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Preparing Professionals

We are thrilled to share this blog from two graduates of the KU program who are extending the work of their alma mater on the ground, in their faculty positions.  Congratulations, Drs.  Lancaster!!

We were inspired by Marti Elford’s December Blog post, Partnerships in Professionalism and wanted to continue the themes of both partnerships and professionalism in our contribution. We teach in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), a public university with an enrollment of over 24,000 students and located in western Michigan. The College of Education has a long history of community partnerships and a very strong presence in school districts in metropolitan Grand Rapids. For example, our faculty members run summer camps for students with high incidence disabilities. We provide weekly reading and math clinics through our graduate special education programs, and have recently started more extensive partnerships with two local elementary schools. Each of these partnerships, along with many others, give our graduate students and teacher preparation candidates opportunities to practice implementing recently learned strategies, methods, and approaches while the children with whom they work are afforded intensive instruction in areas of need. As important as these services have become to the local community, we find them invaluable in our teacher preparation program.

In Linda Darling-Hammond’s 2006 article, Constructing 21st Century Teacher Education, she challenges schools of education to, “…venture out further and further from the university and engage ever more closely with schools in a mutual transformation agenda, with all of the struggle and messiness that implies” (p. 302). She continues by identifying and describing three, what she refers to as, “pedagogical cornerstones” essential for transforming teacher preparation. They are: coherence and integration within coursework and between coursework and field experiences; extensive, well-supervised clinical experiences that promote the link between theory, research, and practice; and, new relationships with schools in which strong instruction and professional norms are the rule not the exception.

Our own recent work within the College of Education at GVSU has focused on these three areas. First, the college undertook a curriculum mapping process during which we identified the underlying theories and framework, key research, and evidence-based practices taught in every course we offer. This process helped us to identify gaps, unintentional redundancies, and occasions for intentional redundancies. It also allowed us to identify opportunities for field experiences that might emphasize and enhance the theories, research, and practice we want to highlight.

Next, we took steps to expand our clinical and field experiences. The special education program has taken the lead in this endeavor moving sections of our assessment, oral language, and methods courses into a local school. Teacher candidates attend courses in the school and work for approximately 60 minutes with individual children or small groups applying the skills and knowledge they are learning. For example, they help conduct universal screens, collect progress monitoring data, and then use the data to inform small group instruction. Candidates in the oral language and methods classes provide targeted, intensive small group instruction to primary and upper elementary aged students for 30 minutes each. The obvious benefits are that teacher candidates receive targeted practice and immediate feedback, students in the schools receive intensive and individualized instruction, and faculty and teachers are able to collaborate and share their expertise and insights all toward developing better prepared teachers. A benefit we hoped for but did not expect was similar to findings described by Leko and Brownell (2011) in that at times our teacher candidates were skeptical about the effectiveness and utility of some of the research and approaches they learned in their coursework, but their implementation with children convinced them otherwise. The ability to learn in a field setting, apply learning to benefit students, and realize results with expert feedback has proven to be quite effective and popular with our teacher candidates.

Third, the relationships we are currently developing with schools are indeed quite different from our past approaches. We now spend considerable time getting to know the teachers and administrators with whom we are considering partnering. We discuss approaches for teaching literacy and numeracy skills, content, classroom management, etc. and sometimes attend each other’s professional development activities so that we speak the same language, support each other’s work, and view education through a similar theoretical lens. Our partner schools house multiple courses and six to twelve teacher assistants and student teachers per semester. We have made long-term commitments with these schools but also provide for opt-out pathways in the event the partnership is no longer productive.

Finally, in an effort to give our teacher candidates structured, supervised experiences as early as possible in their education, we created a 100-level course for all potential teacher education students. College students who enroll in the course spend the first two weeks learning and practicing Strategic Tutoring (Hock, Deshler, Schumaker, 2000). In week three, college students and their instructors, move their course to local schools, and each student provides approximately 45 minutes of one-on-one tutoring twice a week to elementary, middle, or high school students. Away from the schools they participate in online discussions reflecting on their experiences and educational contexts.

While we have considerable data in the form of case studies that demonstrate the extent to which the clinical courses and summer camps have impacted student achievement, and we have anecdotal data suggesting that these experiences serve to convince our students of the value of the interventions they learn, we have not attempted to systematically measure the extent to which teacher candidates or graduate students might be changed by these experiences. We would like to learn whether these experiences have an effect on their overall vision of professional practice. As a first step a colleague of ours at GVSU, Dr. Mary Bair, conducted a comparative case study in which she explored the phenomena of professionalism in the College of Education, College of Nursing, and School of Social Work at our institution. Her findings suggest the need for teacher educators at our university to more clearly identify and articulate what professionalism means within our field. She also found a stark difference between the manner in which nursing and social work preparation programs orient their candidates to becoming a professional compared to the way in teacher preparation programs do. Specifically, Dr. Bair found that participants within the education program expressed an individualistic and constrained perspective regarding professionalism in which candidates were encouraged to act like teachers rather than to become teachers. Thus, rather than a singular, focused view of being a professional, individual instructors share their suggestions for how candidates might behave like professionals. Contrary to that approach, participants in the social work and nursing programs expressed a collective and extended view of the construct of professionalism and maintained focus on ethical standards, consumption and production of research, and participation in policy making throughout their programs.

Given Dr. Bair’s findings, similar related findings in the literature, and the national conversation regarding teacher preparation and teachers as professionals, we are convinced that we have considerable work to do. We have made progress toward coherence and integration in our programs, developed strong partnerships within our community, and are offering many, varied opportunities for our teacher candidates to immediately apply their course-based knowledge in the field. Next, we need to firm up our definition of what a professional educator is, articulate and model that definition to our students, orient them to that perspective, and support them throughout their preparation as they become one. We sincerely welcome your thoughts, suggestions, comments, experiences etc.

References

Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Constructing 21st-Century teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(3), 300-314.

Hock, M. F., Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (2000). Strategic Tutoring. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises, Inc.

Leko, M. M., & Brownell, M. T. (2011). Special education preservice teachers’ appropriation of pedagogical tools for teaching reading. Exceptional Children, 77, 229-251.

paula lancaster sean lancaster

Paula Lancaster is a Professor of Special Education and Chair of The Special Education, Foundations, and Technology Department in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University. She completed her PhD in Special Education at the University of Kansas in 1999.

Sean Lancaster is a Professor of Educational Technology also in the Special Education, Foundations, and Technology Department in the COE at GVSU. He completed his PhD in Special Education at the University of Kansas in 2002.

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