Professional Development Opinion

Response: Letting Student Teachers ‘Sink or Swim’ Is ‘Not Permissible’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 07, 2014 11 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

What are your suggestions for teachers who are supervising a student teacher, as well as for student teachers themselves?

In Part One of this series, we heard from Emily Geltz and Linda Rief, who co-authored their contribution (Emily was Linda’s student teacher two years ago); Carol Ann Tomlinson, Jessica Bennett and Jane Fung.

Today’s guest responses come from Michael Opitz and Michael Ford; PJ Caposey; Patty O’Grady; and Sally Zepeda.

I also had a interesting conversation with Emily and Linda on my ten-minute BAM! Radio Show that should be live sometime this week.

Response From Michael Opitz and Michael Ford

Michael Opitz is professor emeritus of reading education at the University of Northern Colorado and Michael Ford is chair of the Department of Literacy and Language at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Friends and colleagues for more than two decades, they began working together as a result of their common reading education interests and extensive work in the field. Opitz and Ford co-authored Engaging Minds in the Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy (ASCD, 2014):

As teacher educators for the past three decades, one piece of advice for teachers is to remember that student teaching is still part of the preparation program. Be careful not to assume and expect that a student teacher will share the knowledge base you have as a veteran teacher or even the knowledge base a beginning teacher will have after student teaching. No matter how good their coursework and field experiences have been, student teachers still have a lot to learn. Likewise, student teachers need to remember that they are still learning and should seize opportunities within and outside the classroom to learn as much as they can.

Co-teaching models, now utilized in many classrooms where professionals are collaborating, provide ways to structure experiences between cooperating and student teachers. A good starting point is the model one teaches, one observes. The key is making sure when a student teacher observes, the teacher provides a focus to the observation. This could be a focus on watching one student’s behavior or tallying which students interact. When the roles are reversed, the teacher should announce a focus to the observation so discussion afterwards can help the student teacher examine a specific behavior.

Another model is one teaches, one assists. This moves the student teacher into a more active role to support the instruction of the teacher. Again pre-planning and focusing on what assistance the student teacher will be providing will maximize the impact of the help being given and learned from. Reversing the roles eases the student teacher into the lead, but allows the teacher’s expertise to be available to support learners.

A third model is team teaching. For this to work, intentional planning is needed so each individual knows and has prepared their parts. It’s a great way to tap the expertise of both people and draw on each other’s strengths. Student teachers may be still learning, but they often have knowledge and skills from which cooperating teachers can benefit. For example, in introducing a common text for all students, both can share in frontloading of the lesson by trading off thinking prompts and individual reactions through think alouds. It allows for both to use choral reading and readers theater in introducing the first part of the book. Variation in written responses can be shown as both model the written response activity to guide students’ responses.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is Superintendent of Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois. PJ is an award-winning educator who has become a sought after speaker throughout the nation. Additionally, PJ has written two books in the past two years including Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders:

Any time that a teacher gets in front of the classroom they have the ability to positively or negatively impact the lives of a young people. This is an awesome opportunity, but also an awesome responsibility. The student teaching process, a process that places teachers in front of students with little or no experience, is one that carries that responsibility. The issue at hand, however, is that the cooperating or supervising teachers of the pre-service teachers with little or no experience have little (if any) training on how to be of support to their mentee. This, in my opinion, is a flaw in our current educational system - but without a comprehensive overhaul there are a few tips that cooperating teachers can abide by to best support the process.

Personal and professional growth opportunity:

Serving as a cooperating teacher is an awesome opportunity to grow personally and professionally. I encourage teachers to think of it as an organized and structured sabbatical. There will never be a better opportunity to do things that we know enhance growth such as observe other professionals teach, reflect upon your own practice, and become more familiar with cutting-edge research and innovative technologies. Additionally, the opportunity to coach another professional through their introductory teaching calls upon a different skill set and will force teachers to evaluate professional practice at a level that requires critical thought and focus that is uncommon once the ‘daily grind’ begins.

Mutual ownership of success:

A great moment in my professional growth occurred when someone stated that I would become a better leader if I communicated for people instead of simply to them. This mindset of communicating for someone else is an absolute must when serving as a cooperating teacher. The idea of giving them the opportunity to sink-or-swim is not permissible. This is our profession and we must have a mutual accountability for producing great teaching candidates. Great cooperating teachers feel responsibility towards the growth of those pre-service teachers with which they work. A doctor would not allow a resident to ‘sink-or-swim.’ Sure, they give autonomy, but also serve as a pedagogue since their job is so important. We must adopt the mindset that so are ours!

They never stop being your kids:

The role of a cooperating teacher is to support the growth of the pre-service teacher. That being said - they never stop being your kids in that classroom and at the end of the day they are without a doubt your primary responsibility. Handing over the reins of the classroom and day-to-day operations is different than abdicating responsibility. Great cooperating teachers allow for student teachers to fail and grow - but still see the growth of their students as a non-negotiable.

Response From Sally Zepeda

Sally J. Zepeda is a professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration, and Policy at the University of Georgia (Athens) where she teaches courses related to teacher and leader professional development and instructional leadership. She also works extensively with the Clarke County School District to support teacher and leader quality, assisting more specifically with the design and development of a teacher evaluation system. To learn more about classroom observations see her book, Informal Classrooms on the Go: Feedback, Discussion, and Reflection (3rd ed.):

When I think back to my days of student teaching, three words pop up: Uncertainty, Fear, and Wonderment. Similarly, when I reflect back to the first time I worked with a student teacher, three words pop up: Uncertainty, Socialize, and Support. I worked with my first student teacher when I was a fourth-year teacher.

To my colleagues who will be working with student teachers this year, find the wonderment of working with our newest generation of teachers. Build a relationship that can endure for the remainder of your careers. One of the ways in which a supervising teacher can support student teachers (or whatever word is in vogue today) is by conducting formal and informal classroom observations that include time for conferencing: a pre-observation conference, a classroom observation, and the post-observation conference. I refer to this as the POP Cycle. Teachers, especially new ones, need feedback that supports growth and development. Feedback needs to be adjusted to the developmental level of the teacher you are supervising. It is through the interchange of classroom observations and the conversations that occur afterward that the novice will begin to make sense of teaching and learning.

By conducting classroom observations, a certain type of socialization is occurring--that it is ok to get feedback, to openly discuss teaching practices, and to reinforce the idea that teaching is a life-long process of becoming better. Think of the powerful modeling that can occur if the supervising teacher switched places, having the student teacher conduct a targeted classroom observation. Imagine the rich conversation.

Every time a supervising teacher conducts a classroom observation, she/he learns along with the student teacher. We call this reciprocal learning fortified by using scripted notes of the events of the classroom to frame the conversation (what instructional strategies were used and why?, the types and levels of questions asked of students, or the way in which the teacher interacts with students). All of these are areas that newcomers need support to get to more refined topics related to teaching, learning, and students.

A student teacher or teaching intern can benefit from targeted classroom observations and the conversations. Be open to classroom observations and subsequent conversations. Sometimes feedback can feel awkward. In reality, feedback is the breakfast of champions and can serve as a source of motivation.

Response From Patty O’Grady

Patty O’Grady’s work in the field of education and psychology spans 30 years and has included classroom teaching in both K-12 general and special education, as well as higher education, where she is currently on the faculty at the University of Tampa. She writes a blog about positive psychology in education for Psychology Today and is author of Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom (W. W. Norton; 2013):

Quality supervision is an interpersonal and intrapersonal process intended to guide the student teacher through structured self-reflection, self-evaluation, and self-improvement. Some supervisors adopt a coaching model using explicit instruction. Others deploy a mentoring model using implicit advising. I propose an engagement model that identifies, analyzes, and activates 5 specific types of emotional strengths; the same framework can also be applied to assessment of cognitive strengths such as creativity and organization.

The engagement model of student-teacher supervision is derived from Clifton’s Strengths 2.0 (2007) research and adapted from the Virtues Project. Supervisors should know that if a person focuses on her strengths, she is six times more likely to be engaged; and if an authority figure focuses on that person’s weaknesses, she is 27% more likely to disengage; and if an authority figure ignores that person, the statistic increases to 40% disengagement.

The guiding question in the engagement model of student teacher supervision is: What are your emotional strengths and how can you use them to improve your teaching?

  1. Core or Signature Strength: What is your ‘go-to’ cognitive or emotional strength? Do you deploy it automatically and fluently? How can you use it to improve? If your strength is persistence, can you thoroughly research a better strategy?
  2. Sustaining Strength: What strength is your greatest asset? Do you know why it is a sustaining strength? Are you aware of using it and can you deploy it more often or more effectively?
  3. Survival Strength: What strength do you use most in your current position? Is that strength stable or dynamic? What happens if you don’t cultivate it?
  4. Guiding Strength: What strength do you need to accomplish your next goal? How can adding this strength advance your teaching?
  5. Challenge Strength: What strength do you lack? What is your plan to acquire and employ it? How will you deliberatively practice it?

Thanks to Michal, Michael, PJ, Patty and Sally for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ thoughts in Part Three.

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