Three things we’ve learned about creating alignment across teacher-educators
“I wish they did a better job of coordinating across our courses and our placement schools.”
“We hear different things from our mentor teacher, our field supervisor, and our professors.”
“I’ve had a variety of different [teacher-educators]. It feels like you’re starting over all the time.”
“It can be frustrating with some professors not talking to each other.”
These are comments from actual teacher-candidates — and I’ve heard similar statements from many more teacher-candidates at programs around the country. These teacher-candidates are frustrated by the silos that exist among different teacher-educators — coursework faculty, supervisors who oversee student teaching, and mentor teachers. Each group often has their own beliefs about the most important things for teacher-candidates to learn, and thus gives different and sometimes conflicting guidance to teacher-candidates, placing the cognitive burden on candidates to reconcile that feedback.
At the Cato College of Education at UNC Charlotte, Deans for Impact member Ellen McIntyre is tackling this challenge. In the fall of 2016, she asked Deans for Impact to support her college in designing a Teacher Education Institute (funded by the Belk Foundation) to bring together coursework faculty, supervisors, and mentor teachers for a four-day professional learning experience where teacher-educators could build common language to describe teacher-candidate practice and learn how to coach candidates more effectively. As we worked with UNC-Charlotte, we’ve been learning how programs might develop respect, trust, and a set of shared expectations among different teacher-educators. Here are three lessons that stand out.
We listened to the perspectives of teacher-educators
We first set out to understand the needs and perspectives of these three groups, holding focus groups and surveying candidates, coursework faculty, supervisors, mentor teachers, and principals and superintendents in partner districts. Like in many other programs, we heard some misunderstandings about how much — and what — other teacher-educators were contributing to candidates’ development.
- From a coursework faculty member: “Candidates are being put in classrooms with mentor teachers [who] aren’t using evidence-based practices. We need to do more to educate the mentors.”
- From a supervisor: “I’m not really sure what faculty are teaching candidates before they get to student teaching.”
- From a mentor teacher: “Candidates are coming with ideas and strategies that are just disconnected from the realities of the classroom.”
At the same time, we heard from teacher-educators a genuine desire to know more about what the other groups were doing, what candidates were learning when, and what each teacher-educator’s role was, relative to each other. People were eager to provide input, and were grateful to be asked. One mentor teacher said, “This is the first time I’ve been asked to do something like this.”
Surfacing these different perspectives through focus groups and candidate surveys helped illuminate the biases teacher-educators brought to the work, the challenges they faced, and the opportunities they believed the Teacher Education Institute (TEI) created. These different perspectives helped us refine our understanding of the needs we were addressing with the TEI, reinforcing the importance of building understanding and trust across these different roles.
We invited teacher-educators to collaboratively plan with us
In February, we convened a small group, made up of UNC Charlotte leadership, faculty, supervisors, and mentor teachers, to serve as a “design team” for the TEI. Through a facilitated process, the design team refined the TEI’s objectives, defined a vision of success, brainstormed activities that would meet the objectives, and drafted multiple versions of an agenda for the TEI.
We used many of the design team’s ideas, including an introductory activity intended to familiarize people with each other’s roles:We used many of the design team’s ideas, including an introductory activity intended to familiarize people with each other’s roles:
Preparing to work together
For each prompt, form a small group containing mentor teachers, coursework faculty, and supervisors, and discuss:
1. Take on the perspective of someone who has a different role (mentor teacher, supervisor, coursework faculty). What is rewarding and challenging about that role?
2. Share what you want someone else to know about your current role.
3. Share what you hope to learn at the TEI.
Drawing on this group’s expertise in the design process helped ensure that the learning experience would be valuable and respectful of each group’s needs and also created more investment in the training.
We designed to democratize expertise
One of our design parameters was, “Draw on all the expertise in the room.” We wanted to ensure that, to the extent possible, we eliminated any power dynamics among teacher-educators. All of the participants were experienced educators, and we wanted to both respect their experience and make use of their expertise. We approached this in a couple different ways:
- Discussions of practice, grounded in evidence, can be a unifying activity, so we anchored the first two days of the TEI on watching videos of teacher-candidates and experienced teachers, and unpacking those observations. Regardless of role, all participants could lend expertise to the discussion, and the videos provided a common evidence base.
- We set norms to guide conversations, encouraging participants to make their observations both specific and non-judgmental.
- We designed activities that had mixed-role groups working together to generate a list of “Look Fors” for different teaching practices. The goal for this activity was to begin to collectively generate common language while also encouraging individual contributions.
- We asked mentor teachers and faculty to co-facilitate some of the sessions. They met ahead of time to plan, which helped build relationships. And at the TEI, there was a sense of shared ownership for the success of the training and a visible reminder that people in different roles could be “experts.”
We created opportunities for all teacher-educators to contribute meaningfully and recognized members of each group as experts, which helped to lessen power dynamics and disrupt the traditional hierarchy of teacher-educators.
The efforts at UNC-Charlotte are already starting to pay off. In June, more than 100 teacher educators formally came together for the first time for the Teacher Education Institute. In a post-convening survey, 99 percent of participants said that the TEI met or somewhat met the goal of developing trust and respect among faculty and mentor teachers. One participant reflected, “As a clinical teacher, speaking openly about candidates with UNCC staff is refreshing. Getting on the same page is critical. We are all equals.” Another participant said, “It is great to build meaningful relationships with our school partners and learn something together.”
Of course this is just the first step. Four days won’t solve a challenge that has existed for years. But the relationships built and the learning accomplished during those four days – and over the months of collaborative planning – have laid the groundwork for meaningful partnerships that will translate into more coherent learning experiences for candidates.