By: Daniel Bergerson
Empirical research has confirmed what should be common sense: Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. However, recent stories of universities struggling to find placements for student teachers in my home state of Minnesota remind us that teachers’ working conditions are also student teachers’ learning conditions.
In February 2014, the Minneapolis newspaper Star Tribune reported that a severe shortage of host teachers is forcing preservice teachers to postpone their careers. Without the twelve or so weeks of student teaching that we need to become certified—not to mention adequately prepared to independently lead a classroom full of students—future teachers must decide whether to try their luck again come next semester or find long-term employment elsewhere. This problem is most acute in science, special education, and English language learner (ELL) instruction because there are not enough current teachers with these specialties to meet the rising demand. Students at Minnesota State University campuses, Bemidji and Mankato in particular, have struggled to find appropriate placements, but the lack of student-teaching opportunities is also a problem nationwide.
Saddled with large class sizes and frequent high-stakes testing, preK-12 teachers seem to feel more and more that their heavy workload leaves them with neither the time nor the energy to mentor and evaluate student teachers. Plus, when policies like merit pay (i.e. linking teachers’ salaries to their students’ standardized test scores) put enormous pressure on teachers to narrow their curriculum and teach to the test, it is not hard to understand why most feel like student teachers would be better off in another classroom. In this way, the shortage of host teachers is a direct consequence of the neoliberal education reform movement, as well as a symptom of long-standing structural inequities in the American public education system.
Unless the Barnard Education Program quickly loses all of its host teachers in the Upper West Side and West Harlem to worsening working conditions, I will be student teaching in the fall semester of 2016. For the time being, however, I observe a middle school social studies teacher once a week. Sadly, whenever I ask this teacher a question about her approach to lesson planning or classroom management, I know that I am taking precious preparation time away from her. This situation—a zero-sum game between student learning and student teacher learning—is not ideal for anyone. Anyone, that is, except fast-track teacher preparation programs like Teach For America that both contribute to and benefit from the deprofessionalization of teaching.
This inability to match student teachers with mentors who have decent working conditions and professional autonomy is only wasting the time of the next generation of educators. We have nearly completed our teacher education programs and are eager to work with students, so it is not right that many of us preservice teachers are denied this final step toward certification. As Hajra Syed noted in her blog post, “Diversity in Teacher Education Programs (or lack thereof),” there are already too many barriers to becoming an adequately prepared and traditionally certified teacher, especially for low-income students and people of color. We cannot let a mentor shortage produced by edupreneurs and corporate deformers become another barrier for those of us who want to work as teachers and fight for equitable, quality public education.
I do not know of a silver-bullet that can single-handedly solve every problem of accessibility and quality in teacher education, but I know that as a soon-to-be student teacher I would be heartened if any of these ideas were enacted:
- Roll back policies that tie teacher evaluations to standardized test scores and thereby create a classroom culture in which rote memorization is valued more than authentic learning.
- Withdraw support from organizations like Teach For America that repeatedly fill schools in low-income communities with underprepared recruits who do not have enough classroom experience to mentor anyone other than next year’s cohort.
- Make quality teacher education programs accessible to low-income students and people of color so that the majority of preK-12 students in the United States are represented among the student teachers who do actually find placements.
- Pay host teachers a higher stipend as compensation for the important work that they do as mentors.
- While you’re at it, pay student teachers for the work that they do with real students in real schools!
About the Author
Daniel Bergerson is a second-year undergraduate student in the Barnard Education Program at Columbia University. He is currently studying history, writing children’s stories, and organizing with Student-Worker Solidarity—all in preparation to become a social studies teacher in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielBergerson