running,” said Shannon Hagerman, the director of the residency program, a partnership between the school district and the University of Denver. “Part of the struggle we face is that if you haven’t had a solid set of experiences as you’ve been learning to teach, then you set yourself down a path where you’re always trying to fill or fix or change what you didn’t get earlier.”

Co-Teaching Model

Picking the best possible cooperating teachers is the first of the program’s strategies.

Although principal recommendations are still given careful consideration, the Denver residency’s staff conducts additional interviews to gauge the teachers’ ability to coach a novice. The program also looks at their teacher-evaluation ratings and ensures that they are clear about the time commitment and expectations for the job.

“It’s a big time commitment and a lot of energy, and some people look at it and say, ‘Gosh, this just isn’t the year for me,’ ” said Sarah Flanders, one of the field managers who supervises placement sites.

The program then conducts “speed dating” sessions so that candidates and their mentors can meet each other before being paired up.

The Denver residency also provides training for the mentors on how to provide feedback in a structured, coaching way. Increasingly, it is building monthly professional-development sessions for the cooperating teachers around the district’s teacher-evaluation system.

“We have our residents speaking the same language as the lead teachers,” Ms. Flanders said. “The magic is that the tool is not just about evaluations; the lead teachers see it as a professional-development tool.”

Co-Teaching Model

Other initiatives are focusing on ways to cement the relationship between cooperating teachers and their apprentices, ending the traditional “baton toss” in which student-teachers spend most of their time either observing, or as in Ms. Brewer’s experience, being left totally responsible for the classroom.

One such effort, co-teaching, has roots in another discipline altogether: special education.

Co-teaching, in which two educators share the responsibility for planning and delivering instruction, emerged during the push to educate students with disabilities in as inclusive a setting as possible. But it wasn’t until the teacher education program at St. Cloud State University, in St. Cloud, Minn., began to pilot it for student-teaching that the practice began to grow in popularity for preservice training.

Cooperating teachers and their charges who participate in co-teaching are trained in seven different ways of interacting, which differ depending on the grade level, content, or objective of the lesson.

Sometimes, for instance, they will teach the same lesson to different groups and compare notes later; or, the teacher-candidate will provide enrichment or remediation to a subset of students. At other times, the two educators teach a lesson in tandem. But the core feature is that both educators are actively engaged in planning and teaching, said Teresa Washut Heck, a professor of education at St. Cloud State, who has helped lead the co-teaching work there, with colleague Nancy Bacharach.

Kelsey Frost instructs 4th graders in teacher Andrea Coulter's class at Clearview Elementary School. Using a co-teaching model, Frost, a student at St. Cloud State University, is indistinguishable from other faculty members at the school. Her name is on the classroom door. She attends the elementary school’s faculty meetings, and plans each week’s lessons with Ms. Coulter, and with another 4th grade teacher.

Co-teaching has also helped raise the interest among skilled teachers who didn’t want to mentor candidates in the past because of the fear that they’d have to leave their classrooms, leading to an overall improvement in the quality of the cooperating teachers. “We believe the skills they possess and the attitudes they possess are much better than they were in the past,” Ms. Bacharach said.

Prior to using the co-teaching approach, Andrea Coulter, a veteran elementary teacher in the St. Cloud district, was told to exit the room when her candidate was supposed to be in charge of the classroom, something she said “just didn’t feel right.”

“All my expertise, money, and time was being wasted. It just became more of an ethics question for me,” said Ms. Coulter, recalling how she’d peek through the door to get a sense of what was going on with her students.

But under the co-teaching model, Ms. Coulter’s current student-teacher, Kelsey Frost, is indistinguishable from other faculty members at the school. Her name is on the classroom door, along with Ms. Coulter’s. She attends the elementary school’s faculty meetings and plans out each week’s lessons with Ms. Coulter, determining how best to share the classroom.

The two women attend co-teaching training at St. Cloud State together, building a relationship so that as Ms. Frost tries new ideas and techniques, Ms. Coulter can reinforce them, build on them, or step in, if necessary.

For Ms. Frost, the experience is markedly different from previous fieldwork, when she was expected to grade papers rather than take charge of a significant portion of instruction. For one, she said, students respond to her as a teacher with classroom authority, not as a guest.

“I’ve learned more in the last few weeks than in all of my years being in an education classroom,” Ms. Frost said. “We expect when candidates graduate that they are professionals and ready to teach. But if you want to have experienced first-year teachers, you need to give them an experience.”

Limited Access

Although all St. Cloud State teacher-candidates are trained in co-teaching, not every candidate at the university, which prepares about 400 teachers a year, practices it as part of his or her student-teaching. Ms. Heck said co-teaching declined somewhat after a $5 million federal investment, provided through a grant program in the Higher Education Act, dried up, hindering efforts to subsidize training for cooperating teachers. But the university is trying to re-energize the practice, with help from the Bush Foundation, of St. Paul, Minn.

St. Cloud State has also created an Academy for Co-Teaching and Collaboration to respond to great interest from other educators. Representatives of 160 other teacher colleges have participated in a two-day training workshop provided by Ms. Heck and Ms. Bacharach, the academy’s directors, on how to launch a program.

Observers say that the lack of coordination between districts and teacher-preparation programs also contributes to disparate selection and training of cooperating teachers.

“You have to build a program where schools want your students,” said Kathryn B. Chval, the associate dean of the University of Missouri’s education school, in Columbia. “Otherwise, I think it’s really hard.”

One of the University of Missouri’s initiatives to that end is to better link the support offered teacher-candidates with professional development for teachers in their first year—an unusual effort in a field where those two functions are generally separated. It works in a partnership with 22 districts called the Partnership for Educational Renewal. Membership is competitive, and there is a waiting list to join.

For those partners, MU offers a Teaching Fellowship Program. It pays for release time for a practicing classroom, or mentor, teacher, to support first-year teachers who take part in a special master’s degree program. The mentor teacher receives training through the university to coach and provide professional development within the school district. Typically, each mentor teacher spends about a third of her time supporting the fellows, and another third supporting the University of Missouri’s undergraduate teacher-candidates and their own cooperating teachers.

The district pays for the difference between the first-year teachers’ salaries and the cost of the master’s degree tuition, which essentially allows a participating school system to get two teachers for the price of one.

Partnerships Vital

Since the program began in 1995, more than 91 percent of the fellows have stayed in the district, and many of the fellows ultimately go on to serve as cooperating teachers for other undergraduates, Ms. Chval said.

The University of Missouri is also experimenting with other ideas in one low-income elementary school. Student-teachers there are placed in cohorts, teach four days each week, rather than the traditional three, engage in co-teaching, and have access to two of the master’s fellows.

And working in the partnership has also emboldened some of the participating districts to demand changes. At least one district, for instance, now asks for student-teachers who get a year in its schools, as all the University of Missouri’s elementary candidates do.

“If we’re going to do this on a national scale, you’ve got to think about coordination and working with district partners” to support both student-teachers and their mentors, said Ms. Chval. “It can’t be universities sending candidates out into these schools and hoping it all works out OK.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2012 edition of Education Week as Student-Teacher Mentoring Targeted


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