“Reinventing” Student Teaching with Mentoring at Its Core

Nancy Cook, M.A. | Professor of Education
Susan Brondyk, Ph.D. | Irwin B. and Margie E. Floyd Associate Professor of Education

Conceptually, the changes Professor Nancy Cook and Dr. Susan Brondyk engineered in Hope College’s student teaching model seem straightforward:

More mentoring.

More teamwork.

A new tool to guide student teachers and seasoned professionals in a collaborative process of goal-setting, strategizing and regular assessment of each student teacher’s growth.

But leading organizational change is anything but straightforward. And the organization that Cook and Brondyk set out in 2015 to update is complicated: a loosely coupled mix of 15 Hope supervisors, roughly 40 to 60 host teachers at schools in West Michigan and beyond, and each semester’s crop on average of some three to four dozen student teachers.

In their book How One Educator Preparation Program Reinvented Student Teaching: A Story of Transformation, which was published by Peter Lang in late 2020, Cook and Brondyk walk readers through three years of the student teaching model’s redesign and implementation and their continuing efforts to sustain long-lasting change. They wrote the book with other educators in mind, teacher educators who are contemplating shaking something up in their own corner of the profession. It’s something of a DIY — yet not, in that the co-authors repeatedly make clear that other educators moving down the same road are likely to encounter different twists and turns.

Persuading people to change the way they do things “isn’t neat and clean,” Brondyk says. “It’s two steps forward, one step back. We were trying to show that.”

You’ll be forgiven if you wonder why Hope’s lauded teacher education program chose to overhaul a major component of its curriculum, the capstone practicum in which each pre-service teacher spends an entire semester at a local school, paired with a cooperating (host) teacher.

Short answer: Times change. Cook directed the student teaching program for 17 years (until mid-2020, when she handed the reins to Dr. Sara Hoeve). Some years ago she came to the realization that Hope students’ practicum experience was out of sync with the “growth mindset model” trend in American schools, an increased focus on each individual pupil’s growth and development. “We didn’t have that growth mindset fully operational for our student teachers,” Cook says. It was also getting harder to recruit and retain host teachers, she reports; now that teachers’ evaluations rely heavily on their classes’ test data, some are reluctant to turn over their classes to student teachers for six weeks, as the traditional model called for.

While attending a conference at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Cook and Brondyk recognized a methodology that might resolve both issues. It’s called “co-teaching,” and it shifts the dynamic between host and student teachers from watch and learn to do this with me. Adding that element to reframed, expanded strong features of Hope’s existing student teaching program, they amended the model in ways that generated a more reflective, collaborative experience for Hope teacher candidates.

With their host teachers they now participate in planning as well as instruction. They talk regularly together about lessons learned so far, what to work on going forward, and strategies for reaching goals. Each student teacher’s college supervisor, an educator working for Hope who serves as liaison between the teacher preparation program and the host teacher and school, is looped in on all that, completing a “triad.”

Previously, host teachers were role models to observe, assist and learn from, and college supervisors observed and evaluated student teachers. Now, they are asked to act as mentors, interacting with a student teacher in ways that engage that student in the thought processes involved in instructional planning, classroom management and other responsibilities. “Cooperating teachers are to think aloud and inquire together with student teachers, so they’re not always the experts,” Brondyk says.

They’re also asked to be rigorous. “In training, we talk about how we all wear different hats as mentors. Cheerleading is one of them, but it only gets them so far,” Brondyk notes.

For some of the educators involved, that paradigm shift is a step outside their comfort zones. But the model is intentionally loosely coupled, which means everyone agrees to its core values and tenets, but each mentor has the freedom to enact them in their own way. “Mentoring can’t be standardized,” the co-authors write in their book. “Each student teacher requires a special blend of support. Mentors must react to situations and needs as they arise.”

One well-designed detail can make a project click. For Cook and Brondyk, that detail is a 15-page, color-coded, developmentally oriented document that’s at the heart now of Hope’s teaching practicum configuration. In the Department of Education they call it “STAT,” for Student Teacher Assessment Tool. But it goes beyond a typical evaluation instrument in that it offers mentors multiple assessment items and precise language they can use to provide developmental feedback to a Hope student throughout the semester.

“To say that they simply need to improve doesn’t help much. A mentor has to break that down, and STAT is really helpful because of the specificity of the language,” Brondyk notes. The problem, for example, might be that the pacing is dragged out at times. STAT helps identify whether the real issue stems from inefficient transitions, asking for too many student responses or being unprepared, each of which could result in sluggish lessons. STAT helps target the heart of the problem.

Brondyk and Cook have been assessing the revamped program for four years now, and their data analysis and anecdotal feedback indicate that Hope student teachers’ views of themselves and their professional development have shifted. They’re more able to acknowledge areas they need to work on. As Cook puts it, instead of focusing on their end-of-term grade, they’re thinking: “I am developing as a teacher and I know that there are places where I need to grow. And that’s okay. That’s to be expected.”

When writing their book, the colleagues drew on resources from a different field: business. As a framing device, they turned to a model popular for years in the corporate world: “Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change,” which details eight stages in the process of shifting people’s behavior within an organization — changing its culture. Each chapter of Brondyk and Cook’s book draws connections with one of those stages, from creating a sense of urgency to communicating the vision to achieving short-term wins.

They brought different strengths to the book project. Brondyk is a “systems thinker” with an interest in organizational systems, which she applies to her work in mentoring; Cook is a special educator with experience in counseling, organization and leadership. As writers, though, they saw eye to eye. Academic writing is notoriously dry, but call Cook and Brondyk rule-breakers — they wanted this book to be reader friendly. They found it helpful to imagine they were writing to a late friend who spoke especially straightforwardly. “We thought, This is how we would say it to Libby.”

They brought leadership to writing STAT, too, and after the yearlong pilot of the new student teaching model in the 2017-18 school year they went through it again to weed out clutter, ambiguity and unintended value statements. The improved document — and the fact that they improved it based on feedback from host teachers, college supervisors, and department faculty — had a powerful impact on the mentors’ attitudes. Cook and Brondyk call it a turning point in the participants’ buy-in.

“With our college supervisors, in many ways we’re asking them to unlearn previously learned and practiced behaviors,” Cook reflects. “Almost all of them have been classroom teachers at some point, and also have hosted student teachers, and also were student teachers. They come to us with an image of what the job is supposed to look like. In the past, the college supervisor swooped in, did evaluative observations, made suggestions, and then left. What we’re asking them to do is modify their image of what a college supervisor is — a mentor and coach — and in doing so, also change their practice.”

That’s hard, as the colleagues emphasize in their book (and as Kotter stressed in his). Though Hope’s student teachers’ relationships with college supervisors and with host teachers have been strong, Cook and Brondyk hope to strengthen the supervisors’ and teachers’ teamwork in the new model.

So this year’s periodic, routine training sessions have a new feature: prompts and an activity to get those individuals talking and problem-solving together, in hopes that more will follow. That continuing effort is the final chapter in the story of Hope’s updated student teaching model, and it falls squarely into Kotter’s eighth and final stage: implementing change.

Ann Sierks Smith

Author: Ann Sierks Smith

Ann Sierks Smith writes and edits for artists, publishers, colleges and other freelance clients.

Photography: Steven Herppich