Supervising the Beginning Teacher
by Claudia Lewis and Charlotte B. Winsor
Described here is an attempt to reduce the period of student teaching by a supervised work-study plan.
For 27 years Bank Street College of Education has been preparing liberal arts college graduates for nursery and elementary teaching, in a one-year course of intensive graduate study. The premise has been that personal maturity together with a disciplined educational experience are proper requisites for competent creative teaching. The program has, of course, undergone many changes since its inception in the early '30's, but none of these has been more far-reaching in implications than the recent revisions undertaken as a result of the growing teacher shortage and the "great debate" in education, often most directly related to teacher education.
About five years ago, Bank Street College - along with other teacher training institutions in this area - came face to face with this urgent social-educational problem: Is there a way to put more teachers into elementary classrooms sooner without the loss of effective learning for teachers?
"Is teacher education necessary at all?" is a cry heard all about us. For school people the answer is a resounding "yes" but a soul-searching examination of method may be in order. The outlines of a new training plan began to take shape in our thinking. Could we reduce the period of student teaching and offer qualified candidates the opportunity to teach under our supervision in a combined work-study plan within the year of training? We knew that supervision on the job is the usual pattern in the allied professions of social work and medicine. There was no doubt in our minds of the often desperate need for support from the training institution, experienced by new young teachers in their first days in the classroom. We had long been convinced, also, that two semesters of student teaching, for some students, represented a questionable postponement of the assumption of teaching responsibility. Our students, it must be remembered, come to us as graduates of liberal arts colleges and are more mature, better educated, and more highly motivated than the usual student entering a four-year teacher training program.
Aims of the project
In the fall of 1955 we were able to initiate an experimental training program with the support of a grant from the Ford Fund for the Advancement of Education. Our purpose was threefold: (a) to experiment with a plan involving in-service supervision for beginning teachers, with relative reduction of preservice training; (b) to evaluate the results; and (c) to introduce changes gradually into our total program, so that we could eventually be in position to offer a variety of training programs suited to the increasing variety of individual talents, experiences and needs of our students.
Our practical task, as we inducted 12 students into the experimental program in the fall of 1955, was to find a way, in the course of one academic year, to give teachers in training an opportunity to experience the whole range of the process of becoming a teacher. Entering in the fall as novice students without previous teaching experience, they ended in the spring as teachers carrying full responsibility under our supervision. The question was essentially this: Could we locate the most advantageous cut-off point in training?
The program at the college included a fall semester of intensive course work and student teaching under the supervision of an adviser who worked closely with each student not only in the classroom but in individual guidance conferences. In addition, weekly group conferences were held for the students, for free discussion of problems, feelings, questions, and special interests. In the spring semester, the students were placed in full-time jobs, a majority of them in elementary classrooms in the New York City public schools. The advisor became the classroom supervisor on the job, at the same time continuing her personal guidance and leading the group conferences as during the first semester. Course work was completed during the spring and summer semesters.
There was no expectation that the students should complete their Master's projects during this intensive year. For all students at Bank Street College, a three-year period is permitted for completion of the project.
Role of Adviser
The advantages of the experimental program were obvious from the start. The adviser, visiting and helping in the classroom, was often able to spot at once the sources of those initial difficulties that almost always beset the novice teacher who hesitates to admit need for help to the supervisor for fear that failure is announced thereby. For instance, the supervisor could suggest simple details of room arrangement and teaching techniques which made for more efficient management and more constructive work. She could help the teacher adjust her curriculum to the age level and the experience and needs of the children there before her in the class - for rarely does a new teacher find herself with a group of children who are comparable in every way to those she has worked with as a student teacher.
Most important, the adviser was in a strategic position to continue her personal guidance, and to help the student master the problems of classroom control stemming from her own uncertainties, her lack of confidence and experience in carrying the adult authority role in relation to young children. Again and again in the course of our work we were impressed by the fact that teaching does indeed demand a great deal of maturity at a stage when young teachers are not yet completely mature adults. Just out of college, just beginning to establish their own independence, these young women are in a transition period in their lives, and their problems as authorities with children can be legion. The adviser, through her personal relationship, could often help the student teacher toward a better grasp and resolution of such problems.
Our basic aim, and that of our students, was to get on as quickly as possible with the real business of teaching, which is curriculum development - a business which can be gravely impeded if a novice teacher has to struggle along alone to learn the ways of classroom management. Our supervision in the classroom by no means worked a magic which made expert teachers of our novices overnight. Indeed, many of our students were struggling with classroom conditions which would have seriously challenged the most seasoned teacher. But in spite of such struggles, and in spite of the inevitable failures and difficulties involved in taking first steps, our students proved able to plunge into teaching in ways that impressed their school principals. No one of our experimental group of students was content simply with "good management" as something apart from curriculum and meaningful relationships with the children. All made efforts to bring really rich programs into their classrooms and to stimulate learning through appropriate materials. Even the two students who had the least degree of success with their classroom controls attempted trips and projects of which more skillful teachers might have been proud.
The self-evaluative statement made by one of our students at the end of her semester of supervision on the job reveals how well she had in this short time come to see what teaching is all about, and how well she had worked with her adviser toward improving her skills and broadening her goals. Actually, at the time of writing, she was already a competent teacher. It was heartening to us to see with what courage and zest she was envisioning her further development:
When I began teaching, my curriculum wasn't always suited to the children and was much too rigid and teacher-imposed. I think I need to work very hard on ways of meeting individual needs through curriculum as well as personal relationships with group and individual. I need to know a great deal more about the inner workings peculiar to the different age levels and how to meet interests of a given group in terms of curriculum that will teach them not because they have to learn, but because they want to learn... I need to relax and treat children the way I really think about them - as people, and never as threats... Basically, I need what most of us beginning teachers need - the confidence that is required to give more, try more, and be more effective.
We are convinced that our students were able to develop in this way, holding onto their ideals and deepening their goals, partially because of the support we were able to give them in those first critical months when a beginning teacher hits the hard realities of the classroom. Often she finds that the ideals she carries with her from her training institution simply cannot be put into practice in her particular school. With understanding supervision, she can be helped to reorganize her values, rather than discard them. Also helpful to our students at this crucial time were the weekly group conferences at the college, where there could be free sharing of feelings and dilemmas with peers. These sessions needed skillful guidance to keep students from group intoxication with difficulties. Constantly the question to return to was: What can you do about this in your classroom? How can you make the program (curriculum content) work for you as an organizing element in the classroom climate?
How did our supervision differ from that of the principal or Board of Education supervisor in the school system itself? It supplemented without supplanting; it offered what the best-intentioned principal could not offer, because its dynamic was of another order. A principal must be on the side of his school and the school system; his relation to his teachers inevitably includes evaluative, ranking components. The advisers from the training institution, on the other hand, develop from the very beginning a relation with the students which is supportive, nonjudgmental, and evaluative only in the sense that evaluations of performance are arrived at through a joint process of work on problems. The recent introduction in some of the New York City schools of the "helping teacher" to work both with students and beginning teachers may represent a recognition of the productiveness of the nonjudgmental type of supervision.
Influence of the Program
Thus far we have emphasized the advantages of our supervision-on-the-job program to the novice teacher herself. The advantages to the training institution are similarly tremendous. Advisers who go to the grass roots of classroom situations are in a position to see the needs of the students at firsthand, and can avoid the pitfalls of theoretical formulations that lack a realistic basis. As a matter of fact, as a result of this experiment in training, our program at the college has been greatly revised. We have introduced new courses, new emphases in the basic child development and curriculum courses, new experiences in student teaching placements.
It would be a mistake, however, to imply that we did not face many dilemmas in connection with the experimental program, and are not still facing them in the program of supervision on the job which has now become one of our regular offerings. In the first place, there is the dilemma of selection, early in the training program, of those students most likely to succeed in the role of teachers by mid-year, at the same time not to invest such a selection with the aura of honors. The faculty advisers feel strongly that for some students of outstanding ability the longer, slower process of preparation is nevertheless indicated. Sensitive communication is called for and not easily accomplished. Then there is the dilemma of job placement, especially for those students who enter in September and are ready to teach in February. The positions open in February are often the least desirable, and it has become only too clear to us that placement in a difficult classroom gives the novice teacher only half a chance to master her skills and put her ideas into practice.
Confronted with the needs of the novice teacher to "get through the day," to be momentarily competent, the training institution can easily err on the side of equipping the teacher with methods and skills - since she is going to need them so soon - at the expense of educating her toward an understanding of the teaching-learning process in depth. We are convinced that the student profits in both the short and the long run if she is not short-changed in those aspects of the college program which give her a fundamental point of view about children and their needs. The comments of students themselves - some of them young women whose early days of teaching under our supervision were full of stress - bear testimony to this: "The Bank Street program gave me an attitude towards children and their development which is basic; gave me a more knowing approach into the meaning of behavior than I see in my colleagues." "...Bank Street gave me a good over-all view; I know what I am doing and why."
But how does one strike such a balance? The problem of finding the most effective material experiences and relationships to offer students in this program remains our challenge. Indeed the questions which have been raised by this program are no doubt significant to the whole field of supervision and curriculum development. Childhood and teacher education will benefit from further study of such basic problems.
Bank Street College of Education Publications no. 58
Reprinted from Educational Leadership vol. 27 no. 3 December 1959 (reissued 1968)