Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Practicum Supervisors Better Get Practical

This morning, I had the pleasure of having a pre-service teacher visit my office.  She was stopping by to say hello (we coached together over the past couple of years) en route to the School Board Office to apply for a job as an on-call teacher in our district. She comes from a family of outstanding teachers, and she will absolutely follow in their footsteps--she makes excellent relationships with students, has a knack for breaking down skills in a variety of different ways to meet the needs of learners, and wants to establish herself as part of the school community.  I would hire her tomorrow.

She was also stopping by today to show me a number of things that she was doing on her practicum.  It was truly amazing to see the excitement in her face as she described the amazing instructional techniques that she was using to engage learners in her classes.  Within the span of ten minutes, I learned a number of different activities that I will be passing along to our staff, especially around cooperative learning.  I was grateful for the ideas that she passed along.

As she has come to the end of her practicum, I asked her a few things about her teacher training program.  I asked her what she enjoyed about her teacher training ("the practicum part, and getting into the classroom to work with my Teacher Sponsor"), and what she thought needed improvement ("the in-class stuff--too theoretical, and not practical enough").  Neither of these really surprised me, especially when I reflected on my own pre-service days. And then she hesitated.  I pressed her a bit more, and then she asked me to look at the reports that both her Teacher Sponsor and her university Practicum Supervisor wrote.  The Teacher Sponsor was positively glowing in her review: positive relationships with students, engaging lessons, outstanding assessment practices, endless volunteering, and o and I was very proud.  However, after two or three minutes of reading the Practicum Supervisor's reports, I was seeing red.  A couple of quotes...

"Insist that students put their hands up."

"Cooperative learning strategies in class can be very noisy and may need to be avoided."
"The temperature in your class was too hot.  You need to attend to these sorts things."

I absolutely wanted to vomit.  I asked her to describe the Practicum Supervisor.  I will spare the details, but the thing that stood out was that this person had not been in a classroom or secondary/middle school for TWENTY years.  Enough said.

I don't think it is a stretch for me to say that the classroom has changed over the past twenty years.  And I also don't think it is a stretch to say that the first months of a new teacher being in a classroom are absolutely critical in their development as a future educator.  To focus on things like temperature in the class (like we can ever control that other than opening a window in the winter--lots of fun for those sitting by the window in the blowing snow) or the noise level of cooperative learning activites is a total disservice to pre-service teachers. 

In helping to educate our future educators, we need to have people that are in tune with today's classroom, and with today's learner.  And when I am referring to today's learner, I mean both the student and the pre-service teacher.  The focus for pre-service teachers needs to be on creating positive relationships with students based on respect rather than positional authority, engaging learners, being insatiably curious about what they know, finding ways to help them demonstrate what they know, and developing their love for learning.  Hands up? Temperature?  Noise level during engaging activities?  Not so much.

We need to do better for new teachers entering this profession.  They deserve it.  Our students deserve it. 

In other words, practicum supervisors (and teacher education programs) need to get practical, or we will continue to fail our Pre-Service teachers.


  1. Thanks for this one :) As a student teacher, I fully understand your acquaintance's hesitation. We risk being unprofessional when we tell the unfortunate truth about the education we get for our expensive tuition. The practicum really is the best part. I just wish that the college side of things would be equally amazing and informative. I learn way more from #edchat and my practicum than I have after three months from my university.

  2. Thank you!!!
    I had an instructor who had started teaching in the 60's and was not supportive of our wish to e-mail him our assignments. Absolutely blew my mind away. Often wondered what kind of "training" we were getting when we are being taught by those who can't understand us, let alone the students that we will be teaching.

  3. I have been fortunate as a teacher and a principal to work with some outstanding faculty associates with who I have had some rich conversations. What I have found lacking at times has been the integration and use of technology. I remember when I was teaching 475 up at SFU that a number of the students had not really used any form of technology in the classroom and that some had felt that there was no need to. I feel that they should be blogging as a part of the program and practicum, getting them to reflect in an open way, sharing publicly or letting them limit the audience.
    Lastly I am not sure if our expectations are high enough. What is it that we expect from our student teachers? what is it that we hoping that they accomplish? How are we going to do this? How can we support them? If you would not be comfortable with this person as a colleague at your school or teaching your children, should they receive a pass. In terms of sponsor teachers and FAs, do we do a strong enough job selecting them?

  4. I can see multiple sides of this issue. I really feel badly for the pre-service teacher you met - I hope that the practicum supervisor's reports will not negatively impact job chances. To work in the Catholic board years and years ago, I needed a letter from my parish priest; since he and my family were not on the best terms (long story), the letter he wrote torpedoed any chance I had of working there. (I have a wonderful job now in a great school board, so it all worked out.) I also remember having faculty of education professors who did not practice what they preached - e.g. telling us that we should know our students well, then not bothering to learn our own names. Yet, on the other hand, I've met eager, talented, tech-savvy pre-service education instructors that walk the walk and talk the talk (Zoe Branigan-Pipe @zbpipe is the first that comes to mind). Maybe more secondments from schools to balance things out? What's the solution?

  5. I am a university supervisor at the University of Victoria. When I read this blog, I confess that I was disappointed. I humbly ask that those reading this blog, and perhaps even Mr. Birk, himself exercise caution when talking about ‘Practicum Supervisors’ as though we are all the same. Though this story is a powerful example of how one pre-service teacher was failed by an individual, it is not indicative of the shortcomings of practicum supervisors and teacher education programs across the board as implied here.
    I can only speak to my own experience as a supervisor and I, along with those colleagues I collaborate with, work very hard to support our pre-service teachers as they navigate the beginnings of their teaching career. I try to push pre-service teachers to consider the broader implications of their teaching, to consider how their own educational experiences impact how they teach, what role diversity plays in teaching and learning, how assessment leads to learning and why understanding where students are going is essential to knowing how to help them understand what it is they need to understand not simply be able to repeat. I ask again and again, “What does this mean in the classroom?”, to help those individuals make authentic connections to the practical implications of what it means to teach. I ask pre-service teachers to consider their teaching choices in light of the needs of the children in their classes. I am not alone on this practice.
    In my experience, although not representative of everyone’s experience, pre-service teachers experience as much frustration with mentor teachers in the field who have done little to address their own teaching practice. Mr. Birk specifically mentioned the comments: "Insist that students put their hands up" and "Cooperative learning strategies in class can be very noisy and may need to be avoided." On several occasions in more than once school, with more than one individual, I have had to discuss these types of comments with pre-service teachers because this is exactly the kind of feedback they got from their mentor teachers. Much like the pre-service teacher described by Mr. Birk, the pre-service teachers I have worked with were equally confused by the relevance of such comments – how do they help them become better teachers? I think we agree that they don’t. As many people know, and I hope agree, mentoring a student teacher is a commitment not only to the individual student teacher but to the profession.
    This leads to one of my own criticisms of the profession. While some teachers, whom I applaud and admire, reflectively examine their own practice and continue to pursue strategies that will meet the needs of today’s students in an ever changing world, many do not and are teaching the way they have always taught. In fairness, for many they are teaching the way they were trained to teach.... in some cases, 20 years ago or more. I humbly suggest that before we point the finger directly at practicum supervisors or even teacher training programs, perhaps we need to turn to the classrooms and look critically at who is mentoring pre-service teachers and what those individuals can contribute to advancing education. Ineffective teachers occupy many of our classrooms and I will speak boldly here; those teachers are occupying the jobs that many, many newly trained, eager, thoughtful, knowledgeable, insightful teachers, like the one described by Mr. Birk, are clamouring to get to but are being forced to wait, and wait, AND wait on the sidelines.

  6. Thank you all for the great comments! Lisa, I applaud your efforts as a Practicum Supervisor. You sounds as though you would be an outstanding role model for new young educators--they would be happy to have you. Coincidentally, I graduated from the University of Victoria and went through the PDP program there. You may be surprised to know that I had a chillingly similar experience to the pre-service teacher that was in my office this week. While this was more than a few years ago, it brought back some very vivid memories for me. Fortunately, my Practicum Supervisor was re-tasked after the first couple of weeks, and I ended up with a wonderfully supportive Supervisor that was contracted by the University.

    I don't completely understand the context of your criticism of teachers who are currently in the profession--the preparation and feedback given to pre-service teachers by practicum supervisors seems to have little to do with your description of the existing state of some teachers in the profession. Whether there is room for new teachers in the current system of education is not up for debate--rightly or wrongly, it is something over which we have little control. But where we can have a huge amount of influence on students is in their pre-service and early years. And while I can't speak for all administrators, I know that my colleagues and I try our best to create highly positive teaching/learning situations for practicum students in our schools with our teachers. The point of this post was to articulate that those who come from colleges and universities should strive to do the same. Granted, my post has some generalities. However, I stand behind the idea that we need to have Practicum Supervisors that current in their thinking, open-minded in their approach to different methodologies, and eager to work with the strengths of the individuals they are working with. This applies to anyone in education, myself included. That you are one of these individuals is outstanding!

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  7. Cale,Lisa,

    Your comments have definitely got me thinking. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with two great Teacher Sponsors and equally as great a Practicum Supervisor. All three were passionate about education, caring and reflective educators. The discussions we shared and the times they challenged me to reflect on my practice were instrumental in my learning and growing. The idea that has stuck with me the most is that as much as I was learning from them, they also demonstrated that they were learning from me. They acknowledged that as they observed and listened to me and my students that they too were reflecting on their own practice. More than anything, I would describe them as being OPEN to learning.

    So, when it comes to criteria for selecting Teacher Sponsors and Practicum Supervisors, as much as it is important that these individuals have experience and a deep understanding of pedagogy, I believe that it is crucial that these individuals remain LEARNERS, who are staying current, open to new ideas and innovative in their approach. This is a key attribute that I look for in our newer teachers.

    I often hear the words 'master teacher' being tossed around as though these 'masters' have nothing left to learn. I would hope that Teachers Sponsors and Practicum Supervisors are Master LEARNERS who model and facilitate the learning process of pre-service teachers.

    We must remember that sitting in our classrooms are some future teachers. As educators, regardless of our role or title, it is important that we model and embrace the approaches to learning that we wish to see existing in the schools of tomorrow!



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