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A Clinical Approach to Teacher Preparation: A Conversation with Teacher Educator Elizabeth Bondy

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Colleges of teacher education have been taking a lot of heat recently. Everyone from the Secretary of Education to NCATE (the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) has called for teacher education to be “turned upside down” - to move from academic coursework to the clinical practice that will help prepare soon-to-be-teachers for life in the classroom.

Of course, some schools of ed have been on this track for years. Take the University of Florida’s College of Education. For ten-plus years they have been working in partnership with the communities they serve, developing clinical programs to meet schools' needs while helping their students gain relevant experience in the classroom. And they track their graduates, using what they learn to drive improvements in their program. One example? A major shift in how they teach students to interact with English language learners.

Elizabeth Bondy, Professor and Interim Director of the School of Teaching and Learning at the University of Florida’s College of Education, recently told us more.

Ensuring Relevancy in Teacher Preparation

Public School Insights: Many critics of university teacher preparation programs see them as largely irrelevant to the challenges that teachers face in their everyday lives. How do you ensure that the teachers you graduate are ready for the classroom?

Bondy: The concept we refer to as “professional development communities” is really at the center of much of the work in our program. The idea is to get university folks, school-based folks and others, such as family members, to come together to support learning.

It must be ten years that we've really worked hard at developing these kinds of relationships. In them, we emphasize the learning of the children and what needs to be done in a particular school to help all its children be successful. It is not just the business of the teachers and other school-based folks to make learning happen. As people who go into a school, it is our responsibility to put the learning of the children at the core of our work.

Given that framework, you almost can’t help but make sure the work that the pre-service folks are doing is relevant. Because you're doing the work in partnership with people who are committed to the children and, in fact, you are committed to the learning of the children.

Now, not every single field experience is in a professional development community. For instance, in the first semester that the students are with us, which is the first semester of their junior year because they've been doing general education and preparation for the program, their first field experience is a community-based experience we've had in place since 1990. They work one-on-one with children who live in public housing neighborhoods. So they're not in an official professional development community. They're in generally either a recreation facility or center of some kind in a public housing neighborhood.

We developed that program with the executive director of the local public housing authority and a captain from the police department. It came out of their concerns about what was happening to children in those neighborhoods. Very high dropout rates, just lots of issues. And it came out of our own concern that some of our graduates reported that in their teaching positions they were expected to work with children and families they felt they didn't have much preparation to work with. Children from high-poverty families and communities, children who frequently had different racial and ethnic backgrounds than their own. They didn't feel well-prepared.

In the program our students are paired with children in a one-on-one relationship. They meet twice a week over the course of a semester. And the four courses that they're taking are arranged to incorporate that field experience. We call the program Bright Futures.

That is a field experience that's not in a professional development community, but it addresses a real concern: That all teachers need to be prepared to work with a variety of children and families, to understand their life experiences and be responsive to them. So that's our first field experience.

Then we move into experiences that are housed in these professional development communities. They vary, of course, in terms of how much time our students spend in them and what exactly their assignments are while they are there. But those assignments are always created and carried out within the context of the partnership. We don’t just come in, drop our student teachers and run.

Preparing Teachers to Work with English Language Learners

Public School Insights: I understand that your program has an interesting approach to training teachers to work with speakers of other languages. Could you tell me about that?

Bondy: We call the program Unified Elementary Pro-Teach for a reason. The word "unified" refers to several things, one being that we work together throughout our college, drawing on the expertise of many, to prepare our students to be inclusive educators. We want our students to be able to teach kids for whom English is not the first language and kids who have some kinds of high incidence disabilities. We don't pretend we prepare our students to work with kids with really significant and profound disabilities, but we do prepare them to work with children who have high incidence disabilities - mild learning disabilities, behavior kinds of issues. Some might see ADHD or ADD as disabilities.

So we are unified across our faculty to prepare our students to create inclusive classrooms. And our students graduate with ESOL endorsement in the state of Florida. They have two courses which we often refer to as "anchor" courses in the ESOL areas, both of which include field experiences. They happen at very different times in the program – one is quite early and one is much later.

And ESOL competencies are woven throughout other courses in the teacher education program. To take me as an example, though now I'm not teaching because I'm the director of the school, I have taught a class I just adore. It was a classroom management class, which is not always found in teacher education programs but is the number one concern of new teachers in the field. And though my expertise is not in ESOL, we incorporated an ESOL standard related to the quality of the classroom community. In other words, how do we help pre-service teachers learn to create a classroom community so that kids who may not speak English well or at all, and kids who are from different cultural backgrounds, still feel included? That's just one small example of the integration of ESOL standards done across courses to prepare our folks to work with kids whose first language is not English.

We've got three core ESOL faculty members. They have a large grant to study our graduates and their beliefs and practices related to working with ESOL students, or English language learners. They're in particular trying to understand what impact our program had on those beliefs and practices. So they're collecting a number of different kinds of data including observation data, interview data and student achievement data. And what we are most excited about is that they can feed what they learn into the program so we can change what we need to change, carry on what's working well and so on.

That's what's been happening to this point related to ESOL. But one of our concerns is that in the county where we live, we don't have a large population of ESOL children in the schools and our students are not getting as much experience with ESOL students as we would like them to have.

So we are re-working how our full-time internship works. We run a master's program for practicing teachers in what we refer to as "partner districts" around the state. And we run a professional development program for those folks, which we call Teacher Leadership for School Improvement. It is a distance program that full-time teachers do online. And we have great enthusiasm around that program, which may involve the fact that we were actually able to pay the tuition, thanks to a very skilled fundraiser. And since he is also skilled at developing close partnerships with district offices, the districts buy into this model and support the professional development of their teachers.

You're probably thinking, "Okay, we're getting off track," but we're not. What we're looking at now is linking our pre-service folks with teachers who have either graduated from or are currently in our Teacher Leadership for School Improvement graduate program.

The thought is, wouldn't it be exciting for our full-time student teachers to be in their classrooms? Of course, they wouldn't be in Gainesville [where the university is], but we've got these four big districts where we have partnerships and where we have classroom teachers who are in our graduate program.

We like this for a number of reasons. One is related to ESOL. Our four main partnership districts are Miami-Dade; Duval, which is the Jacksonville area; Pinellas; and Collier County – not Naples, but the Immokalee community, which consists of mainly migrant worker families. ESOL is in great demand in these districts. And our hope is that we can enhance our students' preparation for working with English language learners by having them spend time in these districts, where there are many English language learners and teachers who are accustomed to working with them on a daily basis. To me, this is super exciting. This next fall will be our first cohort of our interns in these classrooms I've just been describing.

Preparing Career-Changers for Life in the Classroom

Public School Insights: I understand that the University of Florida’s College of Education also offers a year-long Urban Internship Program. Could you tell me a bit about that?

Bondy: Our year-long internship programs are for career-changers. We have two programs right now that fall under the heading of EPI, or Educator Preparation Institute, a state of Florida-approved program. We have one that's local, here in Alachua County, and we have one located in Duval County. And they're a little bit different.

In Alachua County, we offer a one-year program that culminates in a master's degree. All of the students in the program -- there are 35 this year -- have a Bachelor's degree in some area that is not education, and they work in a classroom all year while doing university coursework.

That coursework is usually located at the school where they are interning. And those courses are sometimes taught by practicing teachers. For instance, the reading course and the mathematics methods course are always taught by two teachers. And this year there's a wonderful elementary teacher teaching the language arts and children's literature course, and an elementary teacher teaching the science methods course. So a mix of university folks and school-based folks teach courses to these people who are in classrooms most of the day every day.

In total, these students complete 36 hours. Thirty-six hours is normally 12 courses, but they get some credit for their internship. So they're taking eight courses and doing this full-time internship. This is one branch of the Educator Preparation Institute.

It's laid out differently in Jacksonville, because their needs are different. They have a grant called Transition to Teaching, which is aimed at career-changers who want to come into teaching without professional preparation. The idea is they will be prepared during the year to work in classrooms in Duval County, and when they complete the Educator Preparation Institute, they will be hired in an elementary position in Duval County.

Theirs does not culminate in a master's degree. It's five courses, and the state pretty much specifies what those courses will be. So we put together this package of courses to go along with a year-long internship.

While they don't get a degree, they may apply those courses to a graduate degree if they chose to pursue the Teacher Leadership for School Improvement Program I mentioned earlier. So those pieces fit together nicely.

Public School Insights: If you are in one of these internship programs, are you the classroom teacher of record?

Bondy: No, our students are not the teacher of record. They are still learning to teach. Of course, they're going to be learning to teach their whole lives - anyone who knows anything about teaching knows that. But there is a teacher of record with whom they collaborate.

We really have adopted a co-teaching model. We use it for a number of reasons, one being that with the increasing inclusion of kids with disabilities in classrooms, teachers often find themselves co-teaching at least part of the day. Perhaps with a special education teacher who pushes into a classroom, or a teacher who is primarily responsible for kids who are learning English. Or even an aide, which some classrooms are fortunate enough to have.

So we want our graduates to know how to collaborate with another professional, because they may find themselves in that kind of situation. And they’ll need to collaborate to be effective with the kids.

Tracking Graduates

Public School Insights: One hot topic relating to teacher preparation is tracking graduates to determine how effective they are as new teachers. Do you do anything like that?

Bondy: We do track them. We get their employers, generally the principal, to complete a survey on our graduates. And our graduates do a self-assessment as well.

What we've been working on the last two years is questions that get at evidence of their impact on student learning. The state of Florida now tracks the FCAT gain scores of students whose teachers graduated from state of Florida teacher preparation programs. But there are a lot of concerns with those kinds of data, about the use of those data, how informative they really are, and so on.

Of course it's important to know the impact our graduates are having on student learning. But we're trying to figure out how we can look at student learning more broadly. So we have been trying to find additional kinds of data to give us insight into the impact our graduates have.

FCAT data only include reading and mathematics at this point, and only for fourth and fifth grade teachers. So we’re a little limited in how much those data can tell us. And when we recently did some analyses of the data, we found that there was usually no statistically significant differences in the gains of students of graduates across the many teacher ed programs in the state.

That was very eye-opening. I was glad we asked one of our quantitative methods people to help us understand what the data mean. They actually don't tell us much.

This graduate tracking is a challenge all over the state of Florida. Everyone's asking each other, "What is it you're getting from your graduates?" Our secondary people are at a complete loss. And our early childhood folks are at a loss. All we've got is fourth and fifth grade math and reading scores. But I am sure anyone would say, "Well, it looks kind of limited right now. Is it ideal? No. Is it a start? Yes. What else do we need to do? Not sure."

I think it's just something we have to continue to work at. But what we do know is that we have to wrap the coursework around the fieldwork. Fieldwork has to be central. And we've got to know that what we're doing with our folks makes sense, given the current realities of classrooms.

We've got to work closely with principals and teachers. In about two weeks we have the Elementary Education Coordinating Committee, which is a group of faculty, principals and central administrators from the local school district. We bring everyone together once in the fall and once in the spring so we can talk about the gaps in the program, what's happening in the schools they think we may not be preparing people for, and so on.

Here's a specific example. A couple of years ago it was really clear that RTI - Response To Intervention - was taking hold across the country. In one of these meetings we had a central office person say, "Well, we are having RTI workshops, with trainings in all the schools. What are you doing to prepare your kids to be ready to work with the RTI model?"

And we had to say, "You know what? We're not approaching it systematically yet."

So we started integrating RTI so our students would graduate knowing enough about RTI that they wouldn't be thrown when they heard about it and they'd be able to get in the groove of whatever their district is using, because it's not the same across the state. Groups like Education Coordinating Committee are really helpful in ensuring we're continuing to align our program with the needs of schools.

I feel pretty proud of us. About every ten years there is really a sea change in our program. We don’t toss out everything and start again, but the movement to Unified Elementary Pro-Teach actually started in the fall of '99. And here we are, just over ten years later and we're making another pretty major adjustment, making sure everyone's in professional development communities and linking our pre-service teachers to in-service folks all over the state to work with diverse populations. I'm proud of the faculty who think this way, who are dedicated to this work. It takes an enormous amount of time.