The past and current school years have been filled with multiple unknowns for both K–12 and higher education. With higher education, teacher education has been under pressure for some time to increase the quantity and quality of field experiences, and the COVID-19 crisis has added to this pressure. School leaders can use this time as an opportunity to partner with higher education.

Consider the practical ways teacher candidates can assist in the classroom during a time of remote delivery and how school leaders can leverage these placements for the long-term development of partnerships for mutual benefit.

Fieldwork in Teacher Education

The importance of fieldwork, or engaging teacher candidates in daily practices in schools, has been emphasized for decades. Novice teachers identify field experience as the single most critical element of their preparation, and researchers continue to advocate for increased quality and quantity of these experiences. Since 2010, major professional organizations in teacher education—including its major accrediting body—have called for strong partnerships, the use of clinical educators, and jointly designed teacher education curricula and supports. Strong field experience is mutually beneficial, closely tied to university instruction, and involves significant coaching to support candidates’ growth within the school setting. Because of the importance of field experience to quality teacher education, it is the subject of state-level policy in the majority of states, primarily in terms of setting a minimum number of weeks or hours for student teaching and mandating testing.

However, even the most basic state requirements became impossible to meet during spring 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, universities, and testing sites. Teacher candidates in their final semester of student teaching were unable to complete university and state-level requirements. Quickly, states were forced to adjust their requirements for initial licensure for this specific group of candidates. Some of these modifications even led to changes in the type of initial teaching license this generation will be able to obtain from their state.

As the field of teacher education looks to the future, many questions remain, particularly related to field experiences. Both K–12 and higher education are struggling separately to determine how to best proceed with their daily work while attempting to ensure the safety of various constituencies. However, regardless of the solutions states are implementing to ease the burden of individuals who are unable to meet state certification requirements, field experiences remain vital to teacher preparation. Within higher education, there is a fear that K–12 schools may limit or prohibit visitors, thus placing K–12 leaders in an important gatekeeping role concerning field placement.

Study on Field Placements During COVID-19

I recently completed an open-ended survey entitled “Teachers’ Perceptions on Remote Learning,” asking teachers how they might use teacher candidates to assist them in the classroom under various conditions, including face-to-face for both K–12 and remote learning for higher education, as well as remote learning for both. Most of the 180 teachers surveyed from southwest Ohio provided multiple ways to engage teacher candidates. Respondents answered, keeping in mind eight categories in the table below. Each category received 20 or more responses, representing over 10 percent of the total presented.

Although some of these roles are quite traditional for teacher candidates in various stages of their preparation—lesson planning, small-group instruction—others can be seen as more innovative, such as social-emotional check-ins with students and taking leadership with technology. The results of this survey can help inform negotiations with universities, as placements must be mutually beneficial.

Establishing Partnerships

The process of negotiating with universities around field placements can be outlined in four steps. In an age of remote service delivery, proximity does not need to be a barrier, so school leaders whose schools are distant from the nearest university should not hesitate to propose a partnership or even partnerships with multiple institutions of higher education.

  1. Identify school need(s): Before approaching a university leader, identify your school’s greatest need(s). This need or needs should be at the forefront when approaching any potential partnership. The potential roles for teacher candidates listed above will be helpful during the next step in proposing how to use teacher candidates in the classroom to meet the stated goal(s).
  2. Make a unified pitch aligned with need(s): Determine how teacher candidates could assist in meeting the identified need or needs, leaving as much flexibility as possible for the university. For example, allowing the university to choose a range of types of placements—early field experience, methods, student teaching, number of placements, or times/days is helpful. Create a written proposal of no more than one page. If this is the first contact with the university, connect with a field placement director or director/chair of teacher education as a first contact.
  3. Partner with the university on coaching: Coaching is often the last element to be placed into a partnership, if included at all, despite its importance to the success of the placement in benefiting all parties. With the university partner, determine who will be responsible for coaching teacher candidates—a K–12 teacher, university supervisor, K–12 administrator—what the coaching will look like, and how it will be tied to the original goal or need. Teacher education and the accreditation process is centered around making a positive contribution to young people, teachers, and schools, and expert feedback is imperative in this process.
  4. Move from band-aid to permanent fix: If a partnership is mutually beneficial and includes coaching for teacher candidates, it is already better aligned with research guidelines than a typical partnership in which teacher candidates are simply placed in classrooms of willing teachers without an overall plan for engagement, coaching, or continuity across K–12 and higher education. Any new partnership forged at this precarious time should be seen as an opportunity for growth together.

School and university leaders can take this challenging time to create room for teacher candidates to assist in meeting the needs of both partners. If developed carefully in close partnership with one another, leaders can achieve a plan that aligns with research outcomes and provides a bridge for future work, regardless of the shifting landscape in education today.

Leah Wasburn-Moses is a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, OH. She is the director of Campus Mentors, alternative schools serving at-risk youth located on college campuses.