Improving Student Teaching

Officials from two of U.S. News’s Best Graduate Schools discuss their teaching programs.

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Last week, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a study reporting that many of the nearly 200,000 new teaching candidates each year were paired with ineffective mentors during their student teaching experience.

Student teaching is usually the last requirement for a prospective teacher. Many schools require students to spend their last semester gaining real-world experience teaching in a school; an established teacher will serve as a student teacher's mentor.

Among the report's findings: There were not enough qualified teachers willing to mentor student teachers; many teachers' colleges did not spend enough time placing student teachers with effective mentors; and institutions depend too much on school districts to help place student teachers.

[See how educators are rethinking teacher training.]

I talked to officials at two of U.S. News's top-ranked graduate education programs to get their take on the characteristics of a quality student teaching program. Marcy Singer-Gabella is a professor and associate chair for the department of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education & Human Development, U.S. News's top-ranked education graduate school. Thomas James is provost and dean of the college at Columbia University's Teachers College, U.S. News's fourth-ranked education graduate school.

What's the most important aspect of a successful student teaching program?

Marcy Singer-Gabella: It's important to think about clinical practice and how early we can get students into classrooms. Students need to have opportunities to work in classrooms from the beginning of the program. We're trying to increase the amount of time prospective teachers spend in classrooms.

Thomas James: We see student teaching as the centerpiece of learning to be a teacher. It's the clinical experience that everything else is built around—we have field experiences built in from the very beginning, with observational and collaborative work. When it comes time to do their student teaching, they've already spent a lot of time in the classroom.

Is it important for student teachers to get experience in a variety of classroom settings? 

Singer-Gabella: We're looking for opportunities for our candidates to be working in a range of different classrooms. We try to have our students placed in classrooms with high rates of [English Language Learners] and students with learning needs, but we also want to put them in more affluent and well-resourced settings.

James: Teachers College may be somewhat different than many schools. We're very committed to having our students work in urban schools, having students experience under-resourced schools with multiracial environments. We've committed to making our students into successful urban teachers. If they can do that, they can succeed in a suburban or rural environment.

How should schools help student teachers prepare for the experience?

Singer-Gabella: For most of our programs, our students have the opportunity to work in the classroom for a semester before teaching. A gradual increase of responsibility in the classroom in the semesters prior to student teaching means they're ready to take on the full responsibility for planning, teaching, and managing a classroom.

Who should decide where a student teacher is placed?

Singer-Gabella: We feel really strongly that we have to make a joint decision with the schools. Teachers and principals know their classrooms better than we do. We visit the school and observe the classroom. At the same time, we're getting to know our [student teachers], their strengths and weaknesses, and we're able to identify schools and classrooms where they'd be a good fit.

What support do you give students while they are student teaching?

James: We have ongoing seminars while they're doing student teaching—they can talk with faculty and their peers about what's going on in their schools. The [NCTQ] has a sense that while you're student teaching, you should not be doing coursework. We believe the opposite. It's important for them to be engaged in seminar work, learning comparatively. It gives them intervals to reflect on their experience.

Do you check back in with your students after they're teaching in the real world? Does what they tell you help you decide how to tweak your programs?

Singer-Gabella: We do both informal and formal surveys one, three, and five years out. We survey their principals as well. We try to get a lot of data about what our teachers felt prepared to do, and what they didn't feel prepared to do, and the principals give an important corroboration to those surveys.

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