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Those Who Teach, Learn

In a Kentucky suburb, student teachers are embedded in a public elementary school, helping them bond with kids and get real-time feedback while lightening the load for veteran teachers.

Elena Humpert, a junior at Northern Kentucky University, answers a student's question during a lesson at Florence Elementary. (Boone County Schools)

College lectures on pedagogy and early literacy techniques were helpful to Elena Humpert, but it wasn’t until she spent nearly all of her week in an elementary school classroom that she knew what it meant to be a teacher.

Humpert, a 21-year-old Northern Kentucky University student, spent most of her school weeks this past fall at Florence Elementary School, a Title I public school in Florence, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. Her day-to-day centered less on debating the merits of childhood benchmark tests and more on convincing antsy second-graders to sit still long enough to learn addition.

Northern Kentucky University has long partnered with Florence Elementary to pair education students with experienced teachers two days a week for a few hours. But last year, NKU began a pilot project where its students spent nearly the whole school day in classrooms, four days a week.

Teaching is a demanding job. Teachers have to balance educational standards, individualized learning strategies, and students’ emotional states. They have to deal with empty stomachs and scraped knees, plus teaching the difference between a “c” and a “ch” sound.

Some strategies can be taught in a lecture hall, but mostly, the best way to learn how to be a teacher is to teach. “The work of teaching—the stuff teachers actually do—should be the main focus of what we teach our teacher education students,” says the NKU education professor Amy Bacevich.

Now, students like Humpert say they get more time to form relationships with their knee-high students, build trust with a mentor, and understand the nuances of life at an elementary school. “I got to see the bigger picture of me becoming a teacher,” Humpert says. “It made it really real for me. There were times when I was exhausted at the end of the day.”

The program isn’t traditional “student teaching,” which is the capstone of many education students’ college coursework. Student teaching is done in a student’s senior year, but this program introduces them in a supporting role as early as the first semester of their junior year.* The two-year collaboration between NKU and Florence Elementary began in January 2016, and already, other schools in the Boone County district are considering starting similar programs.

NKU student teachers in class in their makeshift instruction room at Florence Elementary. (Boone County Schools)  

Research into active learning in general has shown positive results. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that students who learned material in a lecture setting were one-and-a-half times more likely to fail the class than students who did hands-on exercises. The study focused specifically on science, math, and engineering students—more abstract subjects that had traditionally been lauded as perfect for a lecture setting.

Likewise, in 2007, the medical school at Case Western Reserve University tested a method of teaching anatomy that followed one simple rule: no lectures. Students learned by discussing clinical cases and read textbooks on their own time. A study on the method suggested it was working, and students knew the anatomical information necessary to progress. Plus, their enthusiasm didn’t wane over the duration of the course.

The Florence Elementary Principal Lisa Resing sees the immersive model as a win-win-win. Kids thrive when there are more educators on hand to give one-on-one instruction; student teachers learn more when they’re actually teaching; and veteran teachers at underfunded schools get some free help to lighten their load.

Before the program launched, “the greatest growth our students showed was during the time when the NKU students were working with [them],” Resing says, based on anecdotal accounts. So Florence worked with NKU, and in particular with the education professor Tammie Sherry, to see what would happen if NKU students spent more time teaching at Florence and less time in their own lecture halls.

“They get more out of their time in Florence classrooms because they are a regular presence in the room,” Bacevich says, noting that mentor teachers often encourage the teachers-in-training to spread their wings. The mentors “tend to say, ‘You know, you’ve seen me do the mini lesson for a few days, so [do] you want to do the mini lesson today?’”

College students start their day at Florence in a modified classroom with a lecture on literacy methods. They then immediately go to real classrooms to help with reading lessons. “Often times, we will work on those management practices in our class, and the students will go out, and they’ll be able to try things out right away,” Bacevich says.

Being able to try out a method of teaching within an hour of learning it is invaluable, says the NKU student Naomi Krebs. “I can easily see right away that the strategy [Sherry] was teaching me was working, and I could see the benefits of it right away.”

Bacevich recalls one student teacher who had a difficult morning at Florence because the kids weren’t following her instructions. When she asked them, “Would you go sit on the carpet?” she was met with defiance. Bacevich and other professors explained that the children took the question literally, and thought they were being offered a choice.

When carpet time came up in the student teacher’s class later on, she knew how to lead her young charges. She said, “Let’s all go to the carpet,” and the students immediately stopped what they were doing and obeyed.

“It was like a miracle,” the aspiring teacher told Bacevich.

*NOTE: This story was updated to clarify differences between the Florence/NKU collaboration and conventional student teaching.

About the Author

  • Meredith Rutland Bauer is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance reporter covering the environment, science, and technology. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, VICE, TheStreet, and the Tampa Bay Times.