Theory ran into reality the day Melissa Lynch walked into a fifth-grade class in Haslett, Michigan.
Before her student teaching assignment began, Lynch developed “these awesome lesson plans.”
“We never have time for that,” said Lynch, a Central Michigan University senior. “You’ve got an autistic kid over here and a kid over there screaming. It’s all (about), how do you manage?”
Lynch doesn’t have much time to figure it out. As a CMU student, Lynch will spend one semester in a classroom before becoming a teacher.
Student teaching - how long, who with, and when in your college career – influences both the quality of teachers, and how long teachers stay in the profession. Yet the state and universities have no consistent policies regulating student teaching.
Education majors from different colleges lead classrooms for different amounts of time, with different expectations of supervision. There’s no guarantee student teachers are placed in the classrooms of great teachers, and little or no training for the classroom teachers on how to mentor the college students.
The only state regulation on student teaching: 12 weeks of real-world experience, compared to three years of experience to qualify for a plumbing license.
“At times, we act like student learning does not matter very much because we leave so many things like student teaching to chance based on the individual initiative of the universities or communities,” said Dave Campbell, superintendent of Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency. “When many of our systems, laws, and regulations were designed, a student could drop out and get a good job at GM. Education matters more now, but the systems haven’t evolved.”
Half year? Full year? Anybody care?
Haslett Public Schools has student teachers this fall from three colleges, with three different student-teaching requirements.
Lynch and CMU classmate Justine Dailey are in the schools for one semester, taking over from their mentor teachers as early in the semester as possible. Grand Valley student Kayli Carter learned the ropes last semester in a Grand Rapids school, before coming to Haslett for the fall semester. Meanwhile MSU students Sam Georgi and Anaite Castaneda will be in Haslett classrooms all school year.
Are CMU students in the real world too little? Are MSU students in it too much? Wendy Zdeb-Roeper, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, said she liked to hire MSU grads when she was principal of Rochester High School because “a full year of student teaching makes a difference.”
That’s backed up by the research of Matthew Ronfeldt, assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan School of Education specializing in the study of student teaching. A study he co-authored found that teachers who student-taught for longer periods felt better prepared and were more likely to stay in the profession.
“The more you’re in a classroom, not only do you get better, but sometimes you find out that it’s not your calling,” said Kevin Miller, superintendent of Croswell-Lexington Public Schools. “We don’t want to find that out in year one.”
About five percent of MSU student teachers drop out of the teacher program after their full-year student teaching assignment, said Corey Drake, director of teacher education at MSU; another five percent fail student teaching and are counseled out of the classroom.
“Some struggle with classroom management,” Drake said. “Some find they enjoy working one-on-one, but can’t translate to a group; for some, it’s lesson planning.”
But both Drake and Deborah Ball, dean of the U-M School of Education, argue that the quantity of time in a classroom is less important than the quality of that experience.
“I know superintendents want them to do more experience,” Ball said, “but just more time in class doesn’t help. They need focused, supervised clinical training, sequentially organized.”
Who’s teaching student teachers?
More time in the classroom is more likely to help when student teachers learn at the feet of the best classroom teachers.
Teacher prep programs have student teaching coordinators that help place students in classrooms. But there is no statewide system to assure that student teachers are placed in the classrooms of high-achieving teachers.
“Some of the very distinguished teachers don’t want student teachers,” admits Haslett Superintendent Mike Duda. “They don’t want to re-teach content. Sometimes, the (colleges) call individual teachers directly who they’ve worked with before. There’s no approval process from school officials. It could be the worst teacher in the school.”
Just because a teacher can teach math to third graders doesn’t mean they’re good at mentoring student teachers. “There’s no training on how to do it,” said Haslett Assistant Superintendent Sherron Jones.
The ideal student teacher placement, according to Ronfeldt’s research: a school with low teacher turnover, good working conditions and underserved students.
Getting them in classrooms faster
Zdeb-Roeper recalls her days as student teacher. “Out of my cohort of 30 student teachers, I bet 10 of them dropped out at student teaching,” and had to scramble to find a new career after almost four years as education majors.
She, along with most educators who talked to Bridge for this story, believes teacher prep programs need to get education majors into classrooms earlier in their college careers.
“You don’t want to wait until they’re a senior to find out they hate this,” said state schools superintendent Mike Flanagan.
Haslett’s student teachers from CMU, MSU and Grand Valley said they all were exposed to real classrooms before their stints as student teachers, including teaching a few lessons.
Universities may need to do expose them more, Flanagan said. “Some of them have had this romantic notion since they were 5. It would be helpful, maybe by the time they’re 19 or 20, that, they find out this is not for me.”
The state could more and earlier student teaching; it could, if and when a more robust state teacher evaluation system is up and running, mandate student teachers only be assigned to the classrooms of high-performing, veteran teachers. Universities could emphasize more real-world experience without sacrificing theory and content.
“There are many places that have the innovation, resources and focus to prepare students well for this century, Campbell said, “but our state's system is not designed to produce it for all kids.”