Teaching Profession Opinion

Classroom Practice and the Influence of the Teacher Educator

By Contributing Blogger — June 14, 2016 6 min read
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This post is by Dr. Cecelia Traugh, Dean of Bank Street College Graduate School of Education.

Teacher quality makes an important difference in the emotional and cognitive growth of children. As debate surrounding how to best prepare our nation’s teachers continues to grow, now is the time for educators and policy leaders to explore preparation models that develop the high-quality teachers children deserve. As part of this examination, I suggest taking a closer look at the role of the university-based teacher educator.

I recently attended the annual meetings of the Urban Teacher Education Consortium (UTEC), a group of university-based teacher educators from around the country committed to educating teachers for urban settings. The guiding questions for our work together were: Given our different contexts and partnerships, how can our programs listen and respond more nimbly to school and community perspectives and incorporate them into our work? How are we, as teacher educators, learning from our school and community partnerships, and how are we making use of that knowledge? For university-based people to ask themselves these questions requires recognition and acceptance of what our graduates often tell us--that is, that they really learned to teach through their experiences in the classroom and when they started to teach “for real.”

In my thinking, the question of how best to learn from schools and classrooms is essential in building a strong model for teacher education. Earlier this year in this blog, Jon Snyder previewed a study by Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) titled “Teaching for a Changing World: The Graduates of Bank Street College of Education,” which examined the learning outcomes of Bank Street College graduates. The study he described offers insight into the College’s model for teacher preparation and reveals evidence indicating its method works to consistently develop well-prepared teachers.

The cornerstone of the College’s approach is a yearlong fieldwork requirement accompanied by rigorous coaching and mentoring and by a collaborative conference group made up of six to seven other students of teaching. This aspect of the program is designed to develop critical and creative thinkers who are prepared for and confident in real-world settings upon graduation.

At Bank Street College, this process is called Supervised Fieldwork. It includes a year of work in classrooms with children accompanied by mentorship from both classroom teachers and from a full-time College faculty member. Students earn twelve credits for this work, and faculty devote 40 percent of their teaching load to this process with students. The effectiveness of this use of resources is cited by graduates in the SCOPE study when, for example, the researchers report that Bank Street alumni report higher confidence as compared to their peers in content preparation in science (18 percent higher), language and literacy (20 percent higher), and math (23 percent higher), and that Bank Street graduates enter and remain in the field at higher rates than the national average. In addition, they feel well prepared to meet the needs of diverse students and to develop a classroom environment that promotes social and emotional development.

However, time spent in the classroom does not in and of itself make for a quality learning experience. How meaning is made during this time is the critical component. It is important to ask: how do Bank Street College students use this process to reflect on their experience and to incorporate the knowledge they are gaining into their coursework to build practice? How does the process help them gain an inquiry stance toward their work with children and develop a professional identity?

In this model, we view work in real-world classrooms and schools as the core of teacher development. We understand that developing teachers who can listen deeply to children and observe them as individuals and community members is a skill to be learned. As such, the year-long model of reflective supervision includes two central components: individual site-based supervision and the conference group.

On an individual basis, Bank Street College graduate students experience a range of roles in classrooms and schools. Throughout the year, the faculty advisor makes multiple hour-long visits to the school sites. Both student and advisor come to know the context of the student teacher’s classroom practice and understand its possibilities for learning. During this time, the advisor also comes to know each student well as both person and learner.

The visits to the fieldwork sites provide content for an emergent curriculum of practice. Each visit contains possibilities for learning, for integrating idea and practice across all the domains of teaching, and for reflective inquiry. Of course, faculty approach this work in a variety of ways, but each approach requires close observation and listening, questions that gain access to the student’s thinking and aims, and a careful building of trust. Meaning is built collaboratively through the conversation that happens during the visit. The student’s classroom work--and the knowledge and beliefs she brings to that work--are at the core of the process. The advisor brings to the conversation the stance of reflective inquiry, helping the student learn how to reflect on her experience and use it as the ground for her growth.

A second level of meaning making and knowledge building in this model happens in conference group, which provides another opportunity for emergent and inquiry-based curriculum. This aspect of the student’s experience centers on the stories and problems of practice the group shares about their classroom work. Here they learn to listen to the varied interpretations and meanings the group gives to them. A collective and increasingly complex narrative of what it means to teach develops and the group becomes a professional learning community grounded in practice, a process very different from teacher-directed learning. When the conference group works well, it becomes a safe space for developing an understanding of teaching as a “moral act” and an appreciation of democratic teaching practice.

A recent student describes her knowledge making through the mix of classroom experience and collaborative reflection in this way:

Another area of teaching that I now spend a lot of time thinking about in a very practical way, which I had prior to fieldwork only given lip service to, is creating a culture within a classroom that clearly and intentionally establishes my own values. One of the invaluable benefits of having spent extended time in three different classrooms has been the ability to question and identify what my own values include, what one of my first teachers at Bank Street referred to as “non-negotiables.” For me, those things are independence, identifying and articulating personal needs, feeling a safety in taking risks, asking questions, and making mistakes. Also, finding ways to make sure that each student is seen and heard so that they feel that they are an important, effective member of the classroom community is something that is greatly important to me, and this includes each student’s family and home culture.

Teacher education that mixes extensive classroom practice with processes that help students create knowledge from their experiences requires that faculty mentors do the same alongside their students. The art of this approach requires drawing from students and their lives in classrooms rather than imposing interpretations on students.

The recently released SCOPE study shows that this difficult approach pays off to create teachers who do rigorous work with children and who are long-lived professionals. Such models of teacher preparation require much of the teacher educator, but without this work, the development of teachers will be incomplete, and certainly less than it could be.

To review the full SCOPE study and learn more about how classroom practice is enhanced through high-quality teacher preparation, please visit here.

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