I took the leap in the fall of 2010. With six years of experience as a teacher, I agreed to partner with a local university (my alma mater, as it happened) to mentor my first student teacher.
She joined my 6th grade language arts classroom for one day a week throughout the fall semester and participated full-time in the spring.
While I had experience mentoring others and collaborating with colleagues, I found the role of “cooperating teacher” to be quite different. I knew it was my responsibility to create a transparent environment where my student teacher could practice and develop the instincts necessary for effective teaching. Yet, I found myself creating my own path and, admittedly, stumbling a bit as I went—never quite sure whether I was making the best choices.
My student teacher’s range and depth of engagement over the year really helped both of us to grow as professionals. But, reflecting on our time together, I am struck by the missed opportunities to make clear, meaningful connections between my student teacher’s coursework and what she experienced in the classroom.
The university’s placement process is not an unusual one. Each student teacher is matched with a supervising professor who observes him or her once per week, providing written feedback. Due to barriers on both sides, there was very little dialogue between the supervising professor and me throughout the year, limiting the scope of our work. While I respect the professor, I believe that her role, as well as my own, could have been used in more effective and efficient ways to support the learning of pre-service teachers.
Conversations with colleagues revealed that ours was not a unique situation: The university made attempts to foster collaboration with cooperating teachers, but time and personnel constraints prevented this goal from being achieved. As a result, a student teacher’s experience often resembled a custody agreement rather than a partnership.
How could professors’ and supervising teachers’ expertise be used in more effective and efficient ways to support the learning of pre-service teachers?
Improving the Partnership: Five Recommendations
Teacher-education programs owe it to their students (and their students’ future students) to ensure they offer integrated, authentic field experiences in partnership with practicing teachers. This will require honest, direct dialogue about strengthening teacher education programs and, in turn, the profession. In that spirit, I’d like to propose five program upgrades that might be considered by our university partners.
1) Invite a wide range of guest experts to speak with pre-service teachers. To truly understand the inner workings of a school, pre-service teachers must understand how all individuals who work in a school contribute to the overall climate and success of that school. Invite teachers, specialists, and counselors to visit college courses as guest experts (or use virtual discussion tools, such as Elluminate, to work around scheduling complications). Ask each guest expert to share a typical day and common dilemmas that emerge among various age groups. Then, in partnership with the expert, guide pre-service teachers in role-playing and exploring techniques for solving these problems.
2) Create targeted observation tasks. Prior to my student teaching, I had many opportunities to observe classrooms. While these experiences were valuable, I did not know enough about classroom dynamics to synthesize what I was seeing. I would encourage schools of education to assign weekly observation tasks to cohorts of pre-service teachers. For example, in a given week, the pre-service teacher’s task might be to track the different ways a teacher praises a child; to interview a teacher about communicating with parents and guardians; or to examine how technology is being used to advance student learning. Each week, the cohort could come together and share their observations. Professors, collaborating teachers, and guest speakers could help to frame the focus areas so that pre-service teachers understand how each element contributes to student learning. Through a scaffolded approach, with professors initially organizing the group’s findings and then gradually releasing control to students, cohorts could use technological tools, such as wiki pages, to track their qualitative data on effective teaching strategies and create resources they could reference (and share) throughout their own teaching careers.
3) Simulate the collaboration expected in most schools. At this point, a high percentage of schools rely on PLC s (professional learning communities) as models for collaboration among teachers. Learning to work with colleagues gives new teachers access to ideas and resources, provides a support system, and aids in time management. However, the actual work of collaboration can sometimes be difficult and frustrating in ways not covered in most pre-service training. To give students experience in on-the-job collaboration, schools of education might consider creating PLC groups within cohorts of student teachers. These groups could be organized by content areas (8th grade math with 8th grade math) or using an interdisciplinary approach (one team consisting of student teachers in science, social studies, language arts, and math). The teams could work together during their student teaching experience to plan units, analyze data, review case studies, and gather resources. Teams would be expected to adhere to the professional standards set by school systems and be held accountable for their results through authentic means such as reflections, debriefing sessions, and dialogue with professors and supervising teachers.
4) Experience the politics first-hand. In our current reform climate, pre-service teachers need to understand and be able to navigate the politics of education. Teacher-education programs should encourage pre-service teachers to attend local school board meetings, interview principals, and follow press coverage and national op-ed discussions. Hold conversations about how the public image of teaching is shaped, how teachers are being evaluated, and how to achieve our visions for the future of education within a political context.
5) Create true partnerships with cooperating teachers. From my own experiences and conversations with my student teacher, I was familiar with how the local university approached teacher preparation and which topics were heavily emphasized in their program. However, how much more meaningful could I have made the student-teaching experience if there were clear, measurable objectives and increased communication? How could the supervising professor and I have worked together to create connections between what was discussed in the preparation courses and what was seen in the field experience?
Educators are experts in helping students synthesize and construct knowledge from their experiences. We must do a far better job capitalizing on this expertise as we plan teacher-preparation programs. Our current system may have limitations, but, as educators, we are masters of “working with what we have” for the success of students. We may have to look at less conventional options, including hybrid roles for teachers and virtual meetings, but we cannot continue to allow our lack of dialogue to downgrade the quality of teacher preparation.
Pre-service teachers are integral to the future of a fully realized teaching profession. To support their growth, universities must work together with local teachers to foster authentic on-the-job learning—and lots of it. We must have candid conversations about what’s working, what’s not, and what we can do to change things. I look forward to these conversations—and to my next opportunity to guide an eager young colleague toward a rewarding career.