Whenever the spotlight turns to struggling schools and failing students, there’s another question that bubbles up: How well are America’s teacher preparation programs doing their job?
Ellen McIntyre, who headed UNC Charlotte's Cato College of Education for six years, says there's plenty of room for improvement. The college (which is a WFAE underwriter) is working with Charlotte-area public schools to improve a crucial step in teacher prep: Student teaching.
Too many student teachers, she says, still experience the sink-or-swim approach she did years ago: Being thrown into a classroom with the regular teacher watching passively and critiquing after the fact, while university supervisors pop in and out without forging real connections.
"That’s just not an effective practice, and we’ve known this for decades," McIntyre says. "It’s also really expensive."
UNCC is working with schools like Harrisburg Elementary to upend the old model of student teaching. McIntyre says such partnerships also make better use of taxpayer money by paying classroom teachers to work more intensively -- and effectively -- with student teachers.
"A lot of people tend to think 'Oh, you have a student teacher, now you have free time because they’re teaching,' " says Harrisburg fourth-grade teacher Lindsey Turner. "And I’m going, 'Nope. Long gone are the days of where teachers disappear while the student teachers are in there.' "
Last semester, Turner, who went through UNCC's summer Teacher Education Institute, acted as a co-teacher and real-time coach for student teacher Jessica Jenkins. While Jenkins taught, she kept one eye on the kids and one eye on Turner, who occasionally held up something like illustrated cue cards.
There were clocks with up or down arrows, signaling Jenkins to speed up or slow down. A long-necked cartoon turtle reminded Jenkins to scan the room and make sure the kids are engaged.
Real-time coaching is part of a national trend – some schools call it “bug in the ear coaching,” referring to an earpiece that can be used to relay messages from the veteran teacher to the rookie.
McIntyre is a member of Deans For Impact, a Texas-based coalition of almost two dozen university officials trying to improve teacher preparation.
The goal is to make sure novice teachers arrive with the skills they need. North Carolina loses about 2,000 teachers a year during their first three years on the job, according to state reports. If teachers survive that rookie stretch they’re much more likely to stay long-term.
"We need to make sure that we are preparing teachers who are successful, and happy, and confident. And they’re a whole lot more likely to stay in teaching in that way," McIntyre said. "And do better by kids, which is the ultimate goal."
There are a lot of pieces to that puzzle: Are universities offering the right courses? Are licensure exams effective? But McIntyre says student teaching is "the final, ultimate and most important experience in any teacher preparation program."
So here’s how UNCC and its partners are reshaping that experience. First, instead of sending student teachers scattershot across the region to any school that will take them, the university is forming partnerships with districts, schools and teachers deemed ready and willing to try a better approach.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is the largest partner, with Cabarrus, Union and Rowan-Salisbury schools also participating. That lets UNCC create school-based offices where university staff can oversee the program at a handful of nearby public schools.
Under the old system, McIntyre says, the university paid about a dozen full-time salaries for those supervisors -- plus mileage and time wasted as they drove all over the region.
The changes save about $130,000 a year, McIntyre says. Most of that money goes toward an increase in pay for the classroom teachers, who used to make $200 for taking on a student teacher. Now they’re called “clinical educators,” and they can earn from $400 to $1,200 a year, depending on the work they take on.
Those experienced public school teachers are required to spend three days at a summer Teacher Education Institute working with UNCC faculty on the new approach to student teaching. They’re paid $600 for that – money that comes from grants.
At Harrisburg Elementary, about six miles east of the university in Cabarrus County, Turner and Jenkins started working together one day a week last school year.
By August, when Jenkins started her full-time student teaching, she and Turner had worked out the cue-card system and developed strategies for heading off problems. Jenkins knew her own weaknesses.
"Coming in to my full-time student teaching I was terrified to teach math," she recalls.
So Turner made sure Jenkins was up to speed on math concepts like the distributive property and the expanded form – things Jenkins says she had never learned. And they talked about how Jenkins could huddle quickly with Turner if she hit a rough spot, rather than getting flustered in front of the kids.
For instance, Jenkins was stumped when a student asked her if zero was a prime or composite number. She told the students to discuss that question with others at their table, while she checked in with Turner.
Turner was already looking it up, and gave Jenkins the answer: It’s neither.
"So then I went back to the board and made a little star in their notes and said, “Zero is neither prime nor composite” and they added that to their notebooks," Jenkins says.
Jenkins graduated in December. In February, she’ll start back at Harrisburg Elementary as an interim third-grade teacher. After her student teaching, she says she felt ready -- "so much more confident than at the beginning of the year."
The student-teaching project is still in the early stages. UNCC has about 400 student teachers a year, but only about 100 experienced teachers who are trained in the new approach. The plan is to train enough so all student teachers get this kind of coaching.
The university also plans to collect data on how the student teachers trained this way perform in their own classrooms and whether their kids demonstrate measurable benefits. That’s at least three years down the road.
McIntyre won’t be around for that follow-up. This month she moved into a new job as dean of University of Tennessee Knoxville’s College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.
The student teacher project is only part of what UNCC – and other schools – are doing to train good teachers and help schools retain them. For instance, UNCC also provides mentoring support for new teachers in some area schools.
And once the newly minted teachers graduate, their success and survival is shaped by other public policy decisions, including teacher pay and working conditions.
This spring, UNCC and Texas Tech will host a national conference in Charlotte on the latest strategies for doing better at teaching teachers.