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

The following article is Part 1 of an article by AACTE member Alexander 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.

In this post, I explore how the unexamined inertia of “experience” in teacher education contributes to the hesitation of teacher education decision-makers to cancel field experiences and student teaching in the fall. Canceling field experiences and student teaching in the fall is the most responsible decision. Primarily, because even a basic understanding of the germ theory of disease during a pandemic should be enough of a rationale. However, because higher education is ensconced in the same neoliberal rationales that led to the premature opening of private and public enterprise over the last few months, teacher education programs must navigate public policy on their own. Of course, with all of the uncertainty that has been created by the response in the United States to COVID-19, I don’t pretend to know what is best for every single teacher education program. Field experiences are entangled in state licensure and certification regulations, institutional scheduling issues, and school and university partnership agreements. However, operating from the position that COVID-19 continues to pose a substantial risk to the health and well-being of students, teachers, school staff, and student teachers, I hope to provide pause for those who believe that field experiences and the student teaching experience must go on.

The inertia of experience

One of the classic problems in teacher education is the “two worlds pitfall,” which arises from the fact that teacher education occurs in two distinct spaces: university coursework and field experiences. The bifurcation of teacher education into coursework where academic learning takes place and field experiences where the professional application of that learning occurs signals to prospective teachers that field experiences is where learning to teach actually takes place. This message has been reinforced by the curricular structure of teacher education; the different ways that candidates demonstrate success during university coursework and field experiences; high-stakes performance assessments during student teaching that determine licensure before preparation is ostensibly complete; and the lack of program faculty participating in supporting field experiences. Although much work has been done by teacher educators, researchers, and blue-ribbon panels to bridge this disjuncture, many teacher education programs continue to inordinately lean on field experiences to fulfill the balance of teacher preparation.

Because “experience” has become indispensable to the notion of teacher education, when field experience and student teaching are threatened by a pandemic, it is easy to assume that teacher preparation is incomplete. Understandably then, candidates who have been positioned to value classrooms as the sites where application of knowledge occurs will be troubled by a perceived lack of self-efficacy if field experiences are not realized. Consequently, for teacher education, the overreliance on experience has created a conundrum because preparation without experience has never been entertained.

Putting the recognition of the germ theory of disease and the physical health of our teacher candidates aside for the moment, let us follow our belief in experience as an imperative in teacher education, and consider what kind of experience we might be providing for teacher candidates if we place them in the fall.

State and local education agencies across the United States have been scrambling to put together recommendations, suggestions, and guidelines for returning to school in the fall. Most districts are currently deciding whether to provide hybrid, face to face, and/or remote schooling options. Regardless of the choice, schools will be radically different in the fall. Pandemic schools will look nothing like the schools that teacher education programs prepared student teachers to experience.  Despite some variation, state and district plans contain strikingly similar suggestions such as:

  • Rearranging desks and school community spaces to increase space between students.
  • Facing desks in the same direction.
  • Prohibiting students from sharing items like pencils and pens.
  • Teaching students disinfecting techniques.
  • Enforcing mask wearing when social distancing is not possible.

With just these five recommendations we can imagine the disruptions that will be created for (mentor) teachers, students, and teacher candidates. Mentors will guide novice teachers in a foreign teaching and learning environment. Students will be policed for every violation of social distancing and mask wearing. Candidates will engage in routines improvised and adapted specifically for pandemic teaching. The magnitude of the disruption to teaching and learning during a pandemic is not just another problem for teacher education programs to overlook because of the benefit of experience. This is more than a personality or stylistic mismatch. This is more than an imperfect placement, dealing with an overcrowded classroom, or coping with a scripted curriculum. When schools are opening and operating under unparalleled duress, gaining experience for the sake of experience is a dangerous rationale.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on Thursday, July 23.

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

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