The following article about the University of South Dakota's teacher preparation program by Steve Young appeared in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on December 21, 2011, and is reprinted here with permission.
A yearlong student-teaching model being used on a limited basis at the University of South Dakota is showing how more classroom exposure helps to better prepare future teachers.
This fall, using a $4 million grant from the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation, USD began piloting a full-year residency for teaching candidates. Ten senior education majors have spent the school year so far in classrooms at Lowell, Harvey Dunn and Anne Sullivan elementaries in Sioux Falls.
“I can’t emphasize how wonderful this experience has been,” said Cassie Zomer (right), a 22-year-old teaching candidate from Brandon working in the third-grade classroom of teacher Julie Sehr at Harvey Dunn. “Everything that you never learn in a college classroom, you learn here. And the collaborating ... is huge.”
Bypassing the traditional model that brings them into classrooms the second semester of their senior years, these education majors started in August before the students even began to show up.
They helped to set up the classrooms. They greeted children when they walked through the door. They have intervened with the behavior problems, developed and taught lessons and communicated with parents from the start.
The trend in full-year teaching residencies began about five years ago, said Rick Melmer (right), dean of USD’s School of Education. It’s being done in Minnesota and at major teaching universities such as Arizona State. Though Emporia, Kan., provided the model, Melmer said it involved only full-year learning opportunities for elementary education majors there. The goal here is to include middle and high school residencies as well.
What a full year does is mesh reality with the idealism that young, would-be educators bring to the profession, Melmer said.
“Most student teachers don’t have an idea that by March or April, things can be getting tough,” he said. “Parents ... some are happy, some aren’t. Some of the kids never sit in on conferences.”
But a full year shows young teachers how much work it can be, Melmer said. “By getting the experience now, I’d rather have them make the decision that maybe this isn’t for them rather than teach a year or two and say, ‘I can’t handle this.’ "
What the investment from the Bush Foundation gives USD is the opportunity to hire clinical faculty to supervise teacher candidates and to work closely with them and their mentor teachers. In Sioux Falls, that clinician is Cindy Nelson, a retired educator who also provides coursework instruction to the 10 teacher candidates on Thursdays and Fridays.
Next year, the pilot program moves to Vermillion. And the 140 sophomores in USD’s School of Education all will do full-year residencies in the 2013-14 school year, working in classrooms in and around Sioux Falls, Vermillion, Wagner and Sioux City, Iowa. Once a week, those 140 also will spend a day in one of those hub cities closest to them, taking coursework from clinical staff hired with the Bush Foundation money.
“This will be a tremendous advantage to these candidates when they go into their first year of teaching,” Nelson said. “It’s fairly overwhelming to be a first-year teacher, and I think this program will relieve some of the stress of what happens in the first year.”
South Dakota’s Board of Regents is watching all this closely, its executive director, Jack Warner, said. He has a teacher preparation redesign team that he has created in cooperation with Melody Schopp, secretary of the state Department of Education. One area they’re interested in addressing is the amount of time education majors spend in field teaching, he said.
Based on the work of that redesign team, and on what happens with USD’s efforts, a full-year residency could figure in to education majors at all state public universities that offer such a degree. “We want to take what we learn from what is going on at USD ... look at the results and see if it is worth disseminating in a larger venue,” Warner said.
Sehr and Zomer at Harvey Dunn don’t need to be convinced. They follow a co-teaching model in their classroom. That means they might divide the class in half and teach each group the same lesson. Sehr might teach the first half of a lesson, and Zomer the second half. One might teach, the other observe.
It’s a program that allows them to offer more individualized teaching to students, Sehr said. One can work with children who need more reinforcement on a skill. The other can help students who might benefit from more advanced instruction.
“I believe this is the future of teacher education,” Sehr said. “But it helps me, too. It’s excellent to have a fresh point of view. I work a lot with technology, and Cassie has brought, for example, fresh ideas when it comes to working with iPads and iPods. And I’m able to develop programs, too, because I have an extra person here.”
The Bush Foundation grant dollars will continue to come in until 2016, Melmer said. By then, he hopes enrollment in the School of Education has grown enough — say, to 200 students by 2020 — “that we’ll have the dollars to sustain it on our own.”
Melmer also wants to expand the program to include full-year residencies for middle and high school teaching candidates, and for those in math, science, history and other specialties.
“We’re underproducing secondary education positions,” he said. “If we don’t start producing more secondary education majors, over time, the state will be in trouble. If we get 200 students by 2020 and 170 are elementary ed majors, we haven’t accomplished anything.”
Part of his department’s mission is to recruit high-quality education majors who will consider working in more than just the elementary field, Melmer said. The school also wants to recruit more men into teaching, he said.
And once the full-year residency is done, his School of Education isn’t finished, Melmer said. It intends to offer additional support and mentoring to its graduates in their first two years out of school.
“It used to be, if they showed up, we’d teach them and, if they graduated, we’d wave goodbye,” he said. “Not anymore.”