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ROLE OF CLINICAL PRACTICE IN TEACHER PREPARATION: PERCEPTIONS OF ELEMENTARY TEACHER CANDIDATES.

Field experiences and clinical practice are considered the most important and most influential component of teacher preparation programs. The Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education Programs (CAEP) has established five standards to measure the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs. Clinical partnerships and practice represent Standard 2. The CAEP requires that teacher education programs design high quality clinical practice that is central to preparation so that candidates develop the knowledge, skills, and professional dispositions necessary to demonstrate positive impact on P-12 students' learning. Field experiences represent an integral component of teacher preparation programs because they allow teacher candidates to apply and reflect on their content, professional, and pedagogical knowledge, skills as well as dispositions, in a variety of settings. They facilitate candidates' development as professional educators by providing them with opportunities to observe in schools, tutor, instruct, conduct applied research, assist teachers or other school personnel, attend school board meetings, and participate in school-based events directed at the improvement of teaching and learning including the use of information technology. Clinical experiences should be sufficiently extensive and intensive for candidates to demonstrate proficiency in the professional roles for which they are preparing (NCATE, 2006).

There is very little disagreement about the value of practical experience in learning to teach (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner, 2005; Darling-Hammond & Youngs, 2002; Education Commission of the States, 2003; Latham & Vogt, 2007; Wilson, Folden, & Ferrini-Mundy 2001). School-university partnerships have been suggested as an avenue for improving instruction, pupil achievement, and teacher preparation. The significance of field experiences has been recognized in the recent years by Teachers for a New Era initiative sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York (2006) and in the past almost two decades ago by Holmes Group (1986). Empirical evidence indicates that teachers' initial classroom experiences predict teacher effectiveness. They also correlate with the feelings of preparedness and retention in the profession (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 2003). It remains, uncertain, however, what qualities an effective clinical experience should have. The teacher educators have been unable to find any definite answer to the question of how to develop and offer prospective teachers the field experiences that would impact them as well as help them grow into better teachers (Wilson & Floden, 2003).

Different teacher education programs offer different types of clinical experiences. Some are relatively brief and some last for more than a year. Some are based on close university-school partnerships while in others, the relationship between the placement school and the university is minimal. Some are integrated with the teacher preparation coursework and others are not. The current research literature is reticent about the relative merits and limitations of these diverse structures and diverse features of clinical experiences. One can only infer that a clinical experience which is poorly planned, poorly implemented, poorly structured, and detached from the teacher preparation coursework would be less effective (AACTE, 2010; Education Commission of the States, 2003).

Furthermore, due to the variance in the design and duration of clinical experiences, it is difficult to generalize and draw any definite conclusions from the existing body of research about the impact of clinical experience on prospective teachers. In search for the impact of clinical experiences on prospective teachers, the author conducted a pre-experiment. The study specifically addressed the following research question: What is the impact of field experience on teacher preparation as perceived by teacher candidates?

Literature Review

The selected studies that have focused on the impact of clinical practice on teacher candidates have been reviewed here. The review follows chronological order.

Metcalf, Hammer, & Kahlich (1996) compared the experiences of 16 teacher candidates who were assigned to student-teaching field placements with 21 teacher candidates who were placed in a campus laboratory experience that involved role playing and simulated teaching. They found no advantage of field placements over the simulated setting in university lab. They reported that the lab experience was in fact more effective than the field placements in helping prospective teachers identify and explain critical pedagogical events in written case studies. They also reported that there was no difference between the two groups in organizing instruction.

Wilson (1996) investigated the clinical experiences of 26 teacher candidates who were majoring in science, mathematics, and technology. These teacher candidates were placed in three different professional schools. As a part of their experiences, the teacher candidates engaged in small group and large group instruction. The findings indicated that the teacher candidates experienced an increase in their self-efficacy during field experiences that were clearly defined, logically sequenced with a pattern of slow introduction into the clinical sites, and practiced before implementation.

Aiken & Day (1999) explored the role and influence of early field experiences on pre-service teachers during their teacher preparation. The sample consisted of 200 candidates who had graduated from their program within the last two-year period. Data were collected with a mailed questionnaire and telephone interviews. Findings revealed that candidates viewed field experience as a significant and necessary component of their preparation. Further, respondents largely agreed that field experience provided the opportunity to develop a strong commitment to students, to develop a commitment to teaching and become motivated to teach. Some of the respondents noted that field experience did not provide real teaching experience and was consequently misleading. The researchers concluded that field experiences as presently implemented result in a number of inconsistent outcomes which are both positive and negative.

Burant (1999) examined the experiences of four pre-service teachers in an early field experience that took place in an elementary/ middle school building of a large city in one of the southwestern states. The pre-service teachers were enrolled concurrently in a general methodology course and a foundations of education course. The field experience was based on the conceptual framework of reflective practice. The findings indicated that pre-service teachers participated in a variety of communities associated with the field experience and they utilized literacies to make sense of their experiences, and transformed their practices, understandings, and voices over the course of the experience.

Bowman & McCormick (2000) compared two groups of undergraduate elementary pre-service teachers in regard to their development of clarity skills, pedagogical reasoning and attitudes towards several aspects of the field experience. The experimental group was trained in peer coaching techniques in which teams of pre-service teachers were assigned to the same classrooms to provide observation and feedback to each other. Their data indicated that peer coaching was more effective than traditional supervision in majority of the variables that were measured.

Grisham, Laguardia, and Brink (2000) looked into essential variables that make clinical experiences effective. They reported that following three factors are most essential for the effectiveness of a clinical experience: (1) having university faculty as well as cooperating teachers supervise the teacher candidates; (2) providing more that one field experience; and (3) ensuring that teacher candidates receive egalitarian treatment from their supervising teachers.

Bullough et al. (2002) studied 21 teacher candidates who were placed in two professional development schools (PDS). They interviewed these teacher candidates and also observed them in their assigned classrooms. In one of the schools, teacher candidates were paired one-on-one with a mentor teacher and in the other school, two teacher candidates were paired with one mentor teacher. The researchers found that the mentor relationships resulted in the increased engagement of teacher candidates in instructional planning. The teacher candidates felt that they had control over what they taught. They also felt connected to their mentor teachers and had better working relationships.

Rock & Levin (2002) conducted a descriptive study of five teacher candidates. These five candidates had been placed in professional development schools. The researchers found that as a result of their clinical experience, the teacher candidates had become more thoughtful and reflective. The clinical experience also provided them with an opportunity to get a clear grasp of theories of teaching and learning. It added to their knowledge of teaching and curriculum and heightened their awareness of learning needs of their pupils.

Malone, Jones, and Stallings (2002) examined a service-learning tutoring program for 108 undergraduate pre-service teachers. They found that the experience helped the pre-service teachers learn more about education. It increased their understanding of the subject they were tutoring. It also helped them develop empathy and gain more tolerance as well as patience.

Moore (2003) investigated the field experiences of teacher candidates over three consecutive semesters. A total of 77 teacher candidates and 62 mentor teachers participated in the study. The field experience was three weeks long and was completed just before student teaching. The results indicated that the university methods course in reading introduced teacher candidates to 88% of the language arts strategies that mentor teachers expected the teacher candidates to demonstrate. All of the teacher candidates perceived that procedural concerns dealing with time management, classroom management, and lesson planning were critical for teaching success.

Reynolds, Ross, and Rakow (2003) noted that pre-service teachers who were placed in professional development schools (PDS) were more confident and tended to engage more in self-reflection because PDS placements are often longer than traditional placements. The PDS graduates also had a greater intention to remain in teaching as compared to non-PDS pre-service teachers.

Castle, Fox, & Souder (2006) assessed the impact of professional development schools (PDS) on pre-service teachers. They compared PDS and non-PDS candidates at the point of licensure. Their data showed that PDS-based teacher preparation produces beginning teachers who are more competent in some aspects of planning, instruction, management, and assessment. They are also more integrated as well as student centered during the processes of planning, instruction, assessment, management, and reflection. Moreover, PDS teacher candidates focus more on their plans, teaching tools, than their own performance. The researches ascertained that since focusing first on one's own performance and then shifting to pupil performance is a typical developmental pattern for beginning teachers, the PDS teacher candidates are further along this developmental continuum at the time they are licensed.

Downey & Cobbs (2007) investigated field experience of 61 preservice elementary teachers for a math course. One of the field assignments was to conduct a semi-structured interview with a student whose cultural background was different than their own. Findings indicated that field experience provided preservice teachers with increased insight into math instruction and learning needs of diverse students. The researchers concluded that well-constructed field experiences can help pre-service teachers gain understanding of important cultural considerations related to effective teaching and learning.

Gill, Sherman, & Sherman (2009) studied 140 preservice teachers who were placed in a number of professional development school sites. A survey about attitudes towards students with disabilities was administered to the preservice teachers in the beginning of semester and then at the end of semester. Analyses of data indicated that after the field experience pre-service teachers had a significant change in their attitude towards students with disabilities. They now had the belief that students with disabilities should be in a special classroom. They take time away from their peers; students with disabilities cannot learn the same things as their non-disabled peers. It is difficult to maintain order in a classroom that has students with disabilities.

Cooper & Nesmith (2013) investigated the field experiences of pre-service math teachers in two separate school districts in a qualitative research endeavor. Findings indicated that field experiences influenced the preservice teachers' perspectives and beliefs toward math teaching, their application of math pedagogy, and their development as math teachers. Further, contextual variance in field based experiences influenced the quality of pre-service teachers' learning and development. The researchers concluded that many factors influence the outcome of field experiences.

Peebles and Mendaglio (2014) examined the impact of field experience offered concurrently with an inclusion course on pre-service teachers' self-efficacy for teaching inclusive classrooms. Data were collected from 141 teacher candidates. Results indicated that field experience and inclusion course both produced significant gains in self-efficacy.

Flores (2015) examined the self-efficacy of 30 preservice teachers enrolled in a field based science course. All teacher candidates were placed in an elementary school for five weeks. A pre-post administration of Science Teaching Efficacy Belief Instrument-Preservice (STEBI-B) indicated that general efficacy and science teaching efficacy of teacher candidates had increased significantly. The researcher concluded that field experiences boost confidence, they should happen early in the preparation of teachers.

Gottschalk, Hake, & Cook-Benjamin (2015) investigated the effects of virtual clinical-based practice on teacher candidates' level of teaching diverse learners. A pre-test and post-test design was utilized. Data were collected with a Likert type online questionnaire from 55 teacher candidates. The results indicated that a virtual clinical-based practice may provide an authentic experience for teacher candidates. It heightens teacher candidate awareness of learner differences and helps them develop a positive approach to deal with these differences. It increases their comfort level with unfamiliar situations posed by learners of diverse backgrounds.

Welsh & Schaffer (2017) examined the development of effective teaching skills in secondary teacher candidates enrolled in an early field experience directly tied to a pedagogical course. Data collected from faculty instructors, mentor teachers and teacher candidates indicated that field experience helped secondary teacher candidates develop effective instructional strategies, classroom management, and curriculum design.

As is evident from the above literature review, there is lack of systematic research on field experiences and all field experiences are not alike. There is amazing variability in their design, implementation, and desired outcomes. Further, field experiences are different along several other dimensions such as the duration, intensity, their place in the teacher preparation curriculum, the way they are evaluated, the quality of supervision and feedback, the learning activities teacher candidates are expected to engage in, their integration with pre-service coursework, the nature of university-school partnerships, the large context of the teacher preparation program in which they take place, the opportunities for support as well as learning from the peers, and lastly the setting and the culture of school in which candidates are placed. Their variance poses a challenge to the researcher and to the practitioner. It prevents us to draw any definite conclusions. Moreover, as Wilson & Floden (2003) ascertained, we lack reliable and valid measures of impact as well insights into what specific features of clinical experience are more effective and which specific features are less effective. In light of incomplete and inconclusive evidence, it is imperative that investigators continue to examine the impact of clinical experience on the preparation of teacher candidates. Despite our inability to generalize from the current research, there is hardly any disagreement amongst professionals about the value of practical experience in learning to teach (Education Commission of the States, 2003). According to NCATE (2010), for sparking improvement in P-12 learning and achievement, improvements in clinical practice hold a great promise. Quality clinical experiences even have the potential to lower teacher attrition.

Methodology

Setting

The education unit of a public liberal arts college which is a member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) and is located in the northeast of the United States provided the site for this investigation. The unit offers graduate and undergraduate certification programs in Elementary, Secondary, Special Education and Early Childhood but only undergraduate program in Health/Physical Education.

The unit has strong, well maintained, collaborative relationships with various school districts in the region. The field experiences and clinical practices constitute an integral part of all the certification programs. These field experiences occur early in the program (s) and prior to student teaching. The main purpose of these clinical experiences is construction of multiple opportunities for the teacher candidates to observe models of best practice, apply content knowledge, bridge the gap between theory and practice, cultivate pedagogical skills, identify diverse learner characteristics, and have a positive impact on P-12 pupil learning. For both graduate and undergraduate teacher education programs, clinical experiences have been logically sequenced, well designed, and well implemented. The candidates are expected to practice their pedagogical knowledge and skills in a variety of settings that include students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, students with exceptionalities, and students of diverse chronological ages. They are placed in clinical settings at grade levels and in subjects for which they are seeking licensure. Each new clinical experience is built on the prior experience which not only provides practice of previously acquired knowledge, skills and dispositions but also offers opportunities for the acquisition of new knowledge, and skills. The evaluation of a teacher candidate during these field experiences is a joint effort between the university supervisor and the cooperating teacher, the teacher to whose classroom the teacher candidate is assigned.

The elementary and secondary undergraduate programs in the unit are offered as cohorts. These programs start in the spring of each year. All teacher candidates are formally admitted to the Teacher Education Program. The unit maintains a committee of faculty members, the Committee on Admission and Retention in Education (CARE) which is responsible for the admission process. This committee also monitors teacher candidate progress after admission and throughout the program(s).

For admission to Teacher Education Programs, the teacher candidates are expected to have earned grade point average of 2.7 or higher. They also must have three satisfactory letters of recommendation, pass Praxis f, and clear a personal interview with a team of education faculty demonstrating positive teacher dispositions, and competence in verbal communication.

In spring of junior year, all elementary teacher candidates are placed with expert teachers in regional local elementary schools. These elementary schools represent different school districts. At the time, the elementary teacher candidates sign up for their very first clinical experience; they also enroll in three other education courses. One of these courses deals with educational psychology, the other course focuses on literacy, and the third course provides information on students with disabilities and classroom accommodations for students who have special needs. Faculty teaching these three courses coordinate the clinical experience. They work closely with the cooperating teachers of placement schools.

The clinical experience is well integrated with the coursework. All of the teacher candidates spend approximately 45 clock hours during a 15-week period at their field placement. Each week, they spend 3 clock hours at their placement site. They make guided observations of their cooperating teacher's instructional routines and instructional techniques. They make observations of the school environment and the role curriculum and planning play in pupil learning. They write a reflection piece explaining the connection between their field observations/activities and their learning in the university courses, with emphasis in the literacy course. Every week, they also deliver one-on-one reading instruction to one of the pupils at their field placement and reflect upon it. They discuss their reflections in the class and share them via papers and journals.

During their clinical experience, the elementary teacher candidates write a commentary on the learning community that their cooperating teacher has created in his/ her classroom. They describe the characteristics of students with disabilities in their classrooms. They talk with their cooperating teacher and gather information about the pre-referral interventions, accommodations she/he makes for students with disabilities, the IEPs, 504 Plans, the participation of students with disabilities in statewide assessment, the role their teacher might have played in the identification/eligibility process. The teacher candidates are encouraged to participate in Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings if the opportunity arises. They also interview a special education teacher at their field placement. They learn about special education teacher's views on inclusive practices, team teaching, and his/her role in the education of students with disabilities.

At the end of the clinical experience, they prepare a report of their major accomplishments at their field placements. This report is signed by the cooperating teachers and submitted to one of the three instructors who teach courses concurrent with the field experience.

Participants

Twenty eight (N=28) teacher candidates enrolled in the undergraduate elementary teacher education program participated in the study. These teacher candidates had completed approximately 60 credits of general education and other requirements. The Elementary Initial Educator Certification program requires that teacher candidates major in an academic subject area other than Education, Psychology, or Sociology. The elementary teacher candidates are required to have completed 12 credits of Professional Preparation Courses before their admission to teacher education program. These courses are: Child and Adolescent Development & Exceptionalities (EDU 200), Foundations of US Education (EDU 210), Technology in the Classroom (EDU 360), and Psychology of Childhood (EDU 206) or Psychology of Adolescence (EDU 208).

Approximately 90% of the sample teacher candidates were females and the remaining 10% were males. All of the teacher candidates were White. These teacher candidates had just completed first of their two required clinical experiences. This clinical experience, EDU 301 carries one credit and is supervised by University Coordinators. The teacher candidates earn a grade of satisfactory/unsatisfactory in clinical experiences (EDU 301) based on their attendance and attainment of learning outcomes of the field placement.

Instrumentation

At the end of the first required clinical experience, elementary teacher candidates responded to a questionnaire that had 21 Likert-type items and an open ended question soliciting additional comments about clinical practice. The questionnaire intended to capture the perceptions of teacher candidates about their clinical experiences. It included items on teacher candidates' perceptions about various aspects of clinical experience such as opportunities to observe models of effective teaching, strategies of classroom management, positively interact with pupils, and reflect on pedagogical as well as content knowledge, skills, and dispositions. The questionnaire focused on areas of teacher candidate professional development that might have been impacted by the clinical experience. The questionnaire was developed by the principal investigator after a thorough research of the existing literature. The internal consistency of the instrument was calculated with Cronbach's alpha which is a=.86. The teacher candidates responded to the questionnaire during their introductory special education class. Responding to the questionnaire took 15-20 minutes of the class time.

Results

Data were analyzed to examine how clinical experiences impact the preparation of elementary teacher candidates as perceived by them. The needed frequencies and cumulative frequencies were obtained. Findings of this research endeavor are discussed below.

As shown in Table 1, one hundred percent of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that clinical experience had helped them realize the realities of school and classroom. Approximately 82% of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that the clinical experience increased their pedagogical knowledge and subject matter knowledge. Overall, 100% of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that clinical experience provided them opportunities to observe models of exemplary practice. Approximately 61% of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that the clinical experience provided them opportunities to learn characteristics of students with disabilities. Approximately 96% of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that the clinical experience provided them opportunities to learn classroom management skills. Approximately 93% of the teacher candidates believed that clinical experience played a significant role in their teacher preparation. Approximately 93% of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that clinical experience had sharpened their observational skills. Approximately 86% of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that clinical experience helped them gain confidence in their ability to impact pupil achievement. Approximately 61% of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that they perceived themselves as members of a professional team and enjoyed the same status as their collaborating teacher. Approximately 71% of the teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that clinical experience decreased their anxiety about teaching. One hundred percent of teacher candidates agreed or strongly agreed that field experience helped them connect theory with practice. A significant number of the teacher candidates commented that they would like to spend more time in their field placement and that they would like to do more teaching. Here are some sample comments of teacher candidates.

"I think it would be more useful to go more times a week. I really got a lot out of It".

"We only get to see half of a day once a week, it is a snapshot rather than the big picture...".

"go more often, get as involved as possible".

"I would like to go to school more and get really involved".

Discussion

As findings of this pre-experiment indicate our clinical experience makes a positive impact on our teacher candidates. It provides them opportunities to apply their course work to classroom practice. It reduces their anxiety about teaching and fills them up with confidence. In other words, it adds to their self-efficacy. It enhances their pedagogical knowledge and subject matter knowledge. It makes them aware of their strengths and limitations and promotes cultivation of teacher attributes. It helps them see the everyday realities of schools and classrooms. There is no doubt that our teacher candidates would like to spend more hours in their field experience. Our program requires a total of 90 clock hours in the field. The state does not have any mandated clock hours of field experience, it leaves up to the departments of education to make that determination. Across the nation, the state requirements differ in terms of number of weeks and hours required for clinical experiences. Interestingly, eleven states and the District of Columbia require no clinical preparation. Some of the states that require no clinical practice are: Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Utah, and Maine. Of course, Colorado leads all fifty states with a requirement of 400 clock hours of clinical practice before student teaching. (AACTE, 2010).

The results of this study should be examined in the context of its limitations. The study has limitations of small sample size, sample of convenience, and experimenter bias. Despite caveats, the study is significant. It has looked at the impact of clinical practice on elementary teacher candidates as perceived by them. There is dearth of research that captures perceptions of teacher candidates about their field experiences. This study fills that gap. Our clinical practice might be exemplary. Research shows that early classroom teaching experience has a larger effect on student achievement than class size and most observable teacher characteristics such as licensure test scores, graduate degree and National Board Certification (King, 2010). Given that 63% of recent graduates of teacher education programs feel unprepared (Levine, 2006) and up to 50% of the new teachers leave the profession within five years (Smith & Ingersoll, 2004), we can only hope that our clinical experiences will have a long term impact on our teacher candidates.

Dr. Delar K. Singh

Morehead State University

References

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Bullough, R. V., Young, J., Erickson, L., Burrell, J. R., Clark, D. C., Egan. M. W., Berne, C. F., Hales, V., and Smith, G. (2002). Rethinking field experience: Partnership teachning vs. single-placement teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(1), 68-80.

Burant, T. J. (1999). Finding, using, and losing (?) voice: A pre-service teacher's experiences in an urban educative practicum, Journal of Teacher Education, 50 (3), 209-219.

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Table 1. Role of Clinical Practice in Teacher Preparation:
Perceptions of Elementary Teacher Candidates

Items                                         Frequency   Percent

It helped me realize the realities of school     28       100%
and classroom

It provided me opportunities to reflect upon     28       100%
my professional knowledge, skills, and
dispositions (some examples of reflective
activities are conferencing and peer
conversations)

It provided opportunities to observe models      28       100%
of exemplary practice.

It helped me develop knowledge of class          28      96.4%
procedures.

It helped me develop rapport with children       28      96.4%

It provided opportunities to learn classroom     28      96.4%
management skills

It helped me develop professional attributes     26      92.8%
of a teacher including awareness of my
limitations and strengths.

It helped me sharpen my observational skills     26      92.8%

It provided opportunities to integrate what      28      89.2%
had learned in my courses

It helped me learn development of informal       28      89.2%
assessment procedures

It clarified theories of teaching and learning   24      85.7%

It provided opportunities to apply my            24      85.7%
coursework to classroom practice

It helped me become confident in my abilities    24      85.7%
to work with special needs children.

It increased my pedagogical knowledge and        28      82.1%
subject matter knowledge.

It provided opportunities to practice teaching   28       75%
in controlled and supportive environment

It decreased my anxiety about teaching           25      71.4%

It helped me learn unique learning, social       28      60.7%
interaction, and communication styles of
children from diverse cultural and
socioeconomic backgrounds.

I was a member of professional team and          28      60.7%
enjoyed the same status as my collaborating
teacher

It helped me learn characteristics of students   28      60.7%
with disabilities as well as strategies to
teach them

It helped me become confident in my abilities    28      85.7%
to affect pupil achievement

Field experience played a significant role in    28      92.8%
my teacher preparation
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