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Cancel Field Experiences and Student Teaching in the Fall (and Possibly Spring)

The following article is Part 2 of an article by AACTE member Alex Cuenca in which he highlights the tensions involved in continuing student teaching in the fall and shares a guidepost for educator preparation programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read Part 1.

In my previous post, I explored how the belief that “experience” is the most authentic route for teacher learning creates an overreliance on field experiences and student teaching in teacher education programs. With wildly different state, local, and institutional responses to the COVID-19 crisis, teacher education programs are now left to navigate public policy on their own. Given the pedagogical power yielded to “experience” in teacher education, some programs (if allowed) will be tempted to continue with placements in fall during a health crisis because preparation without field experiences seems inconceivable. To be clear, the overriding concern ought to be for the health and wellbeing of our prospective teachers. Wondering whether we should place human bodies in a potentially dangerous situation during a global pandemic should not be a wondering at all. Yet, even if we suspend the recognition that schools are potentially perilous sites for the health of our teacher candidates, “experience” still fails as a sound rationale.

An additional layer of regulations based on the fear of spreading a virus in schools will create unnatural permutations to the already idiosyncratic nature of teaching and learning. The new questions raised by teaching in a pandemic are not just a logical variant of the typical uncertainties, but instead a novel unpredictability. Masks, social distancing, and prohibiting sharing will become new rules to enforce and police. Teaching and learning, which is dependent on social interaction will be socially distant. Teachers will have to divide their curricular and pedagogical planning and teaching between remote and face-to-face populations. And, whatever norms teachers construct in this uncertain environment will have to be immediately adjusted when schools intermittently close because of a positive COVID result. The uncertainty of schooling during a pandemic is perhaps best captured by Sarah Mulhern Gross, a New Jersey English teacher who has compiled over 350 questions that teachers have about teaching in the fall. Among this list are a series of questions pertinent to teacher education:

  • If a preservice teacher is exposed to COVID-19 while teaching will they be able to get tested through the district or will they have to find their own means to do so?
  • How will preservice teachers complete sections of the edTPA that require student collaboration?
  • How will preservice and coopeting teachers maintain social distancing while working with each other?
  • If a preservice teacher is forced into quarantine due to exposure could it delay the completion of their program?
  • Will preservice teachers be encouraged to take sick days? Historically they risk losing credit if they have absences.

If experience is paramount, is an experience in a milieu of prodigious uncertainty what teacher education programs want to deliver in the fall?Additionally, if field experiences and student teaching proceed in the fall, teacher education programs will have their own expanding set of questions to answer. What happens with a student teacher when a mentor teacher is reassigned to remote instruction? What are the expectations of mentorship during remote instruction? How will university faculty supervise student teachers if they are not allowed in buildings? What happens if teacher candidates are used primarily to assist in disinfection routines? What happens when a mentor teacher refuses to accept an additional body into their classroom? What will happen if mentor teachers are not following district health guidelines? How will teacher candidates communicate to their program violations of health and safety protocols? How will these violations impact grading or letters of recommendation? What if parents don’t feel comfortable with a college student in the classroom? Will student teachers have to provide districts/cooperating teacher evidence of contract tracing? How will the teacher education program communicate possible risks to the school/classroom community?

What about virtual field experiences?

Because field experiences and student teaching are entangled in state regulations that govern program accreditation and teacher certification, many teacher education programs are exploring the possibility of moving field experiences to a virtual setting. Although the virtual field experience option mitigates the health risks associated with COVID-19 for prospective teachers, changing the site from a physical to a virtual space during a pandemic creates similar pedagogical challenges for mentor and student teachers. Foremost, virtual teaching and learning is not a transposition of physical teaching and learning. Many teachers across the United States have worked diligently during the summer months to redress the kind of triage online teaching they were asked to deliver when schools shut down in March. Yet, the upcoming online shift in the fall will turn even the most experienced teachers into novice teachers. As such, the assumptions of mentoring to complete the balance of preparation cannot be taken for granted. In fact, pushing field experiences into a virtual arena places an even greater burden on mentor teachers than the typical (non-pandemic) placement.

With a few exceptions, teacher preparation assumes a physical student and a physical work environment. Teacher candidates entering virtual field experiences were not prepared for this kind of unique teaching and learning environment. How to curate content for online understanding? How to present information concisely in an online platform? How to develop academic and social expectations online? How to build rapport with students synchronously and/or asynchronously? What online routines are most beneficial for certain age groups or content areas? These questions certainly have “physical” counterparts that might be useful for student teachers to consider in the future. However, these are also the same kinds of questions that mentor teachers are asking themselves for perhaps the first time in their careers. As such, teacher education would be asking virtual field experiences to not only make up the balance of the knowledge gaps in preparation for physical teaching and learning, but also those that will naturally emerge in an online environment where mentor teachers have nascent personal practical knowledge. If a virtual shift must occur, teacher education programs must do more than they have in the past to carefully support teacher learning during field experiences.

What now?

I recognize that asking teacher education programs to cancel field experiences and student teaching is provocative.  My hope is that I’ve provided pause for teacher education programs who either rationalized that the “show must go on” or that a virtual field experience is just a “scene change.” The intervening months during a pandemic is not a time to “reinvent” anything, including teacher education. However, I ask that teacher education programs consider the question: what if there were no field experiences in the fall (and possibly spring)? What if instead of just changing the scene and continuing our overreliance on field experience by placing students into the brave new world of virtual classrooms in the fall, we extend university-based teacher education. Perhaps teacher education programs take this opportunity to create learning opportunities around virtual instruction (instead of leaving it up to schools and teachers through virtual field experiences in the fall). Maybe teacher education programs take this opportunity to further concepts and ideas about teaching and learning that were previously unthinkable because of a curricular line of demarcation between field experiences and university coursework. What if teacher education programs take this opportunity to explore the possibilities of analyzing exemplary videos of practice or case studies?

For some teacher education programs, developing alternative worthwhile opportunities outside of field experiences requires confronting state mandates and regulations. However, as we witnessed last spring, most state education agencies relaxed these regulations. As the arbiters of teacher preparation, program faculty and administrators must collectively pursue new exemptions that release programs from the prescriptive policies that assume that “time served” in field experiences is synonymous with learning to teach. If we wish to do what is best by K-12 students, teachers, and teacher candidates during this pandemic, teacher education programs become more engaged in the spaces that previously belonged to field experiences and student teaching. Cancel field experiences and student teaching in the fall (and possibly spring).

Alexander Cuenca is assistant professor of curriculum & instruction and program coordinator of middle/secondary social studies education at Indiana University. His research explores social studies teacher education, the student teaching experience and the pedagogy of teacher education.


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