Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Value of Student Teaching

While in my first "real" teaching job, our school took on a small group of student teachers. It didn't take long for  me to identify them in the hallways. Student teachers are generally a little overdressed, and so worn out that they appear to be sleepwalking.  I'm sure I once appeared to be in a similarly zombie-like state, given that I somehow managed to survive my last semester of graduate school on four hours of sleep per night (sometimes less). My first year of full time teaching, busy as it was, was easy by comparison.

A recent post at the HechingerEd blog draws attention to a recent study of the current state of student teaching:
A new study by the National Council on Teacher Quality out this week finds fault with the way many schools of education run their student teaching programs, however. Among other issues, the NCTQ criticizes a common set up in many teacher training programs where schools, not the colleges, get to pick which mentor teachers will get student teachers assigned to them. (The NCTQ would prefer that schools of education pick the teacher mentors.) It also points out that often these mentors aren’t required to be highly qualified or good at mentoring.

Student teaching and mentorship in the first years of one's career are crucial to new teacher quality and retention. While classes grounded in theory are quite valuable, student teaching provides an opportunity to apply theory to practice, much the same way immediate use of new vocabulary allows for speedier mastery of a new language. One of the reasons I enrolled in a 1-year credentialing program was because I wanted to do my student teaching and my coursework together, so that I might immediately apply my training.

I can't speak for every program, but I can say that my own student teaching experience tells me that the issues raised in the study are worthy of consideration.  The mentorship my cohort received from our cooperating teachers was surprisingly uneven, in spite of (and in some unfortunate cases no thanks to) efforts of supervisors and administrators. It ranged ranged from brilliant to blatantly negligent.  All of the teachers with whom we were paired were very good at making their own classrooms work. What varied was their level of interest and skill when it came to mentoring a new teacher. Some lacked experience as cooperating teachers, others lacked time or motivation. At one of the school sites our program worked with, the culture of the school was out of step with the culture of the teacher education program.

This last problem is the easiest to address. The university can (and sometimes does) choose not to send student teachers to schools that are not able to provide the kind of mentorship that is needed. 

So what to do about issues of time, skill, and motivation? Cooperating teachers need to be interested in the future of the profession. They should take on student teachers willingly, not as a favor to someone, or because their principals tell them to do so.  They should be models of professional behavior who have the respect of their colleagues. Teacher education programs need to take into account the number of interested cooperating teachers available when deciding how large a class to admit every year.  It might be worth considering some brief training for cooperating teachers with minimal experience. 

Student teachers also need to have a voice when problems arise.  Most are at the bottom of the political pecking order in their school sites, are overworked and sleep-deprived, and may not feel comfortable reporting problems to supervisors or administrators. Student teachers should not have to worry about endangering their carreers when faced with bad mentorship. Programs need to have procedures in place to ensure this. Student teachers are, after all, adults, and should be taken seriously as such when they have a legitimate grievance.

Whatever the solutions, they need to be researched-based, effective, and (for pity's sake) minimal on the paperwork. 

Student teachers and their mentors have enough paperwork already.

The good news, I suppose, is that, while good mentorship is invaluable (and can be pleasant and even exciting),  even bad mentorship can be instructive to a motivated person.   If nothing else, it reminds the often naïve student teacher that the world of education, like everything else that is human, has its frustrations and flaws.

Ruler tip to:

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