By William D. Tucker
You’ve seen this model of teaching before. It is called the internship and the residency. Doctors are required to spend full days in hospitals learning under the guidance of experienced doctors and clinical instructors before they can be called MD It’s intensive and expensive, but no one would consider a medical school education valid without it.
The vacuum of fewer students in small public schools invites this model of internship and residency for student teachers. They can observe and assist experienced teachers in the beginning, and they can actually teach on their own when they come within 12 hours of completing their education program. And they can progress from observing to independent teacher all within the same school where the experienced teachers can observe their growth and learn to trust them as interns within their school.
Three critical needs are met in this student teaching practicum: 1) Under-enrolled schools can devote classrooms and experienced teachers to the student teaching program. 2) Teacher education institutions can increase the number of hands-on teaching hours for their student teachers. 3) The mutually beneficial need is that student teachers will develop in small classes, and experienced teachers will learn to trust their students to student teachers.
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This model existed three decades ago in what were called “student teaching schools,” better known today as professional development schools. Classes in teaching were taught in fully operating public schools where the gap between theory and practice was constantly challenged. Student teachers could come back to the methods classroom declaring: I tried this method and this is what happened.
Clinical professors would engage on the subject of what should happen versus what works. It would all occur within the same building, just a few doors away from the actual classroom with real students. It was clinical education following the model of teaching hospitals.
Not all teachers and clinical professors are cut out for this daily clash between theory and practice, but for many it is the true intellectual challenge of what is good teaching. It also raises the exceptional inevitable cases of individual students who do not fall within the expectations of typical teaching. Just as in medicine teachers are challenged to find how to meet the needs of the student who simply does not fall within a paradigm of teaching. That is what is expected of professional teachers, but it is a challenge that student teachers frequently do not engage with.
What happened to the professional development schools of decades ago? One problem is that schools became overcrowded, and there was no room for clinical teaching classrooms. We don’t have that issue today, not in St. Louis.
The second problem is the cost. Classrooms and professional teachers deployed to student teaching become expensive. Possibly one-quarter of an individual school’s resources might be deployed to student teaching. It is a good, but expensive model.
First, universities must invest in their own student teaching program, possibly devoting several full-time faculty positions to clinical work. They might even create research positions that use professional development schools as sources of data. Many universities find the clinical portion of teacher preparation less reputable or lacking the prestige of graduate teaching programs. The student teaching school requires a shift of resources and emphasis that might decrease the productivity of universities as it is often measured. So be it. Learning to administer student practicums is an educational goal as well.
Second, for businesses and foundations looking for ways to improve public education, this is an obvious target: developing teachers with strong practicum experience that will make them confident first-year professionals. A visible target of investment might be funding a clinical professor’s salary for a year or 50% of a classroom teacher’s salary devoted to working with student teachers. A more ambitious investment would be the clinical budget of a student teaching school, giving teachers a sense of validation as student teaching professionals.
Some things can’t be learned from textbooks. Teaching has always fallen short of medicine with its intense year of internship or four years of residency. The need for hands-on experience in teaching is no less than that of medical professionals. But we have not made the investment in teaching that we have in medicine.
The vacuum in the small schools of St. Louis can be filled with the vibrant activity of learning to teach. It is an obvious opportunity for the public schools, teaching universities, private business and foundations. All it requires is funding and collaboration. If public schools open their doors to clinical teaching that would present the vacuum of space to the initiative of programs and funding. Opportunity meets initiative. That invites the invention and energy for learning to teach teachers.
William D. Tucker, Ph.D, is professor emeritus, Eastern Michigan University. He lives in Chesterfield.