A unique partnership between Cromer Elementary School and Northern Arizona University’s College of Education is preparing future teachers for the classroom before they even start student teaching.
The state of Arizona requires only 45 hours of student teaching in the classroom in order to graduate with a degree. At NAU, teacher candidates -- college students studying to become teachers -- are required to complete at least 135 hours of practicum in the three semesters prior to student teaching as well as the 45 hours of student teaching, said Sigmund Boloz, a senior lecturer at NAU’s College of Education.
The university has a practicum partnership with at least five schools in the Flagstaff Unified School District that allow teacher candidates to observe, serve and teach in the classroom before they start to student teach or earn their degree.
The idea is to give future teachers a taste of the classroom before they’re put in charge of one, Boloz said.
But the program has a slightly different and more intense twist at Cromer. Many practicum students at Cromer complete 400 or more hours of practicum at the school. Boloz has had one student who completed more than 600 hours.
“She enjoyed it so much that she volunteered her time,” he said.
Boloz has been working with teacher candidates and administrators at Cromer for the last 16 years. About six years ago, the NAU College of Education made the partnership a formal part of its teacher practicum program.
First-phase practicum students work in the classroom one day a week for an entire semester as a kind of teacher’s aide, he said. They observe the teacher as they work with the students, may help the student with their work and generally help the teacher with minor tasks.
The next semester the same teacher candidates move into the second phase of the practicum program. These teacher candidates get a little more responsibility in the classroom. They spend three full weeks in the classroom with an experienced teacher and may co-teach a lesson with the teacher they are working with.
During their last semester before student teaching, third-phase practicum students have learned most of the material they will need to run a classroom. They spend about four full weeks in a classroom and may create and teach lesson plans by themselves during the school day.
At Cromer, teacher candidates become an active member of the classroom from the get-go, Boloz said. They’re encouraged to get involved with the students, sit next to them, work directly with them and avoid sitting at the back of the classroom just observing.
“We want them in the classroom for a full day, a full week or several full weeks to experience what it’s like to really teach,” he said. “They (the more advanced practicum students) get to see how a Monday is different from a Tuesday or Thursday in the classroom.”
Practicum students at Cromer are also encouraged to become part of the practicum steering committee at the school, he said. The committee is voluntary and welcomes both experienced professional teachers from the school and the practicum students to gather and discuss what is working and not working with the program. That discussion can include new ways of teaching brought up by the practicum students or the best way to welcome the students to class each morning by experienced teachers. It can also include tips from both sides on ways to improve the learning experience for students, Boloz said.
The idea is to research how to make the practicum program better without interfering with the way that the teachers at the school work or how the school works, Boloz said.
“We’re not here to tell the teachers or the school that you should be doing this or that,” he said. It’s more about learning and building confidence in working in the classroom for practicum students. But it’s also about bringing new ideas in the classroom.
“For us it means lots of people on campus helping the students and helping the teachers,” said Cromer Principal Traci Gordon. “It also means better qualified student teachers.”
A number of the NAU practicum students make their way back to Cromer to student teach or professionally teach, Boloz said. Fifteen of the 20 practicum teachers who studied at Cromer came back this semester to student teach. About 13 teachers who have gone through the practicum program and graduated with a teaching degree from NAU have been hired by Cromer in the last six years, he said.
Molly Bryson, Cromer’s resource teacher, is one of those graduates.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “But none of my classes at NAU could have ever really prepared me for the classroom. (The practicum program) gave me the confidence I needed in the classroom. I felt like I was prepared to enter the classroom and teach when I did my student teaching. I wasn’t nervous at all.”
Kelsey Massey, a third-phase practicum student, said she has learned about the magnitude and variety of classroom opportunities. Massey is working toward a dual certification in elementary education and special education.
“There’s a huge spectrum of kids that I’ll be able to work with here before I do my student teaching,” she said.
Students in the practicum program get experience in the classroom that can’t be taught from a book, Boloz said. They can read about all the safety protocols they need in order to do a field trip but it’s not until you have to actually plan and carry off a field trip that you really experience what that’s like.
“What do you do with the kid with a bloody nose on a field trip when you don’t have a nurse?” he asked.
The purpose behind the program is to make the transformation from college student to student teacher to professional teacher as seamless as possible, Boloz said.