November/December 2020 Issue
October 21, 2020

Student teachers can be a huge help

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
student teachers
Caption: Lula Presley, a SUNY Potsdam student teacher working closely with Watertown teacher Jennifer Knapp, enjoys one-on-one time with a first-grader. Photo by Jennifer Knapp.

When an administrator contacted Watertown teacher Jennifer Knapp the week before school started and asked if she would take on a student teacher, she almost said no.

With so much uncertainty due to the pandemic — and facing a hybrid schedule for the first time in her 21 years of teaching, it was the last thing the Watertown Education Association member wanted to do.

But she felt bad that another student teaching placement for SUNY Potsdam’s Lula Presley had fallen through at the last minute — so she reluctantly agreed.

“I took a gamble but I’m so glad I did,” Knapp said. “Lula’s my right arm, especially as we feel our way through this hybrid teaching model. I don’t know what I’m going to do when she leaves in December!” Though it’s not exactly the student teaching experience she expected, Presley jumped right in and has been a huge help with everything from lesson planning to managing the first grade class’s Seesaw online learning platform. “The students and I look at her as a co-teacher,” Knapp said. “And my colleagues are kind of kicking themselves they didn’t say yes.”

Presley is glad she didn’t postpone her placement, like many teacher education students have done. “I’ve learned so much with Ms. Knapp ... she lets me be a teacher,” said Presley, who will be graduating in December.

Unfortunately, the ranks of student teachers like Presley have taken a big hit this year. Not surprisingly, many veteran teachers have been reluctant to take in a student teacher in such a tumultuous year.

The State Education Department, in its reopening school guidance, strongly urged teachers and districts to continue to welcome student teachers into schools and classrooms, whether in-person or remote.

“Student teachers can play important roles in terms of bridging gaps related to remote/online instruction, and in supporting the teachers of record and the students, especially during these challenging times,” the guidance notes. “In addition, given the teacher shortages we already face, and which may increase over the next few years, it is essential that student teachers are given the opportunity to complete their (required) clinical experiences.”

At a time when retirements are climbing, NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango said it is crucial to ensure that the pipeline of well-trained teachers remains open and active.

“The student teaching experience is such an important part of teacher preparation,” DiBrango noted. “Aspiring teachers need strong mentors and role models to shepherd them into our profession. We need to take care of our own.”

To spread the word about how mutually beneficial the student teaching arrangement can be, teacher ed programs like Buffalo State have presented programs to recruit more host teachers. “Student teachers presented what they did to support their mentor teachers last spring, helping with everything from small group meetings on Zoom to dropping off care packages and packets of homework,” said Ann Laudisio, an adjunct professor and student teacher supervisor at Buffalo State. “It’s a different experience for sure, but the student teachers have shown amazing flexibility and resiliency. They feel like they’re learning and it will certainly prepare them for the future.”

In fact, one of Laudisio’s students who graduated in May quickly landed a full-time job at an excellent area district this fall. “I think one of the reasons she got hired was her student teaching experience,” Laudisio said. “She had an impressive portfolio and was able to talk about all the ways she supported her mentor teacher.”