Sue Dickman rarely used to volunteer to host teacher candidates (also known as student teachers) assigned to her classroom. A veteran teacher who has taught sixth grade for 20 years at Agnes Stewart Middle School in Springfield, she felt the setup shortchanged the teacher candidate as well as her own students.
For one, the weeks of passive observation new student teachers were required to do seemed a “criminal waste of time and at the very least, boring,” she says. Then she didn’t like turning over control of her classroom to an inexperienced teacher candidate. With increased accountability and pressure for results, she says, she just wasn’t willing to take the risk with her students. She says, “I always felt I was walking away from my classroom to let them sink or swim.”
TeachOregon, a partnership with school districts and higher education, helped turn around Dickman’s attitude about student teachers in her classroom. TeachOregon’s collaborative approach makes for a more meaningful clinical practice for cooperating teachers as well as the teacher candidates they supervise. The program emphasizes “co-teaching” to make the experience more rigorous and relevant. Rather than letting student teachers sink or swim, the program provides structure and support. “The co-teaching model changed everything,” says Dickman, who has taken on more student teachers in the past few years than she did in all her previous 30-plus years of teaching.
Since 2012, TeachOregon has partnered with Springfield Public Schools, as well as the University of Oregon, Pacific University, and Lane Community College, to attract more candidates to teacher education programs and to improve the quality of those programs.
Dickman brings her vast experience to bear when working with teacher candidates. She is a member of Springfield’s Teacher Leader Cadre, which spearheads efforts to support professional learning and alternative career pathways for educators. She participated in extensive training to become a cooperating teacher and continued on to conduct trainings for other cooperating teachers in the district, so she knows the process inside and out. Dickman works closely with her current student teacher, Stella Strother-Blood, a master’s degree student at the University of Oregon. They collaborate on every facet of the school day—planning lessons, teaching in tandem or individually with the other observing, studying student data and, finally, reflecting on how everything went and how they could do better.
“You work as a team, so communication is key,” Dickman says. “You never just hand things off.”
“There’s definitely a difference between theory and practice,” Strother-Blood says. She feels she “lucked out” getting to be in Dickman’s classroom because they work so well together. She knew she was welcome from the start when she saw her name posted on the classroom door.
Strother-Blood says the experience has showed her how to integrate the strategies and techniques she learned about in her college courses. She has been inspired by Dickman’s “superhero” ability to meet the needs of each of the 27 students in her classroom. Strother-Blood also has gained greater appreciation for the balance teachers have to find in meeting students’ social and emotional needs while challenging them academically. “It’s your job to educate them,” she says. “But it’s also your job to know which students are going through a hard time at home or maybe didn’t get breakfast that morning.” She’s still looking for a job next fall, and says, “I’m feeling as prepared as I can be.”
Dickman says having a smart and engaged student teacher helps her stay on top of her game, too. Strother-Blood has offered up great ideas such as using graphics to explain narrative flashbacks in a reading lesson, or introducing new technology to the classroom.
“Stella learns as much from when my lessons fall short as when they appear to be seamless,” Dickman says. “The reflection that we do about everything we teach helps both of us to grow. Ultimately, the experience enriches me as a teacher and enriches my class.”
Although she is retiring from the classroom this year, Dickman is grateful for the opportunity to give back to the profession by serving as a cooperating teacher for the next generation. “I feel it’s my responsibility,” she says. “We need to develop strong new teachers.”
- Teacher Preparation