Future teachers learn on the job at Tri-City schools

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldAugust 25, 2013 

student teacher preparation school elementary

Kaili Olson, left, a student teacher from Washington State University Tri-Cities, looks over a student list with Krista Calvin, a third-grade teacher at White Bluffs Elementary School in Richland.

KAI-HUEI YAU — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Kaili Olson said she isn't nervous about the first day of school at White Bluffs Elementary School in Richland this week.

Olson said she loves learning. She was at the school last year and knows several of the teachers. She'll be in Krista Calvin's class, just as she was in the spring.

But she'll have more responsibility this year at the front of the classroom.

"I'll have to teach for a month solid," said the senior at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

Like the thousands of students heading back to school this week, college students such as Olson will be there with them to learn, but also to teach as student teachers and practicum students.

Practicum students usually are juniors or seniors who spend a couple of days or hours a week observing and helping in an elementary or middle school.

More than 80 students in teaching programs at WSU Tri-Cities and the Pullman campus will be placed in classrooms throughout the region this fall, said Maria Moscatelli, director of field services and teacher professional certification at the Richland campus.

College instructors, teachers and the college students said the experience provides the opportunity to put into practice what's learned at school and get a taste for what awaits when they're at the front of their own classrooms.

"A lot of people don't realize how much work it is until you're in the classroom," said Priscilla Parker, a second-grade teacher at West Richland's William Wiley Elementary School. She'll have a student working with her this fall

Student teachers, usually seniors in their last semester, spend their entire day in their assigned classroom working with students and a mentor teacher.

WSU Tri-Cities isn't the only university sending its students to schools in the region.

The Pasco School District will place more than 50 student teachers and practicum students in its classrooms this fall, from institutions such as Eastern Washington University, Central Washington University and the University of Southern California, said Tim Sullivan, the district's director of employee services.

Moscatelli said she begins working on the fall assignments the prior spring, collecting biographies and resumes from students. Those are sent to school districts and given to school principals and teachers. Moscatelli said she aims to have students in contact with their mentor teachers in late May and early June, and she said the process is exciting and nerve-wracking for some of her prospective teachers.

"I think it's good for them," Moscatelli said of her students' apprehension.

Olson said she isn't concerned about getting along with her mentor teacher, Krista Calvin. The pair worked together in the spring during Olson's advanced practicum at White Bluffs.

"She instilled a lot of trust in me as a teacher," Olson said. "She saw me as a partner rather than just as a student."

Lisa Smith, a junior at WSU Tri-Cities, said she has yet to meet Parker, her mentor teacher, for a practicum focused on early literacy.

Though they haven't met yet, they have talked via email and discovered a shared connection -- they both worked at Children's Garden Montessori near Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the past.

"From what I can tell she wants me really involved (in the classroom), which I love," Smith said.

Student teaching is a requirement of graduating from WSU's education program, but Moscatelli said sending students into schools is a valuable experience on its own.

The college students learn about adaptability and cooperation, as some teachers like to have their assigned student teachers help set up classrooms before the school year starts, while others don't want their protgs to show up until the first day of school. Some pairs get along really well while others may have trouble reconciling their differing views.

"You might not necessarily agree with the teaching style or the teacher's personality," Moscatelli said. "I think every teacher does something well, and I tell my students to find that."

The college students also have several practicums before a student teaching assignment, and Moscatelli said she aims to have a student work with different grades.

Students and teachers said there's a lot at stake in student teaching assignments. Olson described it as a very long interview process, and Moscatelli said student teachers have to complete a thorough report, detailing not only what they taught but how they interacted with students and how the students responded. It's also required to graduate.

"I want them to be professional," she said. "They might be teaching my kid."

But learning isn't restricted to the student teachers. Sullivan said many teachers see having a student teacher or practicum student as a benefit, as they provide a perspective they can't get from their students. Parker said it is extra work to have a college student in the classroom but also great to have an extra set of hands to work with students and provide a fresh perspective on teaching.

Calvin said the first student teacher she had eight years ago inspired her to earn her certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The organization sets strict standards and aims to improve teaching methods and education.

"(Having a student teacher) causes me to reflect on my own teaching," she said.

And the students arriving this week also benefit from student teachers. Sullivan said they and practicum students have been taught the latest educational methods which can improve learning.

Mentor teachers said having a student teacher or practicum student is often a welcome sight for their students.

"I've had students write letters to (student teachers) saying, 'You're my favorite teacher,' " Calvin said, laughing.

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