Placing Student Teachers

I never had a student teacher during my ten years in the classroom. I always wanted one, but it never happened. It was likely because there wasn't a student teacher requesting a math placement at our school after I had surpassed the required five years of experience. In hindsight, I wonder how effective I would have been as a cooperating teacher. Probably better than my own experience, but what kind of lasting impact would I have had on a future teacher? My mindset at that time wasn't about impact. Rather, it was similar to the excitement I had heard others express about reduced planning, grading, and teaching. My desire for a student teacher was rooted in selfishness - what I could get out of it rather than what I could contribute to our profession. 

Sadly, I feel this mindset exists far too often in education. What level of consideration is given to placing student teachers? How much control should universities have in placing students, and what role should school administrators play in determining who to accept and where to place them?

Most of us have had a student teaching experience, and we appreciate and value its importance. It's incredibly vital, and the amount of consideration given to placing student teachers is reflective of how we value the experience and our responsibility for developing strong teachers. 

Through my conversations with other teachers over the years, it is common to hear about how teacher preparation programs didn't truly prepare teachers for teaching. This could be a result of both the required coursework and the student teaching experience. Student teaching should result in professional growth through more relevant experiences.  Candidates should leave their semester or year having experience with curriculum development, implementing research-proven strategies, trying new strategies, failing and trying again, and reflecting on their impact on student learning. They should understand the importance and value of learning targets, success criteria, and their connection to student achievement. Student teachers should learn how to incorporate quality reading, writing, and discussion. They should have extensive practice with feedback, formative assessment, and analyzing data. Student teaching should be the beginning of “knowing thy impact.” Most university student teaching supervisors do not have the time to engage student teachers in the reflective conversations necessary to grow in these areas. It’s the cooperating teacher who should be responsible for modeling and facilitating appropriate reflection. This short period of time could be the most critical for teacher development. This short period of time could also help set a student teacher up for success - and possibly keep them in the profession long-term. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. I by no means expect student teachers to be seasoned veterans the first day they assume their own classrooms. That is not a fair expectation. However, it is fair to expect them to have foundational experiences in each of these areas. They need a starting point from which to grow. And, every student with a first-year teacher deserves a well-prepared and well-trained educator. 

What does the student teaching experience look like in your school? How much thought and consideration is given to placing teacher candidates? How are cooperating teachers determined? It shouldn’t always be the teacher with the most years of experience. Sometimes the best experience comes from a younger teacher who’s growing into a potential rock star. It’s the teacher who understands the research, has a vast toolbelt of effective strategies, is a risk-taker, and reflective. 

As an administrator, I believe we must go further than giving a blanket "yes" to an email when a university requests placing a student teaching candidate. 

Ask to see transcripts.

Several years ago, there was a student teacher requesting to teach math in a building I served as principal. The transcript was full of F's and drops in even the most basic math classes. Efforts to take and pass remedial classes showed similar results. I could not, in good conscience, accept this student teacher. It was not fair to the students who would receive her teaching. My decision to refuse this placement was what was best for my building. My students were my ultimate responsibility. 

Check references.

Not every person going through a teacher education program deserves to be (or should be) a teacher. It's okay to check references to determine if they would be a good fit for your students or your building. I will not go into specifics here, but there are times where it's obvious a student teacher would not be a good fit. It's okay to tell the university no. Again, we have an obligation to our students and our district to provide them with the best educational experience possible. We also have an obligation to maintaining a positive culture in our buildings.

As education leaders, we do have a responsibility and obligation to honor and respect the student teaching process. This can sometimes be difficult to balance with the responsibility we have have to our districts and buildings. Universities have established placement criteria, and they can sometimes be persistent or pushy. However, it's important to remember that it is us who make decisions for our schools. 

It is important, though, to establish good working relationships with the universities. I have found that when I explain my reasoning for refusing a student teacher, my reason is understood and respected. Most student teaching supervisors have been educators and can appreciate the position taken. These are not always easy conversations, but they are necessary and important.

It is important we give a great deal of consideration to both the student teacher and the placement teacher. 

What criteria do you have for placing a teacher? It is important to remember that a student teacher will see their cooperating teacher as a person to emulate. The goal is to produce the most well-prepared and highly-trained teacher possible. It may be the best person in your building to learn from is a seasoned veteran. Sometimes it is not. Have those conversations with the university. A criteria based on years of experience alone isn't always what's best. What is best is providing a student teacher a truly valuable experience while simultaneously providing your students a quality education. 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.