Preparing better teachers; preparing teachers better

Student teaching is supposed to be the capstone experience in the preparation of new educators. However, the quality of that experience varies from sublime to just plain stupid. What’s scary is that those variations seem to occur randomly across and within programs, some of which are trying to be very conscientious.

As we enter the new year, my state is in the midst of redesigning our teacher education programs. This initiative has (at least verbally), the support of most of the key stakeholders: universities, legislators, State Dept. of Ed., teachers, business and community reps. One key area facing the task force is: How to provide better field experiences for pre-service teachers (better known as student teachers)?

It is still common for student teaching to occur for only 12-15 weeks during the candidate’s last semester in college. The student teachers usually arrive in the site classroom well after the school year has begun and leave before its end. Critics have long argued that this timing is ineffective: too brief to really benefit the candidates; too late in the teacher ed program to give enough exposure to the realities of classroom; and usually too curtailed within the normal flow of the school year to give the novices an understanding of the two most pivotal parts of the school year: the first days and the state test days.

Many parents worry about their child(ren) having student teachers for any length of time. It’s not uncommon for administrators to place student teachers with one eye on which students have the least vocal or influential parents.

Because school administrators usually have control over where student teachers are placed within their schools, teacher education programs often complain that their candidates are not always ending up in the the best learning situations. In many places, the classroom teachers charged with supervising the trainees are not given any release time to do so, nor do they receive any sort of extra compensation for the time they must invest in working with the candidate. The supervising teacher may be an effective teacher, or a weak one that the principal hopes to prop up with the help of an energetic student teacher. I’ve seen student teachers used to give coaches more free time during their season.

Sometimes, student teachers come in with great expectations or requirements to use the methods they’ve been taught in their university courses, only to find that the district or school to which they have been assigned requires contradictory ones. Conversely, I’ve seen eager student teachers with sound teaching practices, undone by listening to burned out or ineffective supervising teachers who actually talked them out of the profession!

A few schools of education maintain K-12 schools attached to them (what are sometimes called laboratory or professional development schools) in which their candidates can practice under close supervision of both university faculty and veteran teachers using best practices. Some people think more of these types of arrangements would benefit teacher education; others feel such schools are anomalies, and wouldn’t prepare the majority of new teachers for the real classroom situations they will face.

I’m distressed at the growing number of highly accomplished teachers who have become hesitant, even resistant, to working with student teachers due in part to the increased pressures of standardized testing programs.  These teachers state that turning their students over to a poorly prepared student teacher is costly on several levels, when the students are subsequently underprepared to face high-stakes testing at the end of the school year.

I’m even more distressed that most of the teachers who enter the profession through alternative routes do no student teaching at all (even though I’m a supporter of well-constructed alternative certification programs, which are a necessity in our chronic teacher shortage area). Sadly, while graduates of traditional teacher education programs may feel they were better prepared than their alternative route colleagues, the truth is our students need us to do better on both sides.

Amidst all this chaos, however, there are some wonderful examples of teacher preparation programs that work, and as Barnett Berry notes, of new initiatives in teacher recruitment and training. Our challenge is to make these examples the rule for the majority of our prospective teachers.

Suggestions welcome.