Back in 2015, a group of department chairs, administrative leadership, program directors and faculty at Jackson State University formed a task force to write a plan for transforming our teacher preparation program. In that plan, we identified areas of strength and areas we needed to improve. We wanted to build on the deep experience and wisdom of faculty, while taking a fresh look at how we could more strongly ground the experience of our teacher candidates in current K12 practices. At around that same time, we were fortunate to find incredible support by joining the US PREP coalition. With JSU leaders and faculty leading the way, the US PREP peer network and coaches acted as critical friends to strengthen and accelerate our work. We have achieved so much together.
Reflecting on these last four years, I can say without a doubt that the most powerful change we’ve made is in how we approach clinical practice: how we observe our teacher candidates in the field, how we coach them and how all of that works together to prepare them for their culminating clinical practice experience. Before we began our work, we didn’t have a researched model of supervision or a coaching component embedded in our program. A university supervisor—often a retired school teacher—would be assigned to monitor and evaluate candidates who were required to complete student teaching placements over the course of one semester. The supervisors would then visit candidates about four times during the semester, two of which were for formal observations that were then supplied to our Director of Teacher Quality. We didn’t have routines where those observations included real-time feedback to candidates, or informed the program so that candidates would become better teachers. University supervisors observed and evaluated students utilizing a state approved rubric that reflected the expectations new teachers would be held to when they became teachers of record, but clinical protocols were not in place to ensure documentation of intervention support to candidates not meeting standards. We offered professional development to teacher candidates based upon a generic pre-determined, static set of topics.
That’s all changed. We piloted and have now fully adopted an entirely different clinical experience for our teacher candidates. We call it our clinical residency model. The work to implement it hasn’t been easy or straightforward, but it has been well worth it.
So what did we do differently? First, we extended our student teaching experience from one to two semesters, but were obligated to allow legacy students previously admitted to our program to exercise the option of a one semester experience. Although honoring the rights of legacy students to complete one semester meant that we would at times have two cohorts of students. We used that time to regularly observe our candidates against clear standards for beginning teaching practice. And we improved the quality of supervision by training cooperating teachers, and implementing a new faculty role called a Site Coordinator. We used data from those observations—and from K12 students themselves—to continually shape teacher candidate practice. We required our student teachers to create, implement and monitor an academic or behavioral intervention in their classrooms, grounded in student perception data we gathered directly from the students our candidates are teaching.
That K12 student feedback also led to powerful candidate reflections and learnings. One teacher candidate shared that it was “a very humbling experience that made me cognizant of how I engaged the students verbally.” Another shared that the student feedback helped her to “understand the need to frequently check for understanding because more than one student expressed that I didn’t help them when they didn’t understand what was being taught.”
We also completely revamped how we provide coaching and professional development for our teacher candidates. Our faculty Site Coordinator collects regular, standards-based diagnostic observational and feedback data on all of our candidates, and that is what forms the basis of the specific supports we provide for individual candidates and the collective group in each cohort. We meet them where they are and support them, step by step, to get to where they need to be.
Finally, we built the capacity of our teacher educators so they had the knowledge and skills they needed to successfully support teacher candidates in this new model. We developed and offered new training, including video-based calibration exercises, on the standards we use to assess new teacher practice.
At the end of our pilot year, we made the decision to move fully to the clinical residency model. It was an easy choice: we found distinct differences between the teacher candidates in the clinical residency model when compared to those who chose the existing traditional program. The candidates themselves told us this loud and clear in perception data we gathered from both groups. Our faculty saw the difference too: during campus-based professional development sessions where the teacher candidates from both models interacted, leadership and faculty observed that teacher candidates in the transformed model articulated questions and responses that showed a command of pedagogical concepts on par with their in-service educator peers.
The pilot process to transform candidates’ clinical experience wasn’t all good news and smooth sailing. There were still numerous legacy students in various stages of degree matriculation who were opting for the one semester residency experience. We learned the hard way how important it is to the change process to have an inclusive, thoughtful communication and engagement plan that includes everyone who is affected by the work. Although we began the planning process with a broad coalition within our university, we didn’t do enough initially to engage faculty deeply in the changes we needed to make. So, it was not surprising that early in our pilot process faculty expressed reservations and concerns. One faculty member bluntly stated: “Our opinions and engagement were not solicited prior to the implementation of the changes, so you shouldn’t be surprised that many faculty members are disgruntled and not fully supportive.”
We heard them. Our Associate Dean reconvened the task force and quickly determined that we needed to step back and provide opportunities for faculty feedback to strengthen our plans and to develop the support we needed to ensure the shifts were sustained over time. We quickly convened a meeting with both faculty and leadership, and emerged with a shared vision and a commitment to engage more deeply in a retreat to focus specifically on how to align and revise the curriculum for teacher candidates. I’ll tell you that story of how we worked through curriculum in my next post!