Cooperating Teachers’ Role in Learning to Teach in and from Practice

Cooperating Teachers’ Role in Learning to Teach in and from Practice

Robin K. Perry, University of the Pacific

There is widespread consensus among teacher educators and policy makers that clinical experience is a critical component of preservice teacher development (Clift & Brady, 2005; Darling-Hammond, 2006; Grossman, 2010; Hammerness & Darling-Hammond, 2005; Hollins & Guzman, 2005). In 2010, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education called for “programs that are fully grounded in clinical practice and interwoven with academic content and professional courses” (p. ii). Yet, the difficulties in providing high-quality clinical experiences for preservice teachers are well documented (Clift & Brady, 2005; Grossman, 2010; Hammerness & Darling-Hammond, 2005; Zeichner, 2010). American teacher education programs have been historically characterized by unstructured and disconnected field experiences (Zeichner, 2010). Structural and conceptual coherence between university-based courses and field placements is viewed as influential in supporting student teacher learning and, thus, a key feature of exemplary teacher education programs (Darling-Hammond, 2006; Hammerness & Darling-Hammond, 2005; Zeichner, 2010).

The implementation of longer and earlier clinical experiences has been the response of many teacher education programs. Research suggests, however, that the quality of the learning opportunities provided within a clinical experience is as important as the quantity of learning opportunities (Darling-Hammond, 2006; Hammerness & Darling-Hammond, 2005; Grossman, 2010). In terms of the quality of the learning opportunity, it is commonly asserted that the nature of the school matters. Exemplary teacher education programs pay careful attention to the selection of placement settings “where particular kinds of practices can be observed and learned by working with expert teachers and with students having particular characteristics” (Darling-Hammond, 2006, p. 153). Ronfeldt (2012) found that preservice teachers who completed field placements in schools with high teacher stay-ratios had greater retention rates and higher student achievement in their first 5 years of teaching. Other research shows positive effects of placements in Professional Development Schools (Clift & Brady, 2005; Darling-Hammond, 2006; Grossman, 2010). The cooperating teacher’s (CT) role in preservice teacher learning has also been an area of focus in the research.

Cooperating Teachers

It is widely agreed that powerful learning does not occur from letting a preservice teacher “sink or swim.” Rather, guidance and mentorship as well as peer support are important components of clinical experiences that allow for the modeling, coaching, and feedback that preservice teachers need (Anderson & Stillman, 2010; Grossman, 2010; Hammerness & Darling-Hammond, 2005). Research points to the critical role of the CT in supporting preservice teacher learning (Torrez & Krebs, 2012; Sykes, Bird, & Kennedy, 2010; Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2002). Nevertheless, CTs receive little formal preparation for this role and teacher education programs often experience difficulties in finding willing and skilled CTs (Anderson & Stillman, 2010; Grossman, 2010; Norman, 2011). Unfortunately, “being a strong teacher of children does not automatically translate into the necessary skills needed to carry out the role of school-based teacher educator” (Norman, 2011, p. 50). Feiman-Nemser (1998) explored the difficulties that teachers face in seeing themselves as responsible for teaching novices to teach. She discussed the epistemological divide between university-based teacher educators and school-based teachers as well as socio-cultural aspects of schools including the culture of individualism and the fact that most teachers have little experience with mentoring (Feiman-Nemser, 1998).

To address these difficulties, many teacher education programs place student teachers (ST) with program graduates; enhancing the coherence between the theoretical and the practical aspects of learning to teach (Darling-Hammond, 2006). The use of co-teaching within clinical experiences has been shown to result in gains in ST ability and in student achievement (Grossman, 2010). Researchers agree that the best CTs function as both mentors and models; providing reflective conversation, instructional guidance and support for independent teaching (Darling-Hammond, 2006; Glenn, 2006; Grossman, 2010). However, university-based teacher educators and researchers continue to ask “What are the characteristics of an effective CT?”, “How do CTs facilitate preservice teacher learning?” and “What support and professional development would enhance CT practice?”

Cooperating Teacher Characteristics

Motivations.Certainly, not all CTs are alike and little is known about the kinds of teachers who offer to serve as CTs or their motivations to do so (Tok, 2012; Sinclair, Dowson, & Thistleton-Martin, 2006). Sinclair, Dowson, & Thistleton-Martin (2006) discuss a profile of teachers who agreed to assume the role of CTs and the factors that persuade or discourage them from taking on the role. From a survey of 322 participants, they conclude that CTs are motivated by a desire to assist STs in becoming better teachers. However, this desire is moderated by difficult experiences with STs in the past, perceived problems with the structure of the clinical experience, and lack of time and compensation. Russell and Russell (2011) also found that CTs are motivated by a desire to share knowledge and collaborate with beginning teachers. Often times, they view this collaboration as an opportunity to gain new knowledge on trends in teaching.

Profiles. Tok’s (2012) review of the literature provides profiles of four types of CTs. The first is the “Absent Cooperating Teacher” who believes that the best way to learn to teach is to “sink or swim” and, thus, provides little more than time and space of the ST to make his/her own mistakes. The second is the “Directive Cooperating Teacher” who provides a model and instructions with the expectation that the ST will replicate his/her actions. The third, and most typical according to Tok (2012), is the “Indulgent Cooperating Teacher” who is supportive of the ST to the fault of failing to provide constructive feedback. Each of these three types of CTs falls short of supporting preservice teacher learning to the extent of the “Educative Mentor.” This CT reflects a model of clinical teacher educator that is supported in the research. The Educative Mentor draws the ST into thinking more deeply about teaching and learning by (1) modeling the intellectual habits of teaching, (2) co-planning and co-teaching lessons, and (3) conducting observations with follow-up feedback and coaching.

It should not be assumed that the CT’s role is fixed throughout the duration of a clinical experience. Caruso (1998) presents six phases of CT development during the course of supervising a ST. These phases span the time between the initial anticipation of the ST’s arrival (Stage 1) to the concluding sense of loss/relief at the time of the ST’s departure (Stage 6). Stage 2 consists of the CT gaining first impressions of the ST and an understanding of the university requirements for the clinical experience. Stage 3 is characterized by the CT’s provision of modeling and feedback while negotiating the time constraints of each given the pace of the school day. In Stage 4, a variety of factors determine the extent to which the CT – ST relationship transitions to one of parity allowing for collaboration and solo-teaching for ST (Stage 5).

Variations in profile and stages of development can influence the CTs evolving view of themselves as teacher educators. Bullough’s (2005) case study of a CT examines her identity formation as a teacher educator. He concludes that “teachers do what they know and mentor as they teach” (Bullough, 2005, p. 153) in the absence of support from the school site and the university partner. Korth, Erikson, and Hall (2009) found that teachers’ definitions of teacher educators vary widely from being characterized as a “teacher of teachers” to referring to “general educators.” A large percentage of participants in their study did not see “teacher educator” as an indication of a different role, but merely as a teacher who provides a setting for STs to try out new methods and strategies learned in teacher education program course work. In contrast, those participants that defined “teacher educator” as “teacher of teachers” more likely enact teaching and mentoring practices that enhance preservice teacher learning.

Cooperating Teacher Practices

CTs who are able to articulate the practical knowledge that underlies their teacher behavior are believed to provide STs with greater opportunities for learning. Zanting, Verloop, Vermut, and Van Driel (1998) set forth four benefits for STs in CTs’ articulation of practical knowledge. These include
(a) obtaining information about teaching that is rather ‘new’ to them
(b) understanding their mentor teachers’ teaching and the nature of teaching
(c) understanding their mentor teachers’ mentoring and developing personal theories of teaching
(d) integrating theory with practice (p. 21).
Zanting et al. (2008) also provide ways in which CTs can articulate their practical knowledge to STs: (1) CTs can make explicit their own thinking about teaching in discussions of the STs’ lessons; (2) they can share reflections on their own teaching with their STs and (3) they can jointly plan, teach, and analyze lessons with their STs. Glenn (2006) supports similar practices in his discussion of CTs as models rather than just mentors. He advocates for the selection of CTs based upon their teaching practices and for the development of CTs in the areas of guiding, reflecting, and coaching. He characterizes the work of CTs as collaborative and calls for university supervisors to mentor CTs in their role.


Given three decades of research on the role of mentor teachers and the recent emphasis of field experience and teaching practice on learning to teach, the call for teacher education programs to “tap the wisdom of practice through the involvement of strong practitioners” (Darling-Hammond, 2010, p. 36) is resounding. Sykes, Bird, and Kennedy (2010) argue that teacher education should establish a more “generous and generative relationship with the field of practice” (p. 474). They encourage university-based programs to reach out to CTs as they take practice as a starting point; subsequently encouraging STs to consider more ambitious instruction within the observed practices. Professional development for CTs is regularly proposed as an area of potential improvement in program quality (Arnold, 2002; Dever, Hager, & Klein, 2003; Hudson & Hudson, 2011; Sykes, Bird, & Kennedy, 2010). Arnold’s (2002) examination of CTs who participated in a voluntary study group yielded evidence of the benefit of opportunities for reflection and mutual support for both CTs and STs. Dever, Hager and Klein (2003) designed a CT workshop to address the frustration CTs commonly report as a result of being tasked to observe, provide feedback, and evaluate STs with little guidance. They found that the CTs studied felt better prepared to provide feedback on ST behaviors following the intervention; supporting previous research claims that CTs trained in supervision were more effective than their untrained counterparts. Hudson and Hudson (2011) argue that “educating existing and potential mentors on effective practices is key for ensuring the quality of preservice teacher involvement in schools” (p. 320). They present eleven mentoring strategies corresponding to practices of pedagogical content knowledge that emerged from a working party of fourteen experienced CTs. The strategies range from locating resources to preparation of a lesson to reflecting on varying viewpoints on teaching and learning. They conclude that the design of CT programs must aim to connect theory to practice by emphasizing mentoring strategies that support effective teaching practices.

The National Research Council (2010) proposal for future research on field experiences includes suggestions for both quantitative and qualitative studies to determine what, how, and why specific components of student teaching influence preservice teacher learning and, as a consequence, teacher effectiveness. As teacher education programs embrace a focus on practice and seek to build stronger partnerships with schools, university-based teacher educators must support their school-based colleagues in assuming the role of teacher educator. Connecting theory and practical knowledge in clinical experiences is dependent upon the modeling of effective teaching practices and the enactment of educative mentoring strategies by CTs. The role of CTs in preservice teachers’ learning to teach in and from practice should be a priority for teacher educators and teacher education policy makers in their calls for program reform.

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