Daniel J. Bergman, Iowa State University





The purpose of this study is to examine the transitional nature of the student teaching experience.  What concerns and influences do student teachers encounter as they make their way through this change process?  In particular, what do they face when implementing research-based instruction?

Two preservice science teachers were followed throughout their student teaching semester.   Several important generalizations about the student teaching experience emerged.  These include the sequence, amount, and nature of field experiences in the school setting.  Teacher educators must examine quality and quantity of current practicum requirements.  Other topics of interest are factors that help student teachers survive and succeed in the experience.  Personal traits such as perspective, healthy humor, and passion provide internal equilibrium during the student teaching experience.  Teacher educators would be wise to consider this aspect of education.  How do they promote these attributes and acquaintances in their pre-service students’ lives? 

This study examines a critical issue to science education – the teacher’s transition from college student to professional educator.  It promotes dialogue about crucial influences in the success of pre-service and beginning science teachers.  It raises questions for future research and consideration. 







It is a common conclusion that the first year of a teacher’s career is always the toughest.  A close second-place for difficulty is the student teaching experience.  Pre-service teachers change roles from usually passive student to an active decision-maker.  Munby and Russell (1993) describe this uneasy shift as “a transition from being under authority to being in authority” (p. 9).

Student teaching is a subject of ample research investigations.  Studies have examined a variety of factors and influences on the pre-service experience.  Even before the actual student teaching semester, the sequence and schedule of science methods courses impact the practicum experience (Crowther & Cannon, 1998; Kelly & Dietrich, 1995).  Teacher educators significantly influence the views of their pre-service teachers concerning areas such as respecting students, modeling effective teaching, and being active professionals (Bell, 1999).  Peer supervision can also have noteworthy impact on student teachers’ development (Caruso, 1993). 

A primary factor in the student teacher’s experience is the cooperating teacher (Kelly & Dietrich, 1995; Talvitie, Peltokallio, & Mannisto, 2000).  Cooperating teachers influence student teacher development with respect to pedagogical knowledge (Graber, 1995), verbal interaction patterns (McLeod, 1967), instructional activities (Sagness, 1970), beliefs related to behaviorist and constructivist learning theories (Woolley, Woolley, & Hosey, 1999), and initial professional socialization experiences (Su, 1992).  Teacher educators value cooperating teachers’ evaluations and input when determining final grades for student teachers (Baker & Hedges, 1991).  In turn, cooperating teachers benefit professionally through the collaboration with student teachers (Koskela & Ganser, 1995; Lemlech & Hertzog, 1999). 

Koskela and Ganser (1995) report that cooperating teachers often express uncertainty about their particular role in working with student teachers.  Varied expectations and deficient communication among the university instructor and supervisor, cooperating teacher and student teacher are common obstacles to successful student teaching placements (Kauffman, 1992).  Communication is a determining factor for the success of a student teaching experience (Coulon, 1994; Talvitie, Peltokallio, & Mannisto, 2000). 

Potentially harmful trials arise when student teachers attempt to incorporate research-based, or “reform”-oriented instruction during their experiences.  Particularly, this occurs when the student teacher finds a lack of support in his or her placement.  An assortment of barriers can inhibit reform.  Differing teaching philosophies can exist between the student teacher’s placement school and the student teacher, university methods courses and professors (Fu & Shelton, 2002; John, 2001; Sullivan, Mousley, & Gervasioni, 2000).  Other constraints include inexperience, resistance from students, and physical requirements such as lack of funds, storage space, and inadequate facilities (Byrd & Doherty, 1993).  When student teachers confront barriers to reform, they face even more challenges than simply preparing to become a teacher.  This difficult change process can debilitate beginning teachers (Abell & Roth, 1991; Thornton, 1995). 

In addition to the challenges of applying university learning toward classroom teaching (Black, 2003), student teachers also face the challenge of becoming active decision makers.  This transition into authority is not an easy process (Munby & Russell, 1993).   Mulholland and Wallace (1999a, 1999b, 1999c) have researched the conversion from student to teacher.  Their work examines attitudes of beginning teachers about science and their perceived ability to teach it.  These studies, however, have been focused only on elementary teachers. 

Student teachers often find themselves lost in “sea of change,” so to speak.  Tides of change tug at them from every direction.  Student teachers are not alone in this obfuscating ocean.  There are numerous objects floating and swimming by, each interacting with the student teachers.  Much as a swimmer must deal with buoys, other swimmers, creatures of all sizes and appetites, entangling plants, wake-trailing vessels, pollution – not to mention their own stamina, training and skill – so too must student teachers function among an assortment of influences.  What are these factors in the change process? 

The purpose of this study is to take a closer look at the transitional nature of the student teaching experience.  In particular, it examines the experiences of two secondary science student teachers.  What concerns and influences do they encounter as they make their way through this change process?



            When developing a research study, Crotty (1998) notes there are two primary questions to answer: 1) What methodologies and methods will I use for this research?  2) How do I justify my choices?  (p. 2) This second question refers to the epistemology – theory of knowledge – and the theoretical perspective that frame the choice to the first question. 

The primary goal of this study is to learn about student teachers’ thoughts on the change process from student to teacher.  Therefore, I have framed this project on an epistemology of social constructionism.  The themes that I notice to emerge from this study are ideas formed and perceived by the respondents, the student teachers.  The interpretivist perspective relies on examining the words and symbols used to communicate meaning.  The interpretive tradition, as described by Smith and Heshusius (1986), posits that “social reality [is] mind-dependent in the sense of mind-constructed” (p. 5). 

My observations and interactions with the respondents rely on interpreting the meanings of their language and portrayal of ideas.  In essence, the gathered information is a composite of the student teachers’ own stories.  Their experiences are shaped by their individual perspectives.  As researcher, I gather data through their narratives and descriptions.  Furthermore, I take in this information through my own perspective.  As I work through the process of sense making, I reconstruct their understandings into my own words and language. 

Framed by this theoretical perspective, I have chosen to approach the study by means of a phenomenological research methodology (Crotty, 1998).  “The overall purpose is to understand how people make sense of their lives and their experiences” (Merriam, 2002, p. 38, emphasis in original).  The general method chosen is a case study of two student teachers.  This strategy affords in-depth interaction with respondents and multiple opportunities for study.  Particular practices used within the case study are interview, observation, document analysis, and informal observation and dialogue.  I will elaborate on these elements in the following Design and Procedures section. 


Design and Procedures

As stated above, I employed four major components in this case study.  One method was a semi-structured (or in-depth) interview with each student teacher respondent.  I composed an initial list of questions for my interview guide (See Appendix A), but I adjusted my questions as I listened to the respondent’s comments.  These questions were open-ended and flexible to use.  This approach was used as opposed to possibly more efficient means like a written or emailed survey, which imposes prior construction of ideas.  As Esterberg (2002) describes, “in semi-structured interviews, the goal is to explore a topic more openly and to allow interviewees to express their opinions and ideas in their own words” (p. 87).  During these interviews, I did not follow any predetermined script or order.  Rather, I followed the flow of the conversation and addressed questions as they came up or related to what was said.  This less stringent approach allows the interviewee and myself to make – or construct – meaning through our dialogue (Reinharz, 1992).

A second method employed was observation of the student teachers working in their classrooms.  This was primarily non-participant observation.  I sat near the rear of the classroom and to the side.  Sitting at a desk or chair, I used a laptop computer to type out observations and comments during the class period.  Since other adults such as university supervisors of the student teachers were common visitors to the classroom, the students seemed mostly unaware or unconcerned with my presence. 

Esterberg (2002) mentions that the research instrument in an observation setting is the researcher.  As a human instrument, I was not able to take in every occurrence or interaction in the classroom.  Since my research focus was the student teachers’ development and experiences in change, I focused primarily on them.  During my observations, I paid particular attention to the student teachers’ behaviors – what questions they asked, their interactions with students, how they used students’ ideas, how they responded to questions.  I also took note of the lesson format and approach to instruction.  As I scripted the progression of the class period, I would insert comments and questions referring to items previously discussed in the student teachers’ science methods classes.  This was helpful in framing the instruction with respect to what the student teachers had learned through their teacher education program. 

Along with these “formal” interviews and observations, I used informal observations and conversations with the student teachers for data collection.  I interacted with both pre-service students on campus for two semesters during their Monday night science methods class.  I sat among the students during the weekly meetings of the class.  I would participate in the class activities, discussions, and small group interactions.  In addition to providing moments of observation and dialogue, my hours with the student teachers helped build trust and camaraderie.  After some classes during the semester of their student teaching (and after IRB approval), we would remain afterwards and discuss their experiences.  These communications most closely resembled the format of an unstructured interview (Esterberg, 2002).  During these informal conferences, much of my behavior was to listen.  In one instance, Sarah shared her concerns for classroom management and motivating students.  We exchanged classroom stories and past frustrations for 20 minutes.  Ultimately, we made a mental list of helpful ideas for intervening when one or two students continued off-task behavior. 

A fourth method component of the case study was document analysis.  Resources include university information about the secondary science teacher program, the MAT (Masters of Arts in Teaching) graduate consortium, and the field experiences requirements.  I also used lesson plans and self-evaluations from the student teachers.  Further documents comprise of information about the student teachers’ placement schools.  This includes public information such as the school graduation rates, science requirements, attendance figures, enrollment numbers, minority percentages, mission statements, standardized assessment scores, and other information.  These public records can provide useful insight into the demographics, the surrounding community, and the physical environment of the student teachers’ placement schools (Esterberg, 2002; Schensul, Schensul, & LeCompte, 1999).

In addition to these four major data sources, I maintained a research journal throughout the entire course of the study.  I described informal interactions with the student teachers, recorded experiences during the study, summarized my classroom visits, described visits to the schools, and jotted down initial thoughts and reactions to current occurrences.  This informal journaling during field work was beneficial in organizing my thoughts, reflecting on the study, as well as incorporating noteworthy entries into data for analysis (Fetterman, 1989). 

There is one more item I must address with regard to the design and procedures of the study.  This is the number of respondents in the case study.  I chose to work with two student teachers as opposed to a greater number such as ten or a dozen.  I made this conscious decision to allow more time to go further in depth with both individuals.  This specialized focus helped me dig deeper into the student teachers’ experiences, feelings and reactions.  If an extended time span for study were possible, I would definitely include more student teacher respondents.  This is something I will consider for future research.  As it is, the time constraints framing this study limit the respondent number.  And despite the definite need for prolonged engagement, I believe working with these two student teachers allowed me a substantive amount of information to examine. 


Data Collection and Analysis

            After informally observing and visiting with the student teachers in their secondary science methods class (and before beginning any formal research), I asked them about participating in the study.  The two student teachers I approached agreed and we set up times when I could observe their classroom teaching.  Semi-structured interviews occurred after the observations – either the afternoon after school or within the next week.  During this time, I also researched public information about the placement schools and the pre-service science education program in which the student teachers were enrolled.  After the study formally began, I started to keep records of my informal observations and discussions with the student teachers. 

Once I had collected a bulk of data from observation notes, interview transcripts, and document examination, I began the analysis process.  I analyzed the data and developed meanings through an technique similar to the grounded theory approach.  Grounded theory, as described by Crotty (1998), “is a process of inductive theory building based squarely on observation of the data themselves . . . Throughout the process, it seeks to ensure that the theory emerging arises from the data and not from some other source” (p. 78).  Esterberg (2002) notes that there are two general steps to this approach for analyzing transcripts: open coding and focused coding.  In the first stage of open coding, I thoroughly reviewed the interview transcripts and my notes.  I purposefully did not start the analysis with any preconceived or conscious expectations of the data.  While open coding, I marked any ideas or comments that seemed noteworthy.  Through this initial process, I began to notice recurring themes in the data.  I then returned to the data and began focused coding.  In this second stage, I deliberately looked for the key ideas that resurfaced multiple times.  I also reviewed the literature and noticed connections among the experiences and words of the student teacher respondents and what was found in prior research. 

Merriam (2002) reminds us that qualitative research endures an ongoing deliberation about its validity and reliability.  One method to promote validity – internally, at the least – is to incorporate triangulation of the data.  The form of triangulation I utilize is analyzing the multiple design components – observation, interview, document analysis, etc. – used in the study (Denzin, 1989).  Employing these various data sources helps balance their strengths and weaknesses (Esterberg, 2002; Merriam, 2002).  I would examine meaning I had made from interview transcripts and compare that to other data sources.  For example, if a respondent spoke of using classroom management techniques to keep students on task, I would review my scripted notes taken during my classroom observation.  I would also consider our informal conversations in the methods class and the questions and comments they shared with their peers. 

To promote reliability – also referred to as “consistency” or “dependability” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) – I employed resources beyond triangulation.  To check for initial accuracy of the respondents’ meanings, I gave them each the transcript of their interview.  I encouraged them to review the transcript and inform me of any additions or modifications.  In particular, I was interested if the respondents wanted to rephrase any of their words to more accurately communicate the intent.  Once I had coded the transcripts and identified emerging themes from the data, I composed an initial draft of the results and my interpretations.  I gave each respondent this analyzed portion to review as a form of member checking.  This process promotes an accurate analysis of the participants’ perspectives and what they intended to communicate (Merriam, 2002).  It helped verify if the themes I noticed emerging were true to the meanings that the student teachers intended to convey.

Member checking acts as a means to promote validity.  Another such practice is peer review and examination (Merriam, 2002).  As this study was part of a graduate course in qualitative research, I shared my initial results and interpretations with classmates for their feedback.  I met with a classmate multiple times for one-on-one peer review.  Additional activities were giving a status report and presenting a poster of my research findings with the entire class.  “Within the qualitative paradigm, valid is a label applied to an interpretation or description with which one agrees.  The ultimate basis for such agreement is that the interpreters share, or come to share after an open dialogue and justification, similar vales and interests” (Smith and Heshusius, 1986, p. 9).  The methods above were chosen to promote data interpretation and reporting close to their intended meaning.

In addition to the above strategies, I employed the use of thick, rich description to promote external validity, or generalizability (Merriam, 2002).  A vivid, specific narrative of the research setting and respondents prompts readers to make comparisons to their specific circumstances.  “In case study research, data analysis consists of making a detailed description of the case and its context” (Hébert & Beardsley, 2002, p. 209).  To this end, I chose to record and report a thorough portrayal of the student teachers’ placements and experiences.  The following paragraphs provide information about the pre-service secondary science education program, the student teachers, the placement schools and cooperating teachers.

The MAT Program

The MAT (Masters of Arts in Teaching) program is a secondary science teacher preparation program at a large research university in the Midwest U.S.  It is a state teaching licensure program developed for graduate students who already have degrees in the field of science.  Students join in a consortium, beginning coursework in May and graduating 15 months later.  All courses are face-to-face (as opposed to internet-based or satellite broadcasts) and take place on the university campus.  Other credits include classroom observation (20 hours minimum) during the first month as well as a longer in-class practicum experience in the fall.  This second practicum requires an all-morning or all-afternoon observation and participation Monday through Friday.  The subsequent spring semester is for student teaching full-time at a placement school.  After the student teaching semester, students take two more classes in the summer months before graduating.  During this time, they also complete the creative component of the program such as an action research study of their teaching. 

The Student Teachers

The two student teachers involved in this study work in the same consortium of the MAT program.  They take the same education courses together with approximately 15 other MAT graduate students.  Both hold undergraduate degrees in science from the same university as the MAT program.  At the time of the study, both were in the middle of their student teaching in the spring semester.  They will complete their coursework in the upcoming summer months and receive their MAT degree and state teaching license in August.  At this present time, they are also in the initial stages of applying for full-time science teaching positions for the fall.  Pseudonyms are used to ensure anonymity.

Sarah is a single woman in her early 20’s.  She graduated with a degree in Agricultural Biochemistry last year.  Two days after walking through commencement exercises in May, she started classes in the MAT program.  She decided the summer before her senior year in college to become a teacher and enroll in the MAT program.  Sarah is a smart, quiet individual who speaks in a steady, relaxed voice.  She is easy going and does not openly display emotions or frustrations.  Even with this calm demeanor, Sarah is quick to smile and share an easy laugh. 

Brad is about 30 years old and is married.  At the time of the semi-structured interview, his wife was expecting their first child within the next month.  Brad began his college career in the pre-medicine program as a biology major.  He also enjoyed art and struggled throughout his undergraduate years “whether I was going to be an artist or a scientist.”  He switched his major to art with plans to still attend medical school.  However, the subjective nature of art on his grades convinced him to finish his undergraduate degree in biology.  After graduation, he moved to California and was a professional artist for eight years.  Eventually, he decided to return to the Midwest and enter the MAT science education program.  Much like Sarah, Brad is soft-spoken and quick to smile and share a laugh.  He is more open to share his comments and experiences with his peers in the methods courses.  His words are gentle and well-examined, indicating careful consideration about his ideas.

Placement Schools and Cooperating Teachers

Both Sarah and Brad are currently student teaching at their placement schools.  Sarah teaches general chemistry at “Wilson” High School.  General chemistry is an elective science course, but students planning to attend the state university system must have this class to be accepted.  Brad teaches general biology – a required science class – at “Adams” High School.  Both schools are located in urban settings in a metropolitan city within 40 miles of the university campus.  The following is public information about the student teachers’ placement schools:

Wilson High School      Adams High School


Enrollment (9-12)                                             1,210                           1,186


Minority Percent                                               38.7%                          42.6%


Average Daily Attendance                                92.7%                          90.3%


Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch         33.0%                          55.0%


Graduates Taking 3+ Years of Science 58.0%                          56.6%


            The graduation rate (total) for the city’s district is 82.0%.  The district graduation rate for Hispanics is 72.5% and for African Americans is 76.2%.  For the state standardized science assessment, 36.1% of the entire high school student population scored below acceptance levels of performance.  The district presently requires two years of science credits for graduation.  For the current school year, the district’s high school science improvement goal is as follows:

Students will improve performance in science such that the percentage of 11th grade students scoring at the competent and advanced levels on the [state standardized assessments] will increase at least one percentage point when compared to the scores achieved by 10th grade students the previous year.


In addition to the above information, I have included outcroppings (Fetterman, 1989) of the locales and people from my experiences visiting these locations.  These descriptions are located in Appendix B.

I briefly met Sarah’s cooperating teacher during my visit to Wilson High.  One instance was at the beginning of class as I was situating myself at the back of the classroom area beside his desk.  He stopped at his desk for a quick moment and was gone for the rest of the class.  Afterwards, I spoke pleasantries with him as I left the room and met him standing out in the hallway.  Later, Sarah shared with me his reaction to my visit.  He commented he was not impressed with my own position as a five-year veteran of teaching returning to learn how to be a teacher educator.  This individual is approximately a ten-year veteran of teaching.  He has had another student teacher from the university in a previous semester.  Unfortunately, this earlier student teacher – described by the university science methods professor as “one of the best” – had a disappointing student teaching experience and never entered the field upon graduating.  Sarah has shared frustration about her cooperating teacher expecting her to do what he tells her.  There is little room for her own decision-making or incorporation of what she has learned in the MAT program.  She describes the cooperating teacher as “hating” the university methods professor.

During my entire visit to Brad’s classroom, I never met his cooperating teacher.  A woman passed into the room twice to pick up something at the teacher desk.  This could have been the cooperating teacher.  I asked Brad about this later.  He didn’t recall noticing her, as he was busy teaching.  Brad’s cooperating teacher is a woman with about 20 years of teaching experience.  She was ill at the beginning of Brad’s student teaching semester and has been described as “burned out” of teaching this year.  She was a past president of the state science teachers association and a faculty district representative, among other service positions.  Much like Sarah’s relationship with her cooperating teacher, Brad is not allowed to freely attempt his own ideas based on methods experience. 

One reason I chose to initially investigate Sarah and Brad’s experiences was because of this potentially restraining and strained relationship with their cooperating teachers.  The cooperating teacher/student teacher dynamic is but one area of the student teaching experience.  I did not enter the research with this as the center of attention.  Rather, I focused on all of the change agents and influences experienced in student teaching.  As stated earlier in the introduction, the purpose of this study is a more general investigation of these changes.

The Role of Self-Reflexivity

Before discussing the results and interpretations of the study, I should offer my own background.  My own experience may shed light on my perspectives.  Six years ago, I went through the same process as Sarah and Brad.  While my teaching preparation was for an undergraduate degree, I did participate in a methods program with a similarly developed theoretical background for instruction.  After attending two semesters of reform-based science teaching methods courses, I entered my semester of student teaching. 

The extent to which my personal experiences influence this study could be negligible or integral.  Despite any potential for detrimental bias, I would assert that my own experiences do assist me in making meaning with the student teachers and in analyzing their stories.  Lofland and Lofland (1995) argue that “much of the best work in sociology and other social sciences . . . is probably grounded in the remote and/or current biographies of its creators” (p. 13).   I used my prior experiences from half a decade ago to help me reflect on what the student teachers told me and with what areas I saw them struggling.  Self-reflexivity benefits the development of both the research and researcher (Reich, 2003). 


Results and Interpretations

            Through analysis of my conversations and observations of Sarah and Brad, I have noticed several recurring themes.  For example, both were excited to dive into their student teaching experiences.  Both student teachers struggled to fine tune the techniques – or “mechanics” – of teaching:  managing students’ late and make-up work, addressing school activities, dealing with school building “politics,” managing classroom behaviors, preparing for content and planning lessons, among others.  Sarah and Brad also faced challenging changes to their personal lives, impacting family, friends, schedules and activities.  Each of these factors impacts a student teacher’s transition process from full-time student to full-time teacher. 

Within the framework of this study, however, I have chosen to focus on the change experiences student teachers face with respect to their instruction.  In particular, I will address three themes: the impact of university coursework, the challenge to incorporate reform-based teaching, and how the student teachers manage through the difficult experience.  These three themes impact the student teachers’ progress as they navigate through their “sea of change.”

The Waves of Classes:  “I’ve had a lot of worthless education classes actually.”     

Sarah and Brad have similar experience through their teacher education program.  In addition to being in the same secondary science methods consortium, they also have taken coursework in education history and multicultural education.  In their current position of student teaching, they reflect on how these courses prepared them to teach.  In particular, they examine the value of general education courses, the sequence of university curriculum, and the impact of their specialized science methods classes.

During interviews, both Brad and Sarah contemplated the value of their general education courses with respect to their teaching experience.  One common class was Multicultural Education.  Both student teachers are in urban high schools with relatively high minority populations.  Reflecting on his own teaching experiences at his diverse school, Brad concludes:

The multicultural component is vastly inadequate at [this university].  I think that the multicultural class is taught focusing so exclusively on the African American community to the exclusion of every other community, that you’re not prepared for certain things like the Latino population, the Asian population, and the English-as-a-Second-Language population.  I have a lot of Latinos in my classes who don’t speak very much English.  I have a young Cambodian kid who they don’t have a translator for because he speaks some ancient dialect of Cambodian and unfortunately they have decided to put him in the general population, and so he’s getting about 10% in our biology classroom now.  Knowing how to deal with things like that – especially the English aspect – would have been vastly more beneficial than learning about, quite honestly, the suffering of the African American community.  And I mean I’m being honest here, but that’s all you’d learn about in multicultural. 


Brad’s candid appraisal is not solitary.  During my conversation with Sarah, she brought up her multicultural education class and shook her head.  She comments, “It was an interesting class, but really it doesn’t help me teaching now.”  These assessments are noteworthy considering Sarah and Brad teach classrooms consistently containing up to 50% minorities.

Another general education course, Social Foundations of Education, receives somewhat kinder – albeit similar – reviews from the student teachers.  Both Brad and Sarah describe how learning about different philosophers and philosophies of education helps them consider how they teach.  Yet they see few areas for practical application. 

As far as the Social Foundations of Education, I mean, I’m kind of an egghead.  I kind of like all that theoretical stuff and learning about the history of education.  I think that’s important too.  So I get something out of that, I guess from a theoretical standpoint.  I don’t know how much application it really has to teaching.  I think it’s more just something that you know and live with.  How to apply what you know about Dewey, for instance (Brad).


In the student teachers’ eyes, general education courses offer little in terms of direct translation to the classroom.  Sarah and Brad acknowledge the limits of these classes in light of their teaching experiences.  Furthermore, they see discrepancies in what is taught and how it is taught.  Instructional approaches in these general education courses do not reflect effective classroom teaching.  Sarah summarizes the bleak appraisal of her general education experience:  “I’ve had a lot of worthless education classes actually.  It’s really surprising at how bad some of the teaching has been in the College of Education.”  Obviously, the above judgments are given by only two student teachers.  Yet the value and format of general education courses could certainly be reconsidered. 

Despite the lack of pragmatic impact from the general education courses, both students recognize meaningful learning from their multiple semester science methods classes.  Sarah and Brad describe how the concepts addressed in methods courses link to their current student teaching experiences.  There is direct application of these concepts.  One drawback, however, may be the lack of earlier experiences to connect to these concepts. 

I knew that stuff was going to be useful and I should learn it because I knew that I would need it when student teaching.  But it’s still pretty abstract.  You know, in practicum, they have you do some things.  But it’s hard to really to really picture a lot of the stuff.  And now that I’m busy student teaching, I know which of those ideas I really wish I would have spent more time on (Sarah).


Sarah’s words indicate that her learning from methods would have had more impact if she had further classroom experience during these earlier semesters.  Her limited practicum encounter was not enough to explore and apply the topics addressed in methods.

The student teachers also assess the placement of particular concepts in their college curriculum sequence.  One example is classroom management, which was a common issue faced by the student teachers.  Both Sarah and Brad expressed a desire to learn more about it before they actually began their student teaching semester.  In the current class sequence, classroom management is a topic addressed in science methods during the semester the MAT students are student teaching.  They are already in their classroom placements about a month before the methods class discusses specific management techniques.  The course’s rationale for this order of events is to address how learning other important instructional behaviors and decisions (the focus of the earlier months of methods semesters) actually impacts and alleviates classroom management issues.  Both Sarah and Brad still wish they learned more about specific management mechanics prior to their student teaching semester.  When asked about the major issues he faces and learns in student teaching, Brad answers, “Certainly, the classroom management aspects.  Which I think probably should be handled more before we go out there.  I think you could get a degree in classroom management.  So the more you can get I think before you get into the classroom, the better.” 

            Regardless of the student teachers’ views on the sequence of the college curriculum, both Sarah and Brad cite many benefits from their science methods program.  They claim multiple applications of their learning to their current student teaching.  The methods classes provide a foundation of support and a well-informed framework to shape their teaching decisions.  Moreover, the student teaching experience has solidified their belief in these principles.  Brad and Sarah have developed into critical thinkers who can self-evaluate their progress and impact as teachers. 

I think the best thing I learned in methods is giving me a good basis to evaluate what’s going on.  In a way, I’m more convinced of some of that stuff now that I’m seeing students who aren’t making connections that I really think they should be making.  The stuff from methods that I’m also really struggling with is to actually do it in the classroom (Sarah). 


Through Sarah’s words, we can see that she is applying what she has learned from methods.  Furthermore, her time in the classroom reinforces these concepts.  More than ever, the student teachers want to employ what they have learned.  The challenge lies in applying these research-based ideas about learning and teaching.    

The concepts Brad and Sarah learn in the methods courses are indeed making an impact.  The student teachers are attempting to incorporate much of these research-based methods in their classrooms.  This leads to discussion of the next major theme emerging from the case study research: attempts to incorporate research-based or “reform”-oriented teaching. 



Swimming against the Current:  “There has got to be a better way to do this.” 

Sarah shares the following anecdote about how she first got attracted to teaching:  “In high school, I started thinking about teaching.  One of the reasons that I decided I was interested in becoming a teacher was sitting in science class thinking, ‘There has got to be a better way to do this.’ I want to teach.”   Similarly, Brad describes a desire to impact his students’ lives by becoming a dynamic, effective teacher.  Making a beneficial difference for students is perhaps the most quoted reason teachers provide for their commitment to education.  In order to make lasting positive change, teachers must first learn how to change their instructional approaches.  Educators need to bypass working off of “style” and “gut feelings” and inform their practice through research.  Such reform-oriented education bases itself on thoroughly researched practices and understandings of teaching and learning (Clough, 2003; Clough & Kauffman, 1999). 

This research-based rationale for teaching is the fundamental framework of Brad and Sarah’s science methods program.  They have learned about the complexities of effective teaching – identifying and promoting student goals; recognizing actions that exhibit those goals; developing and choosing effective teacher behaviors, strategies, activities, materials, and content; and basing instruction on research of how people learn – ability to handle abstractions, connecting to prior knowledge, among other principles (Clough, 2003; Colburn & Clough, 1997; Rowe, 1983; 1986). 

Brad and Sarah face a significant challenge in incorporating research-based instruction in their classrooms.  The challenge is not only working to fine tune research-based practices, but also struggling against a school culture that resists change. 

I probably even more really want those goals for my students than I did before.  But I’m probably doing less about it than I thought I did.  I worry that I’m getting stuck.  It’s easy to teach the way I’ve always been taught, that I’m still being taught, even though that’s not always the way I want to teach.  So I’m starting to berate myself by standards that aren’t really mine.  And I’m trying to keep on top of what my goals are (Sarah).


There is a tension between how the student teachers want to teach and what they face in the current school system.  Several components arise that affect the student teachers’ success in applying the reform methods they have learned.

            Echoing past research of student teaching experiences, one of the most influential factors is the cooperating teacher.  Sarah and Brad’s cooperating teachers are not in full support of the instructional changes promoted by the university science methods program.  The cooperating teachers do provide much aid and mentoring for the student teachers.  With their help, the student teachers develop many operational “mechanics” of teaching – writing lesson plans, monitoring classes and passing periods, managing student grades and documentation, and other daily tasks.  Sarah and Brad describe how they worked with their cooperating teachers to develop and practice lesson planning.  Brad followed his cooperating teacher’s format to start writing his first lesson plans for student teaching.  Relating to our first topic of university coursework, Brad mentions that this is a technique he wishes he had more practice doing during his classes and practicum before student teaching.  Sarah explains her working relationship with her cooperating teacher when planning lessons: 

It started out with at first I would just pick up the [cooperating teacher’s] lessons at the end of the day and use the same thing, which was really kind of hard because I didn’t really know which direction I was going to take if [the students] started asking questions.  And then we kind of started planning together, kind of split up.  One of us would make the worksheet and then one of us would make the lesson plans.  And I would have to check out how I was doing things.  For the last two weeks, I’ve pretty much been teaching.  Last week, I was kind of stressed out the whole week and then I finished out with plans this week.  I did more of the planning.  And next week I’m kind of doing my own thing.  And then the week after that it’s going to be a big lab where it’s pretty much, ‘Here’s the lab we’re going to do and now you need to do it.’ 


Writing lesson plans is an example of a beneficial interaction with cooperating teachers.  As mentors, they help student teachers develop the technical “mechanics” of daily teacher duties.

The cooperating teacher also acts as a sounding board for many of the student teacher’s questions, ideas, and issues that arise during the experience.  Unfortunately in Brad and Sarah’s situations, the sounding board does not always resonate with their ideas.  Particularly, the cooperating teachers resist the student teachers’ attempts to change instruction.  The changes the student teachers wish to promote all come from a research-based study of learning and teaching.  Yet when the student teachers try to use these reform methods, they run into a brick wall. 

I haven’t really been allowed to do very many creative things.  Basically, I was told, ‘You’re going to do what we did,’ and, ‘Here’s all the activities I did, here’s all my lesson plans.  Just kind of copy them and do them.’  So unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to do a lot, to implement a lot of the things we’ve learned in the MAT program, which kind of is unfortunate because this was supposed to be my trial run (Brad).


Unfortunately, Brad entered his student teaching experience in what he describes as a “weird situation.”  His cooperating teacher was sick and frequently absent at the start of the semester.  Brad found himself creating lessons on his own without any guidance.  Once his cooperating teacher returned, she took control leading the class and had him shift to the role of observer for a while.  Eventually, Brad was able to lead the instruction again, though his cooperating teacher held tight control of his decisions.

            Sarah’s situation also struggles from a cooperating teacher unwilling to promote research-based instruction.  She has learned techniques through her experience of co-writing lesson plans and assignments with her cooperating teacher.  However, preparing worksheet assignments appears to be the bulk of Sarah’s instructional training through her cooperating teacher.  In a discussion of experiences during the meeting of the science methods course, Sarah described her student teaching situation to her peers.  She commented that she was jaded from writing, passing out, and grading a hundred different sets of worksheets during her student teaching.  No, her estimation of the number of assignments was not an excessive exaggeration.  She explained that every day in her classes, her cooperating teacher would usually have one, two, or three worksheets for the students to complete.  During my observation, Sarah did pass out one homework worksheet to the class.  Worksheet assignments are not necessarily unproductive for learning.  However, an overload on busywork could be detrimental.  

Perhaps the cooperating teacher’s greatest influence on reform is not in restraining the student teacher’s progress.  Rather, it may very well be the culture of passiveness they establish in their classrooms.  Before the student teachers even set foot in the classroom, they are already at a disadvantage based on what the cooperating teachers have created.  Sarah conveys her struggles to fight against the tide of traditional teacher-centered setting:

It’s a pretty big adjustment just trying to fit in what I want to do with how the class is set up to go.  Sometimes I think that things just wouldn’t work out based on what these guys have already learned.  There are some things that I’d really like to make [the students] do and enforce, but I just can’t make too many rules. 


In Sarah’s case, we can also see how the toil to change instructional methods is closely related to classroom management issues.  Brad reports a grim picture painted – at least in part – by his cooperating teacher: 

She’s kind of burned out of the first half [of the school year], so now the kids [in class] don’t like science at all.  They hate biology and so I’m kind of getting the repercussions of that.  So really, it’s been a challenge to try to get them interested in anything.


An example of the cooperating teacher’s influence of classroom culture is what students do at the end of class.  In my observations of Sarah and Brad’s classes, their students put away their materials, packed their bags, stood up, and in some cases lined up or crowded around the door.  This occurred with about five minutes remaining in the class period.  Both Sarah and Brad expressed frustration with this time off task and the wasteful routine that the students had developed.  This was a behavior both student teachers vehemently wanted to change.  Since this cultural momentum had ingrained the habit into the students’ minds, it was a never-ending struggle to reverse.  The students learned these procedures through what their teachers allowed.  Clearly, the cooperating teachers have significant power in determining the climate of the classroom. 

In the best scenario, the cooperating teacher promotes student goals and develops effective instruction founded on research.  The students are mentally engaged and active in their learning.  They work as a community to investigate concepts and construct accurate understandings linked to prior knowledge.  Conversely, the classroom may be a setting of inert instruction, following directions, memorization of trivial facts, and plenty of management issues.  In Brad and Sarah’s cases, the classroom environment is not ideal.  In part due to the cooperating teacher, such polluted waters are indeed a burden for student teachers just learning how to swim on their own.  Yet they are not the only ones that struggle in perilous waters.  The students in the classes also slog away among the mixed currents.

            During my classroom observations, I noticed a mix of reactions to the student teachers’ attempts at reform-based teaching.  Students are not used to the teacher responding to their question with another question.  Most expect the teacher to simply tell them the answer when they ask for it.  Or if the students are incorrect, they want to know immediately without any explanation of the correct concept.  They have been trained to be passive listeners in the classroom.  Most students do not question or examine the information.  They simply take it in (if at all) at face value as another trivial bit to be memorized for the next test.  Typically, the students go through the motions and play the game of stale education.  When a student teacher breaks these outdated rules, however, the students must reorient themselves.  A few students have recognized the frivolity of the unengaged classroom.  They want to try this new approach to education.  Many students, however, struggle to adjust to this dramatic difference.  Interestingly, their trials parallel those that the student teachers face.  The students, though, are more likely to resist the change.  Sarah reflects on her students’ reactions to her attempts at what she knows is effective instructional practice:

Some students are really enjoying some of the things I do.  And some want to get the worksheet.  Some days [the students] get real frustrated when I’m not answering their questions.  I’m kind of trying to make it so that they’re not miserable while they’re trying a new thing.  So it’s not really long enough for them to figure it out, to make sense of some of the things I want to do. 


            Sarah’s last comment in the statement above indicates one more factor that affects the student teachers’ challenge for reform-based instruction.  There is only so much time.  The student teaching semester consists of 12 weeks of classroom experience.  Not all of this time consists of the student teacher leading the class.  Usually, the student teacher spends the first few weeks observing and easing into instruction, leading reviews and guided practice, for instance.  Toward the end of the 12 weeks, the student teachers begin sharing teaching responsibilities as the cooperating teachers gradually resume their roles.  This time goes by rather quickly when considering all of the learning experiences awaiting the student teachers.  Attempting reform-based instruction is just one component, along with familiarizing themselves to the school (including students and staff), adjusting to the new schedule, and practicing the “techniques” like management and grading.  

 “I can’t really be the teacher I want to be just being here five weeks [so far].  I can do one unit on something but I don’t have time to carry anything through” (Sarah).  This comment summarizes the strain on time both Sarah and Brad cite as something that limits their opportunities.   They only have so many days to try the things they have learned in their methods classes.  Nevertheless, they both express positive experiences when they finally do get relatively complete control over a unit.  They may not be able to build off of this unit into future lessons or connect prior units to this one.  But they make do.  As the student teachers teach their own units, they can maintain a degree of flexibility.  They can base instruction on the rate and degree of the students’ learning.  If needed, the student teachers can add an extra day to attend to a particularly challenging concept.  When students struggle, the student teachers can modify lesson plans.  The focus is on learning and understanding, not simply covering material. 

Time constraint on modifying instruction according to research-based reform is one challenge for the student teachers.  Another strain on their hours and days is the time allotted to outside class activities.  Student teachers can learn from experiences with other teachers and professionals in their school building.  Their placement school is a dense population of valuable resources.  Student teachers have the opportunity to “pick the brains” of an assortment of educators with diverse experiences and expertise.  Regrettably, it appears that this source of knowledge remains untapped. 

I thought that I’d have more time to do things.  Like go talk to other teachers about how they’re teaching, observe other teachers.  But unfortunately, my coop [teacher] has kept such a tight lock on my time.  I haven’t had time to go.  I wanted to go talk to my principal and the vice-principal, and have them come and watch me.  I haven’t even really talked to them at all, unfortunately.  And there’s a teacher upstairs who does a lot of very modern things with letting the kids choose their curriculum and choose the projects they want to work on.  You know, it’s very student centered.  And I wanted to get up there and see how she did that, and I still haven’t had the chance (Brad).


In light of the challenges Sarah and Brad face in using research-based instruction, I did notice positive changes during my observations of their classroom teaching.  The largest indicator of this was in their interactions with students.  Both student teachers used effective questioning, listening and responding behaviors.  These interactions engage the students in thinking about their ideas.  Additionally, these behaviors help the student teachers assess their students’ current levels of understanding.  Questions were often thought-provoking and required extended answers and thinking from the students.  The following are some example questions and responses used by the student teachers:

Student Teacher: What would be the logic of having one type of molecule to charge all your body reactions?


Student Teacher: Why is heating [the solution] going to matter?

Student: It speeds up the process.

Student Teacher: How does it speed it up? 


Student: Energy is contained in ATP like a spring.

Student Teacher: Explain what you mean by that. 

Student: Something triggers that and makes it be released. 


When students answered with a science term, the student teacher would ask them to define the word.  This sort of response checks to see what the student understands beyond using vocabulary.  It also helps clarify the discussion for other students in the class.  Frequently, Brad and Sarah responded to students’ questions or comments by asking “What do you mean by that?” or “How do you know?”  They would relate discussions of scientific concepts to real world applications, connecting new ideas to students’ prior knowledge.  Another purposeful behavior was using the students’ questions and ideas.  For example, when one student asked if an acid-base indicator would change color upon shaking the solution, Brad responded, “What do you think?”  Later after the students wrote down predictions, Brad prepared a test for the question and they investigated through a demonstration. 

Brad and Sarah had some success in applying research-based instruction in their classrooms.  However, both classrooms I observed were mostly teacher-dominated.  While this alone is not detrimental to meaningful instruction, both student teachers express their desire to increase the contributions of the students in leading the learning.  The student teachers’ classrooms contain a complex mix of reform success and varied opposition.  Brad and Sarah continue their attempts to promote critical thinking and engage students in discussion of ideas.  There were still many students trying to slip by in a passive state.  Among the waves of resistance, the reform process is difficult.  The student teachers undergo tension between doing what they believe is best and settling for what is easier. 

Often, Sarah and Brad find themselves easily slipping into traditional methods they labor to overturn.  When so many variables flow against them, the student teachers revert back to instruction they know they don’t want to do. 

Yesterday we went through things and [the students] were kind of getting irritated with me and the whole rest of the class, so I just went back to more of what they’re used to.  Because if I do it this way [traditional lecture], I know they’ll take the notes (Sarah). 


Swimming upstream saps the student teachers’ energy.  Sometimes, they have to go with the flow to survive.  But that doesn’t mean they have to like it.  They know that playing the traditional education game yields deficient results.  Sarah continues her self-evaluation with the following insight:

I found out one day that when I set up the overhead and the students just take notes, the classroom management problems are way low.  They just sit and write.  And the next day, when we’re supposed to be using this stuff, they have no idea what they wrote.  [The first day was] really easy and then the next day I pay for it.


Sarah’s two previous comments were said with laughter.  In a way, she is amused by the absurd nature of her experience.  As a novice, she finds herself striving to change the system she is entering.  So much of the established school culture surges against the student teachers’ efforts.  This change is a difficult challenge indeed.  The task is even more ominous when student teachers lack support in their placement location.  The constant effort of “swimming against the current” takes its toll. 

Of all the new things I’ve learned from [the science methods professors], this was supposed to be the spot where I was supposed to try that out – in a place where I could fail and still not get fired.  Unfortunately, it looks like that’s going to be my first year of teaching (Brad). 


Student teachers in situations such as Brad and Sarah face trials that truly thwart their development and morale.  But they continue to press on.  Perhaps this extra effort makes them stronger in the end. 

Keeping Their Heads above Water:  “‘It will take you five years before you’re really where you want to be.’  And I think, ‘Yes it will.’”


Despite the swirls and eddies of change, both student teachers manage to keep their heads above water, so to speak.  Even as Brad and Sarah work through the transforming experience, they also maintain perspective.  Sarah describes how she purposefully prepared for the trials she would face:

I knew there would be days when I go home thinking, ‘I’m not sure I want to teach anymore.’  And I’ve had some of those days. But, I knew that I was going to have that, and I would try to be prepared for it so I wouldn’t be, ‘Go apply at [a local business].’  (laughs) 


Both student teachers are positive and optimistic about the future.  Student teaching may be an incredibly challenging endeavor, but Brad and Sarah continue to press forward.  Even in Brad’s particularly difficult circumstances, he finds value and benefits:  “You know, I’m getting something out of this.  I mean, obviously, I’m getting a lot of little things out of this like classroom management and lesson planning and stuff like that.”

            In fact, Brad’s unique situation may have other benefits beyond building persistence.  His challenging student teaching placement helps him more closely examine his ideas about teaching and education.  During our conversation, Brad shared many thoughts and ideas about improving the teacher preparation program.  These areas vary from practicum, to the schedule of the MAT sequence, to multicultural elements, to considering innovative arrangements for student teaching.  Brad also evaluates the block schedule used in the school of his student teacher placement: 

We run a block schedule at [this high school], which I don’t really believe in for [this school].  I think it’s a very bad idea.  I think the kids, for 90 minutes, they’re bored, they’re tired, they don’t like what they’re learning.  Then they leave the classroom and for two days they don’t hear anything at all about biology until they come back again.  And then I spend 30 minutes bringing them back up to speed again.  So really, the block is not helping, it’s hurting because I’m only getting half the time for instruction that I should.


The above words indicate analysis and examination beyond Brad’s individual situation.  While he may not have any solid answers at the moment, he does reveal an ability to consider issues of a broader dynamic.  His student teaching experience – in conjunction with personal reflection – has helped him develop a vision outside his own classroom. 

            In addition to developing a wider education perspective, the student teachers clearly show improvement in their teaching itself.  As described earlier from observational data, both Sarah and Brad are making progress in their development.  They are honing their “technical” skills like classroom management and dealing with random disruptions in the school day.  Furthermore, they are establishing a learning environment shaped by research-based instruction. 

            Sarah and Brad also enhance their perspective on how to improve.  They see the effects of their efforts.  They see the influence of their own teaching – how they interact with students and design lessons.  Moreover, the student teachers analyze how to improve instruction.  This aspect of development may be closely related to their prior self-evaluation assignments in the methods courses.  As the student teaching semester progresses, Brad and Sarah become more comfortable in examining their teaching and seeking improvement. 

My first couple weeks, the whole drive home I had all these thoughts running through my head about what went wrong.  And now I’m better at saying, ‘Yes, I should’ve done that better.  Here’s what I should have done.’  And then I stop thinking about it.  I’m a lot better at evaluating it right away as soon as it happens, thinking, ‘You know, I shouldn’t have done that.  Okay.  Next time’ (Sarah).


Through Sarah’s words, we can see that the overbearing burden to perform is decreasing.  Instead of expecting perfection, the student teachers acknowledge the growth process.  They more readily acknowledge problem areas and quickly develop ideas for improvement. 

            There is another vital component that keeps the student teachers afloat.  This factor is much different than experience or education.  Quite simply, this important ingredient is passion.  Both student teachers cite personal conviction to enter education for reasons beyond teaching science concepts.  After our recorded interview, Brad discussed more personal reasons for teaching.  He expressed his concern to help develop other human beings, not just teach them science.  I noticed this passion for people during my observation of Brad’s classroom.  I saw the commitment in his behavior to care for each student and help them learn.  Whether it was working with the entire class or with a student one-on-one, Brad displayed genuine kindness with each individual.  The classroom was a caring atmosphere and the students knew they were accepted.  Brad’s interactions communicated an interest and hope for each students’ success – not just in science, but in all of their future endeavors.  His vision truly reaches beyond the science classroom and into his students’ lives. 

Sarah also expresses her interest in helping students develop outside of science learning.  She explained to me how her mother is involved in public health and works with teenage mothers.  Sarah talks with her mother frequently and they discuss their similar experiences.  Sarah has a passion to help students develop in their circumstances and decision-making.  Clearly, a passion for helping people is a strong buoyant force for the student teachers.  Passion leads to perseverance.  When student teachers have a purpose for their efforts, they are more likely to develop and improve through the challenging experience. 

            One more beneficial buoyant force is a sense of humor.  This is part of maintaining a healthy perspective during a challenging, changing experience.  During my interviews and observations of the student teachers, they often used humor to express their thoughts.  As they taught class and worked with students, they were quick to smile and make humorous observations.  Interestingly, the amusing comments – including examples above – quite often make a direct point about the situation.  Humor is a clear reflection of the truth sometimes.  Jokes reveal innermost thoughts in the student teachers’ minds.  Consider the following comments Sarah makes with a smile and laugh:

[Our methods professor] says, ‘It will take you five years before you’re really where you want to be.’  And I think, ‘Yes it will.’  Keeping in mind that this is student teaching, and I kind of joke that it’s a good thing I’m student teaching now and I get to leave so whatever I mess up I just get to run away from!


Even as the student teachers find themselves awash in an ocean of change, they manage to keep their heads above the water.  The above factors – humor, passion, perspective – help them remain afloat and ride out the waves.  In light of all these buoyant forces, the student teachers persist to develop and learn from their experiences.  Student teaching is definitely a demanding endeavor.  Yet Brad and Sarah are confident in their ability to succeed.  They also have hope that they will indeed make a beneficial impact.  Sarah summarizes her feelings about the student teaching experience with the following words: 

Overall it is challenging, and sometimes very frustrating.  But still, I still kind of have a vision for what I do want to end up being.  And I still see how, yes, eventually I will be able to really have positive effects in the lives of the students. 


There is confidence, optimism, and realism found in these words.  The student teachers are not simply treading water in the ocean of change.  They are making headway.



Implications for Future Studies

As I stated earlier, this project is a pilot study.  A limit in time has reduced the depth and breadth of research.  In order to mitigate this restriction, future research will need prolonged engagement in the field.  This would include more frequent observations and interviews.  How do student teachers’ experiences and feelings change over the semester?  We would want to investigate the experiences and perspectives of more respondents in the student teaching semester.  Furthermore, it would be insightful to examine the experiences of student teachers in other programs and disciplines.  How do undergraduates’ experiences compare to those of graduate students in programs like the MAT sequence?  How does the number of classroom practicum experiences prior to student teaching affect the experience?

We can develop several avenues of research from the findings and interpretations.  I would recommend investigating further into each of these themes of change faced and influenced in student teaching.  For example, one could explore the topic of how student teachers deal with the pressures and stresses.  This could be a deep and rich subject.  The characteristic of having a passion to teach is particularly interesting.  This was a trait common to both Sarah and Brad.  The buoyant force of passion trumps an overwhelming number of challenges that weigh a teacher down.  How common is this trait in other student teachers (and teachers) who persevere?  How can it be measured?  How is it developed?  Another recurring sub-theme that runs along a handful of change factors is the use and strains of time.  This topic could be an entire research study by itself.  Other areas for investigation are examining the lasting value of university coursework, evaluating the barriers and supporters of reform, and developing communication networks among the university, cooperating teacher, and student teacher to resolve conflicting expectations.

No research situation is perfectly ideal.  Yet we can use what is gained from the study as a springboard to forthcoming research.  As Luttrell (2000) describes her research with respect to ambiguity and decision-making, we can deem a study “good enough” to be useful both in planning future work and in applying to practice.


Implications for Practice

Even though this initial study is limited by time and number of respondents, it does shed light on several important factors influencing the student teaching experience.  The findings are clearly tentative, but we can still make some generalizations to guide future practice. 

The Sequence of Teacher Preparation

A general suggestion for enhancing the experience is to get pre-service teachers out in the schools early and often.  There should be a field experience component during each semester of the education program.  Furthermore, these practicum experiences should involve participation – not just observation – on the part of the college students.  This extended school exposure familiarizes them to the teaching profession and diminishes the shock of plunging into full-time student teaching. 

Related to this is the idea of learning teaching techniques.  These “mechanical” tasks are a major source of multiple concerns for the student teachers.  However, they are also issues that mostly dissipate through experience.  Again, teacher preparation programs must get students out in the classrooms frequently so they can get this initial apprehension out of the way.  The newness wears off and soon the student teachers can handle such duties naturally and simultaneously.  Moreover, they can focus on individual student learning and improving pedagogical practice.

College classes must become more relevant to the classroom.  This applies to both general education and methods courses.  We must consider reworking both the curriculum and the sequence of these courses.  What is beneficial?  When college students work directly and early in classroom teaching, they gain concrete experiences and knowledge.  Then, they can add new educational instruction from college courses onto this foundation of familiarity.  If there is no prior experience, information in college courses will remain abstract and unlearned. 

The Setting of Student Teaching

Field experiences must not only be plentiful.  Pre-service teachers must have meaningful school experiences.  Practicum and student teaching settings must be environments that cultivate what is learned at the university.  When student teachers enter the classroom, they are diving into an ocean with established tides, markers, and currents.  Sadly, some of these preexisting traits may not be conducive to effective instruction.  Tragedy occurs when the student teacher is powerless to change the flow and right the ship. 

Echoing previous research, Sarah and Brad both evaluate their student teaching experience strongly based on their interactions with their cooperating teachers.  Cooperating teachers can be life preservers for student teachers.  As mentors, they can orient student teachers to the school, staff, and students.  Cooperating teachers also model and train the technical duties of teaching – lesson planning, management, paperwork, and other mechanics.  However, cooperating teachers can act as dead weights.  They can drag student teachers to the depths through apathy, ineffective teaching, resistance to change, and suppression. 

When selecting cooperating teachers, university coordinators must choose those that will help student teachers succeed.  The cooperating teacher clearly has a profound influence on the student teaching experience.  Universities cannot settle for any classroom that will accept a student teacher.  They must evaluate each placement and determine its merit before sending student teachers out to sea.  If there are not enough beneficial placements from which to choose, then we must make more.  Universities must clarify the expectations of the program and placement.  This should be done regardless of the quality or quantity of placements.  All cooperating teachers must be informed of how they can assist their student teachers’ development.  If necessary, individual discipline departments – not just the general field experiences office – must hold orientations and in-services to educate cooperating teachers on the program and their role.  

Staying Afloat

Student teachers are indeed swimming among a sea of change.  In addition to the transition from passive student to active teacher, they also face changes in their routines, schedules, decision-making power, and application of knowledge.  As they go through their own encounters of change, they find themselves striving to be change agents of a larger arena.  Even though they are the newcomers to the field, they are often the ones willing and responsible to advance the profession.  As student teachers negotiate through this complicated channel, they find sources to keep them above the waves.  A network of family, friends, and peers helps them along.  Furthermore, personal traits such as perspective, healthy humor, and passion provide internal equilibrium during the student teaching experience. 

Teacher educators would be wise to promote these attributes and acquaintances in their pre-service students’ lives.  At every level, effective teaching expands beyond the classroom walls.  Teacher education is no different.  University programs must provide services for students to maintain camaraderie and collaboration among each other.  Furthermore, we must help pre-service teachers develop positive personal traits.  Programs can help them develop beneficial perspectives as they prepare to student teach.  Lastly, we must thoroughly examine our teaching candidates for passion.   Do they have a desire to give the necessary effort to effectively teach?  If there is passion, we must cultivate it.  Universities must not drive it out through incompetent education.    If the passion is lacking, we must help pre-service teachers create it.  If passion for teaching and children does not arise, we cannot afford to let these individuals continue.  A lack of dedication will harm not only the student teacher, but their students as well.  Education involves an examination of the self.  Helping students recognize what career fits their passion is perhaps the most valuable lesson learned in college.  The commitment to our education students requires dedication on our part as well.  We must have passion to guide each individual toward the best career and life pathway.

Sink or Swim?

Teaching is not a science or an art, as some often debate.  Instead, a more accurate analogy is the medical field.  Much like doctors with patients, teachers must assess and diagnose the needs and progress of our students.  The same is true whether the setting is a kindergarten classroom or a teacher preparation program.  Instructors must focus on students’ actions, work, comments and questions to monitor learning.  This is necessary to help learners develop. 

At the same time, instructors must listen to students to find out what these “patients” need.  Doctors do not prescribe treatment based only their own observations and education.  They cannot ignore what the patient is telling them.  This first-person information is necessary in order to consider appropriate treatment.  Similarly, teacher educators must not resort only to our established practice and theory when developing students.  We must also listen to these individuals.  They are the ones actually living through the pre-service and student teaching experiences.  Student teachers like Sarah and Brad have insight from daily direct encounters.  They have important information to provide.  We must learn to use this vital experience-based knowledge.

The student teachers are speaking.  Are we listening? 

Let’s not let them drown.




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Appendix A: Sample Interview Questions


Describe your path you took to get where you are now (from high school).


What is your background in education?  Science?


For what reasons did you chose to become a teacher?


What were your feelings going into the student teaching experience?


What are some concerns you had going into student teaching?  How have these concerns changed?  Stayed the same?  Which ones did not become an issue?


How did you prepare personally before the experience?


How has your daily routine changed since beginning student teaching?  Weekly routine?


What activities take more time than you initially thought?  Less time?


What have been the biggest adjustments beginning student teaching?


How has this experience compared with what you thought it would be?


Describe your working relationship with your cooperating teacher.


What “big things” have you learned from your cooperating teacher? 


What is your biggest challenge? What was the most difficult to get used to?


What have been easier successes?


How has your student teaching experience affected your “home” life – family, friends, recreation?


What is the most important thing you’ve learned?  About the profession?  About yourself?


What advice would you give new freshmen?  Methods students?  Methods instructors?


How has the experience affected your outlook on teaching?


How has the student teaching experience compared with what you learned in your science methods courses?


What prior experiences seem most valuable to you now in your student teaching semester?

Appendix B: Experiences and Descriptions of Student Teachers’ Placement Schools


Wilson High School – Sarah

Wilson High School is a two-story red brick building.  It is a large complex with a central section housing most of the classes and student lockers in its halls.  The building exudes school spirit, from the bright green lockers to the green trash cans positioned around the grounds to the green Husky paw-print trail on the sidewalk leading up to the school’s front entrance.  The front marquee on the school lawn displays the following:  “Diversity Week Feb. 21-25; Good luck BB teams; Let’s go back to state.”  Nearby is a flagpole exhibiting the U.S. and state flags.  Large cotton wood trees – their leaf buds weeks from bursting forth – line the brown grassy lawn.

The school sits atop a hill about a half mile from a main commercial street filled with fast food restaurants, shops, a strip mall, department stores, and car lots.  The school’s immediate neighborhood is residential, surrounded by ranch-style houses.  The neighboring homes are one or two-story, some duplexes, and most with flat open yards to the street running along the school.  To the west of the school is a gravel student parking lot, beyond which are both a football and baseball field. 

Upon entering the school’s front foyer entrance, I am greeted by various groups of students hanging out as the lunch period finishes up.  There is the usual loud chatter of an energetic student body, along with music from building speakers.  After getting instructions to the student teacher’s room, I walk up a flight of stairs to a much quieter setting – the classroom halls.  These are lined with the aforementioned green lockers and various bulletin boards outside the classrooms and guidance counselor office. 

            The classroom where Sarah teaches is the typical high school science classroom.  It is spacious with the back half of the room housing the lab area – black counter-topped tables, sinks, light tan cabinets and shelves.  Its attributes reveal the dual purpose of housing chemistry and biology classes.  Aquariums sit alongside the back of the room – housing turtles, fish, and other aquatic creatures.  Page-sized cardboard squares of the periodic elements hang in rows from the ceiling, displaying each element’s name, symbol, atomic number, mass. 

The front of the room – the classroom portion – is full of student tables, three columns of five desks each.  They seat two students per table, and all face forward to the instructor’s table and chalkboard.  The chalkboard at the front echoes of traditional college lecture halls.  It consists of two green board panels that slide up and down over each other as the teacher needs clean space to write.  Despite being an interior room with no outdoor windows, the room is bright due to fluorescent bulbs in the hanging ceiling. 

            The students in the class I observed represented the school population as a whole.  There is a variety of minorities – African American, Asian American – among the slight majority of Caucasian students.  Interestingly, the vivacity and enthusiasm shared among students in their downtime after lunch evaporates as they enter the classroom.  Most slump in their chairs and if they do show enthusiasm, it is mostly chatting with a neighbor or asking if the class can dismiss for an optional school assembly.  The students wear every variety of clothing from every shop in the mall:  styles of urban street and ghetto, traditional jock and prep, punk and gothic. 

As I left the school after the last period, I noticed many students wore bulky team jackets, hooded sweatshirts, baggy clothes.  After the students exited the school building, many were already actively using cell phones, instant messaging, or listening to head-phoned music players as they chatted with friends.  Slang was the common language among friends.  Bass music blasted in automobile speakers as students drove out of the parking lot. 

            Sarah herself wore jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt with the school logo.  Jeans and school shirts were the common outfit for the instructors and staff.  Sarah mentioned that Friday was green school colors day.  She stated that on a normal day, she dressed up with a sweater or button shirt and nice slacks.

Adams High School – Brad

Adams High School’s setting is slightly more urban and “inner city” than that of Wilson High School.  The building is similar and size and scope to that of Wilson – two stories with several wings branching about containing classrooms and locker-lined halls.  Adams High’s brick building seems a decade or two older than Wilson, but that may just be due to the state of the building.  The most glaring example of disrepair is falling and chipped paint on the metal façade above the front of the building.  Though there are some pennants and posters on classroom doors, there is not much to be seen for “school spirit” outside the building.  The flag pole stands bare with no flag and dead plants wither in large outdoor pots – apparently lasting there from the previous fall.  The marquee displays the following: “March – ESL KNDG 4-8 PM; Orchestra Concert 7 PM.”

Across the street from Adams High’s front entrance are a park with picnic tables and a community swimming pool with slide – closed for the winter.  The rest of the blocks bordering the building are industrial.  Two main streets run north-south along the east and west sides of the building.  Brick warehouses for rent and an industrial park fill up the blocks bordering along these directions.  I heard multiple sirens during my entering and exiting of the building. 

The residential areas a few blocks from the school are all aged.  Most are one-story with large porches that would have been impressive thirty years ago.  Empty lots are full of trash, disregarded furniture and appliances.  A five-minute drive north toward the interstate brings one to a commercial area resembling a mix of eras.  One block holds a plaza and parking lot, including a large video rental store.  Blocks along the other direction resemble a small town “main street” look – three-story brick buildings with store fronts and upstairs storage or apartments.  Both eras have seen better days. 

            Adams High School’s hallways are similar to any other high school.  The halls are lined with ivory lockers inset in ivory brick and tiled walls.  The classroom of Brad’s student teaching experience is a wide room that has been modified for biology laboratory work.  There are three rows across of student tables (two students per table); each row contains four or five tables.  The middle row is interrupted on both ends by two black laboratory sinks with multiple faucets.  These appear to have been installed after the room’s initial construction.  Waist-high shelves spread along the two side and rear walls.  Above the rear wall’s book shelves are large glass windows looking out into a small outdoor grassy courtyard.  Potted plants sit along the rear shelves in front of the windows.  A couple of fish aquariums sit on the top of these short book shelves.  Posters of various kinds adorn the walls.  The posters all feature a biology concept – systems, cells, etc.  Some are colorful student-created collages about the various kingdoms of living things. 

The front of the room features the standard science lecture/demonstration table, chalkboard, and screen for overhead projector, which sits in the middle of the front student table row.  Posted at the front bulletin board by the door are the following “Classroom Expectations”:

            1. Be in your seat and ready to begin class when the bell rings

2. Have all binders, planners, and materials ready to use at the start of class

3. Follow directions the first time they are given

4. No food, drink or personal grooming in class

5. Be respectful of yourself and others


            The students in the class were representative of the school student body.  There are several groups of minorities – African American, Latino American – among the slim majority of Caucasian students.  Dress was of all sorts, but mostly urban, loose T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, and some school and professional sports designs. 

            Interestingly, the first student of Brad’s that I met was a young man waiting in the hall outside the classroom.  He was from the class period before my observation.  Brad stepped outside, asked the neighboring teacher in the hall to watch his class, and walked with this young man down the hall toward the office.  When Brad returned between class periods, he informed me that he had an “interesting first” experience.  Apparently, the young man had thrown a chair in his anger at some aspect – but not related directly to Brad’s instruction or class.  Brad walked the student down to the office and talked with him about not being angry with the behavior, but just wanting the student to be able to cool down.

            As I left school after the period I observed (a block period), I made my way through the hallways and lobby full of students.  Most were chatting and finding friends during this passing period.  It was extremely crowded.  In the front lobby, I met a gentleman on staff who was a hall supervisor.  He wore a shirt and tie and had a plastic earpiece in his ear like those worn by Secret Service agents.  He glanced at my university badge and gave me a nod of approval. 

Exiting the building at the front entrance, I passed by one male student yelling at another, including comments such as “you’re talking sh*t about me!”  The other student – who was with friends of both genders – didn’t seem to understand what the first student was angry about.  Neither seemed willing to escalate the confrontation any further.  The teacher in me felt I should mention something, but the unpaid, unstaffed individual in me chose to ignore it, assuming cooler heads would soon prevail and/or a paid staffed individual would soon step in. 

I left the building for the parking lot among a small group of a dozen students or so.  Some made their way across the street to the park to have a smoke.  Others walked to the parking lot with me and disappeared after that.