Let this fact sink in: When schools assign student teachers to their very best teachers—and not just any willing volunteer—the impact on teacher quality is astounding. Because of the high quality of these student teachers' experiences, they are likely to be as effective in their first year of teaching as most third-year teachers.104 That's a tremendous difference. A good student teaching experience jump-starts a new teacher's career—and guess who benefits the most? Their students.
Findings like these have important implications. Schools that want to create a strong, stable teacher pipeline may not need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on alternative sources of new teachers. Instead, they mostly need to turn their attention to strengthening the process by which they select who works with student teachers and how they can more strategically leverage these partnerships.
Job one for schools is to do whatever it takes to recruit their strongest teachers to mentor student teachers. Additionally, the teachers that schools select also need to be both great mentors (since not every great teacher is a good mentor) and ones who like their jobs—who will sell the district to the teaching prospect.
Some teachers express concern that hosting a student teacher is too disruptive and may hurt student learning. That's true for those teachers who aren't instructionally strong. But it's not true for effective teachers. Studies have shown that when student teachers are matched with effective teachers, the learning doesn't suffer.105
There is lots of evidence (and hearsay) suggesting that neither school districts nor teacher preparation programs pay enough attention to the quality of the classroom mentor. In new ratings from NCTQ looking at the quality of clinical practice, it seems that the vast majority of traditional university-based teacher preparation programs don't feel comfortable telling school districts that only great teachers should mentor student teachers. (There are a few states that require mentor teachers to be effective, but not many.) Instead, mentor teachers are often chosen based on factors other than effectiveness or mentorship skills, like being a willing volunteer or having three years of teaching experience.106
Program Role in Screening Mentor Teacher (Traditional Programs, 2020)
The onus is clearly on schools to first appreciate how much it is in their self interest to restrict student teaching to their best teachers and then to take the steps necessary to make mentoring a student teacher an attractive proposition for those teachers.
A win-win for districts
Fulton County, Georgia shows how school districts can increase the value of student teaching as both a training opportunity and as a pathway to hiring great teachers. Fulton County created the First STEP internship program, in which student teachers are matched with the very best classroom teachers for a year-long experience in county schools. Student teachers, who are carefully screened, are attracted by a $3,000 stipend and guaranteed early consideration for jobs. Classroom teachers must show strong mentorship, instructional, and classroom management skills to be considered as mentors.
Fulton County describes the First STEP program as enriching its teacher pipeline by attracting the best student teachers, supporting them, and raising the likelihood of their being hired by Fulton County once they are certified. Fulton County has hired more, and better-qualified, teachers through First STEP than it ever did through student teaching in previous years, even though Fulton County made the deliberate decision to reduce the number of student teachers it accepts by about two-thirds when First STEP began. This is because about 80% of the First STEP interns have accepted jobs with Fulton county, up from 10% of student teachers before the program began.
Five steps every school district should take to get the most bang for the buck with student teachers:
- Limit the job of mentoring a student teacher to the strongest possible group of teachers in the district. Sweeten the pot by making it an honor to be selected with plenty of recognition and provide a healthy stipend. Keep in mind that even a $3,000 stipend is a lot less expensive than securing teachers through more expensive alternate routes.
- Make sure that mentor teachers will be great frontline recruiters, attesting to what a great place the district is to work.
- Reduce anxiety of prospective mentor teachers by allowing them to meet prospective student teachers, giving them a choice of whom they mentor.
- Before agreeing to place a student teacher, determine if they're someone that you will likely want to hire.
- Attract the best student teachers. Consider paying a small stipend to student teachers as a way of attracting highly sought after candidates. Give student teachers priority consideration for a full time job the following year, as long as their performance is acceptable.
For school districts, improving student teaching offers a direct path to improving the teacher pipeline. While this may require some investment of effort and money, the payoff in terms of teacher quality is enormous.
Read more research and recommendations on the importance of student teaching in NCTQ's new report, 2020 Teacher Prep Review: Clinical Practice and Classroom Management.