Advancing High-Quality Learning Through Clinical Teacher Preparation

Since 2014, AACTE has featured the innovative work of several member institutions, including Ohio University in 2016, in its Research-to-Practice Spotlight Series highlighting clinical teacher preparation and partnerships. The video interviews in this series provide advice and examples for other schools of education looking to adopt a more clinically based model to advance high-quality learning. A commitment to high-quality learning is a core value of AACTE, both on members’ campuses and in PK-12 classrooms.

Teacher candidates, like everyone else, learn best when they take an active rather than passive role in their education, and clinical preparation empowers them to engage actively. In addition to building candidates’ professional skills and pedagogical content knowledge, many clinical experiences fully embed interns in the host school’s community and cocurricular activities. This practice helps develop confident, engaged teachers who are skilled advocates for effective teaching and learning in their communities.

It is also about educators taking charge of their profession. I can share from firsthand experience at Ohio University that the clinical model of teacher preparation has completely transformed our curriculum and our relationship with our schools and community.

The clinical model differs from conventional teacher preparation in several ways. For example, in traditional course-based preparation with separate student teaching assignments, teacher candidates often teach alone and have limited or fragmented field experiences. They also rely exclusively on college-based course work to inform in-class strategies and decisions.

In clinically based preparation, on the other hand, our candidates coteach with established professionals and enjoy sustained, yearlong experiences. Teachers become deeper mentors to our candidates, who are not passive observers but rather active partners assisting in the development of PK-12 students. Instead of checking off a list of course requirements, teacher candidates play a pivotal role in school and student performance. They take ownership of their work and become genuinely invested in the success of their students.

The benefits of this model cannot be overstated, but it requires careful and patient collaboration to succeed.

To create a clinically rich program, university faculty must first develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect with local schools and school districts. University faculty must also understand that PK-12 learning – not candidate training – is the top priority. The clinical model does not succeed because of top-down orders from legislators, deans, or superintendents; it succeeds because university faculty and school faculty view each other as equals and establish a mutually beneficial relationship based on common goals and interests.

If school districts are to allow teacher candidates to work with students and request that mentor teachers take on additional responsibilities, they have to know that the university presence is worth it. They have to know that the university has their best interest at heart. Far too often, schools and universities perceive each other as separate entities on opposite ends of the spectrum. In reality, they are interdependent. Thus, collegial collaboration with local schools is essential.

A clinically rich curriculum does not happen overnight, and it helps to start small. Establish a relationship with one class in one grade in one school. Create a practice-based system on a modest scale that meets the needs of everyone involved – school districts, partner schools, local administrators, mentor teachers, teacher candidates, and PK-12 students. Gain and build trust, and then expand over time.

A clinically rich curriculum also does not happen by accident. Schools of education may need to rearrange course schedules so that teacher candidates can work in schools on certain days and times. The models in the Research-to-Practice Spotlight Series show candidates who are engaging in classrooms 2 or more full days a week – not just for an hour or two at a time. Their extended presence allows candidates to get to know the students better, and students benefit from the added individual attention. The clinical faculty (i.e., teachers in the schools) benefit, too, as having teacher candidates in the classroom improves student-teacher ratios and provides flexibility when planning and delivering lessons.

One of the great outcomes of effective clinical partnerships is that partner schools often hire teacher candidates upon graduation. Because candidates have spent months or even years getting to know faculty, staff, and students at their partner school, the transition is often seamless. In fact, some principals at partner schools say it’s as though they’re rehiring current employees.

Even if there is not an opening at a partner school, teacher candidates are prepared to teach anywhere. Nearly 90% of our undergraduates find jobs in their field. Some stay in state, while others work elsewhere; some remain in rural areas, while some venture into urban or suburban settings. Wherever they are employed, our teacher candidates are poised to make a difference in the schools and communities in which they work and live.

This preparedness is based not on candidates’ mastery of any single practice but on their experience with tailoring practice to the unique needs of each community, classroom, and student. Clinical interns experience classroom challenges firsthand, discuss those challenges in their methods courses, and enact changes in collaboration with their mentor teachers – thus building professional habits that will serve them and their students well in the future. They learn to derive theory from practice, adapt curriculum to meet the needs at hand, and become empowered to determine practices and standards as members of the education profession. Clinically based preparation that embeds interns in schools’ communities can also instill a powerful sense of social justice that drives teacher candidates to advocate for high-quality learning environments wherever they go.

School-university partnerships are always a work in progress. Mistakes will happen, but both sides must learn from them. Collaboration and communication are key. The clinical model is not an individual exercise; it is a community-based approach in which all participants are members of the same team. It’s hard work, but it’s smart work when we do the work together.

I strongly encourage other universities to follow in the footsteps of Montclair State University, George Mason University, and Colorado State University, to name just some of the institutions featured by AACTE to date, and adopt the clinical model of teacher preparation to advance high-quality learning. Remember: We are only as strong as the next generation of teachers we prepare. Let’s better live our mission, embrace our responsibility, and lead in delivering new models that better prepare the next generation of teachers.

Renée A. Middleton is dean of Ohio University’s Patton College of Education and chair of the AACTE Board of Directors for 2017-2018.

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Renée A. Middleton

Ohio University