Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring  2010    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  14, Issue  1

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Studying lessons: Preservice education partners

 

Rebecca Schneider, University of Toledo, OH

 

Rebecca Schneider, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Science Education

 

Abstract

Powerful teacher education will depend on building authentic collaborative partnerships between schools and universities. Collaborative teacher education, however, is not a trivial undertaking and success is not guaranteed. In this paper, an innovative graduate level course designed for classroom teachers hosting a preservice teacher candidate is described. Inspired by lesson study, this course is designed to support teachers as learners, mentors, and partners in teacher education.

 

Introduction

Learning to teach in ways recommended as powerful for supporting student understanding is a complex and long term endeavor. Teachers need support in learning about teaching in ways that match their learning needs at each stage of their professional career. To ensure teacher quality, reformers are looking to collaborative partnerships to improve teacher education (Clark, et al., 1996; Sechrist, et al., 2002). Partnerships between K-12 schools and colleges of teacher education are encouraged in order to provide current and future teachers with the support they need to develop as experts in teaching. Collaborative teacher education, however, is not a trivial undertaking and success is not guaranteed (Achinstein, 2002; Schneider, 2006). A better understanding of how partners with different backgrounds interact and what types of instructional changes can be expected from initial attempts will facilitate this potentially powerful approach to teacher education.

 

To support classroom teachers as partners in teacher education, a graduate level course was developed to guide practicing teachers as they support their candidates’ learning in their classrooms. Inspired by lesson study [1], this course for practicing teachers is designed to be a concurrent experience with preservice courses so that each group can work together to plan, teach, and reflect on teaching in relationship to recommended practices. The purpose of this paper is to examine this experience from the perspective of the practicing teachers. How the course goals, tasks, and support structures are intended to encourage productive relationships between mentoring teachers, pre-service candidates, and university faculty are described. To further develop classroom-based educational experiences, what was learned about constructing explicit roles for teachers as mentors, learners, and partners in teacher education is reported.

 

Collaboration for teacher learning

Preparing quality teachers is fundamental to ensuring students’ success (Darling-Hammond, 1999; National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). Too often these experiences are disjointed and disconnected from classroom practice (Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001; Goodlad, 1990). In addition, teachers need guidance to develop as professionals so they can take on roles of leaders and mentors in their classrooms and in partnerships with universities. University programs can play an important role in promoting teaching excellence and professionalism. Yet, there are few examples of research-based university programs designed specifically to support teacher learning before and after graduation. Facilitating teachers’ collaboration with other teachers and university faculty can empower teachers to become active participants in the teacher education community (Bullough, 2005; Wenger, 1998).

 

Collaboration is recommended to enhance learning, support curriculum development, and facilitate research (Clark, et al., 1996; Eisenhart & Borko, 1991). In each of these situations partners are brought together by shared interest but diverse backgrounds. The idea is that partners will be able to combine their individual expertise in ways that will create higher quality products and experiences. By working together each can contribute to and benefit from the relationship. Collaborative work, however, relies on communication and joint ownership; all partners should learn and benefit from collaboration (Clark, et al., 1996). Communication means developing a shared understanding. Learning is supported when partners share, justify, and refine their ideas with others (NRC, 2000). When partners have different professional backgrounds, however, real communication cannot be assumed. Differences in interests, professional language, and professional culture must necessarily be bridged to share ideas and build joint understanding. Thus, collaborative relationships can be difficult to establish and may require effort to maintain.

 

Lesson study is one approach to bring teachers together in thoughtful collaboration to learn about teaching. This approach is highlighted in reports from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) describing teachers’ professional work in Japan (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). Since then some educators have begun to adapt this strategy to support teachers in learning to teach here in the United States. One example is a research and development effort at Columbia Teachers College (Chokshi & Fernandez, 2004). In this program, teachers are guided in taking a lead in their own learning by jointly constructing lessons, which are then taught by one of the teachers in the planning group. Analysis of the classroom enactment is focused on the merits of the lesson in supporting student learning rather than on the skill of the teacher. Thus, teachers become professionals examining and improving practice. This innovative approach to support teacher learning is grounded in classroom experiences and can encourage teachers otherwise reluctant to be observed, to participate in conversations about new strategies for teaching. I have built from this strategy to engage preservice and practicing teachers together in examining and improving lessons for the students they are co-teaching.

 

Linking teachers’ and candidates’ study of lessons

Spending time in area classrooms to observe students and teaching is a component of nearly all preservice teacher education programs (Darling-Hammond, 2006). The assumption is that candidates will learn about teaching by observing an expert teacher, watching students engaged in learning, and practicing teaching while guided by the experienced teacher. Although this arrangement does provide candidates with classroom experiences, the link between ideas presented at the university and the practice in the classroom is relatively weak (Hinds, 2002). Classroom teachers may not have experience with reform practices or learning technologies and thus cannot model teaching as described in university courses. Also, there is no assurance the plans as discussed at the university will be enacted in the classroom. Conversely, teachers have no assurance that candidates will develop quality lesson plans or be able to guide students in learning.

 

Hosting teachers also may be unsure as to how support preservice teachers in their initial attempts (Bullough, 2005). Based on experience observing classrooms and feedback from preservice candidates in our programs, host teachers frequently either “help” too much by encouraging candidates to used their existing plans and worksheets as is or they “help” too little by using a hands-off approach letting the candidates “sink or swim.” In addition, candidates are required to complete specific assignments as part of accreditation processes for colleges of education (e.g., NCATE, 2008). This has added an essential component of accountability; however, this also has added complexity and anxiety for preservice teachers. Because in many cases host teachers have not had opportunities to learn about reform practices and are unfamiliar with the types of assignments candidates are given they may be unable to guide or give supportive feedback.

 

To address these issues, a graduate level course was designed to engage teachers as partners in teacher education and ensure educational classroom experiences for candidates. Inspired by lesson study, this course was designed to focus on classroom practice including teacher-candidate shared planning, observation, and reflection with a clear focus on teaching rather than on the teacher for both the candidate and practicing teacher. This lesson study approach is valuable in that it defines a role for practicing teachers in guiding their candidate’s planning, teaching, and reflecting. Unlike other reports of lesson study type professional development, this experience explicitly partners practicing teachers with novices. The idea is to develop capacity in the schools to offer rich learning experiences for preservice teachers and to strengthen the link between the university and schools.

 

Supporting teachers as partners

The course, Mentoring a Preservice Teacher[2], is designed to focus on aspects of mentoring in classrooms that will engage teachers as teacher educators. Course activities are focused on: developing productive mentor-mentee relationships; guiding novices in planning inquiry-oriented lessons to promote and assess student learning; supporting and evaluating initial practice teaching and interactions with students; providing useful feedback; and assessing novice teachers’ ideas and learning. Assignments are designed to engage teachers in thinking about reform-oriented teaching and teacher learning by explicitly structuring their participation in support of preservice teachers’ assignments. The idea is to enable teachers to partner with preservice teachers to study teaching and with university faculty to support candidate learning.

 

Building from the idea of studying lessons together, teachers and candidates are given complimentary tasks and shared goals during planning, teaching, and reflection. For instance, while candidates are observing students to understand their thinking about content in order to identify learning goals to meet their needs, teachers are observing candidates to understand their thinking about students in order to identify learning goals for their candidate. In both cases, goals are mapped to national and local standards, for students and new teachers respectively. In this way, both mentors and candidates are tasked with carefully selecting learning goals for their respective audiences.

 

To engage teachers in studying lessons with their candidate, teachers are guided in identifying content goals – specifically factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge for students – which candidates will use to plan their units. Teachers then further engage in candidates’ planning by developing a short pre/post assessment for their candidate’s inquiry unit. In this way, teachers and candidates each have interconnected assignments around planning for learning. Together, they are asked to make explicit links from learning goals to planning, and then, to reflect on enactments in light of the learning illustrated by the assessment. In addition, teachers are assigned to write a critique of their candidate’s inquiry unit plan based on how the plan instantiates inquiry with suggestions for how the inquiry unit could be enhanced. Candidates are asked to emphasize student inquiry, dialogue, and technology use in their plans and enactments while teachers are asked to assess and give feedback regarding these features. Thus, teachers are encouraged to be more involved in the unit design and to really consider what features make a unit an inquiry unit.

 

Leveraging from teachers’ guided interactions with candidates, tasks are also designed to engage teachers in discussions about what mentors can do or say and how to talk with candidates, and what mentors should expect candidates to do. One example is teacher authored case stories about a dilemma or issue for teachers mentoring a preservice teacher. Based on their experiences, teachers describe a case and pose questions for their peers. Teachers then exchange stories and write responses, encouraging teachers to think about their role in teacher education

 

What we have learned

Approximately 50 teachers, grades 6-12, have participated since 2005. Teachers’ lesson and unit evaluations, assessment justifications, evaluations of candidates’ teaching, written case story of a mentoring experience, and weekly reflections have been collected and teachers have been interviewed mid-term and as a focus group at the end of each semester. This data has been examined for indications of teachers’ ideas about their roles in teacher education.

 

The course tasks do support teachers in taking a role in planning, teaching, and reflecting. Teachers tend to be very focused on their students’ needs and thus are able to develop excellent ideas for guiding candidates based on their goal of making the lesson work with their students. They also report trying new strategies themselves after helping candidates work with their students. Teachers find assessment to be a particularly important topic; however, they struggle to reconcile big ideas recommended by national or state standards versus textbooks with many small ideas. While teachers learn the importance of having candidates write detailed plans they remain unsure as to how to rate these plans or candidate’s teaching.

 

Teachers also begin to see candidates as learners. Teachers report that they are initially unfamiliar with candidates’ ideas about teaching or students, candidates’ insecurity interacting with practicing teachers, candidates’ uncertainty when working with students, or that candidates may not follow their plans. They learn the importance of feedback for candidates, specifically when to encourage and when to correct. Timing tasks so that teachers’ assignments (e.g. feedback on planning) coordinate with candidates’ assignments (e.g. revising plans) and mentor class discussion topics (e.g. what type of support did your candidate need) is particularly challenging. Tasks are more authentic and, thus, more effective when the timing was right.

 

These teachers do participate as partners in teacher education by providing improved and invaluable experience for candidates. These candidates describe their mentors as more supportive and knowledgeable than candidates with non-mentor teachers. However, it is hard for teachers to share professional space in the classroom. They are nervous having a candidate take over teaching. They are unsure in their interactions with candidates and university faculty. They are unsure when or how to they should talk to a candidate or faculty. They do not feel they have the authority to make judgments such as candidate evaluations, – particularly if the evaluation will impact the candidates’ future – approving candidates’ plans, or to interpret content standards.

 

Preservice education partners

Findings indicate that teachers can be supporting in learning about teacher education by focusing on candidates’ plans and teaching. Teacher learning can be leverage from teachers’ interest in their own students. However, timing of tasks and meetings with candidates and fellow mentors is critical. Also, assessment impresses teachers as difficult but important. Preservice teachers may not be ready to fully focus on assessment. Practicing teachers appear to have the classroom experience to make assessment a goal for their own learning. Conversely, preservice teachers are more willing to try new strategies while mentors observe students’ responses. Thus, teachers and candidates each have a valuable role and working together benefits both.

 

Findings also indicate that learning to mentor and becoming a true university partner can be challenging (Bullough, 2005; Clark, et al., 1996). Specifically, teachers struggle with how to communicate effectively with their candidates and how to negotiate the shared professional space of the classroom. Although from university faculty view point, teachers have been given an important role and authority in supporting candidates, teachers do not view their role as an equal partner in the school-university partnership. Preservice programs may need to assign “easy candidates” to new mentors. In addition, it may be helpful for teachers to have an advocate and a model for interactions with candidates and university faculty.

 

Conclusion

This course uniquely pairs practicing teachers with candidates around the study of lessons. It also gives explicit support for teachers as teacher education partners and shows promise for improving classroom experiences for preservice teachers. When teachers’ guidance and evaluations of candidate learning are consistent with the goals of their preservice programs, teachers are better able to authentically participate in teacher education and support candidate learning. This is a step in the right direction. Courses like this one for mentor teachers, can help to establish the type of partnerships that will include teachers as full partners in preservice education.  

 

Notes

[1] Lesson study is a professional development process that Japanese teachers engage in to systematically examine their practice, with the goal of becoming more effective.

 

[2] This course was developed and piloted in 2004 at the University of Toledo and is a regular course offering in the Judith Herb College of Education. Because this course guides teachers in becoming mentors it is endorsed by the UT3 project to recruit, prepare, and retain urban science and mathematics teachers. For more information about the program UT3 see: http://www.teachut3.utoledo.edu/. UT3 is funded by the U. S. Department of Education through the Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants program, Title II of the Higher Education Amendments of 1998.

 

References

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