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Re-envisioning student teaching and field experiences: Partnerships with community education programs

by Tracey K. Hoffman and Melanie Adams


Student teaching and field experiences typically occur in traditional classrooms. Why not in community programs that serve children and families?

The importance of student teaching
Recent graduates of teacher preparation programs often indicate that their student teaching and field practicums are the most important and influential experiences of their educational training (Zeichner, 2010). Furthermore, practicing teachers often say that their level of preparedness as a teacher was founded during their field experiences as a pre-service teacher (Darling-Hammond, Chung, & Frelow, 2002).

High quality student teaching and field placements provide pre-service teachers with an opportunity to observe best practices and student-teacher interactions from a mentor in a supervised environment (NCATE, 2010). These meaningful experiences often lead to employment with higher levels of job retention and satisfaction as well as a sense of teaching efficacy (Darling-Hammond, 2005).

One of the many challenges for current teacher education programs is to effectively bridge theory and practice through a series of courses and a final student teaching experience (Feiman-Nemser, 2008). Most university-based teacher education programs exclusively place pre-service teachers in some type of traditional classroom setting (Zeichner, Melnick & Gomez, 1996).

Some universities, however, provide haphazard practicums and student teaching experiences with little or no guidance or support (Darling-Hammond, 2010). This leads to a lack of opportunities for students to accumulate new experiences and reflect on their own personal teaching philosophies (Maynard, LaParo, & Johnson, 2014).

To better support teacher development, universities can prepare pre-service teachers by offering placement sites characterized by diversity and innovation (Zhao, 2010). Teacher education programs need to begin to break from the traditional structures in place and ponder new ways to develop student teaching models that are not focused exclusively on traditional classrooms (Zeichner, 2002).


Why a community education setting?
Research supports exposing pre-service teachers to learning sites where they can observe children and families, apply their knowledge, and reflect on their practice in a nontraditional educational setting (Seligmann, 2014). Pre-service teachers often benefit from a variety of opportunities in different types of learning environments to process and connect new experiences into their philosophical approaches and beliefs about teaching (Maynard, La Paro, & Johnson, 2014).

Different educational environments, such as community programs, possess distinct learning potential because they allow pre-service teachers to gain real-world experiences that cannot take place in a formal classroom setting or school. These authentic field experiences allow prospective teachers to take away lessons on diversity and characteristics of quality teaching practices (Wasburn-Moses, Kopp, & Hettersimer, 2012).

Teachers entering the education field can develop their professional and pedagogical competencies from these authentic experiences in non-classroom settings that expose them to new information and ideas (Nichols, 2004). Students can gain valuable teaching practice from community programs that serve young children and families through hands-on and inquiry-based approaches.

Some of the most important skills pre-service teachers will need to acquire throughout their teacher preparation are related to critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration thinking (Hatch & Benner, 2009). Partnerships that include thoughtful community-based field experiences provide the opportunity to integrate all the critical skills of teaching (Kruger, 2009).

However, the teacher’s role and knowledge of external community education programs outside the classroom are still lacking in U. S. teacher preparation programs, partially due to the need for the educational sector to develop relationships with community programs and have a clearer understanding of one another (Seligmann, 2014). When teacher preparation begins with partnerships between universities and the community, pre-service teachers can begin to incorporate their teaching skills in unique contexts that serve children and families (Zeichner, 2010).

In addition, community education programs can offer critical preparation for pre-service teachers to work closely with families, children with developmental delays, and dual language learners, which may not always exist in some traditional classroom settings (Maxwell, Lim & Early, 2006; La Paro et. al., 2014).


Two examples of community-based field experiences
Museums can be a powerful tool for pre-service teachers to learn about such topics as space exploration, animal studies, and science themes (Gregg & Leinhardt, 2002; Stetson & Stroud, 2014). The teacher education faculty at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, for example, has created a long-term partnership with a museum preschool (Stetson & Stroud, 2014). This school uses live animals (snakes and ferrets, for example) in hands-on learning about animal habitats and safety when handling various animals. As a result, pre-service elementary teachers have learned to create developmentally appropriate science activities for preschool children.

As another example, a three-week practicum at an aquarium helped pre-service secondary biology teachers to transform their views on teaching young children (Anderson, Lawson & Mayer-Smith, 2006). The participating teachers said that they had developed a deeper understanding of biology concepts and broadened their teaching skills.

Collaborative partnerships with community programs suggest a new role for teacher education programs (Kennedy & Heinke, 2014).


Research explores community placement perceptions
Two universities in Ohio have created successful partnerships with community education programs over the past several years. The current research project originated with a collaborative relationship between two teacher education coordinators who are the authors of this study. The authors saw the need for pre-service teachers to complete fieldwork and student teaching in community education programs.

In this project, 23 students were either student teaching or completing a practicum in a community education program. All 23 were either prekindergarten or early childhood education majors in teacher education programs at the two universities. The community field placements had the following goals:
to offer a wider variety of field placement options to students in teacher education programs,
to use a multidisciplinary approach for quality educational experiences,
to increase employment opportunities by having students engage in community educational settings outside the traditional classroom, and
to develop meaningful partnerships with community education programs.


Who were the community program participants?
The community programs in this project were the following:

Site A: A ballet company, which offered students hands-on experiences with young children using movement activities. Students assisted teachers in leading 30-minute dance sessions with Head Start, prekindergarten classrooms, and dance studios.

Site B: A library, whose activities included a mock kindergarten experience for children getting ready to enter kindergarten, supporting library staff with literacy-related crafts and activities, and educating parent patrons about the importance of reading to children.

Site C: An art museum, which offered preschool tours through the galleries with the art programs and creative activities in the Wonder Room while interacting with children and families.

Site D: A museum, which has an interactive program that travels the community to bring Ohio’s history to life for children in schools, libraries, and community centers. Pre-service teachers gained hands-on experiences in educational program development, pedagogical/historical research, and time management and interpersonal skills.

Site E: A botanical conservatory, which offered a wide variety of programs, including school tours of the biomes (habitats for flora and fauna), health and wellness classes, adult and child horticulture classes, summer camps, and a farmers market.

Site F: A science education museum for children and families, in which pre-service teachers guided children to explore the universe in the planetarium, view a dramatic 3D movie in the National Geographic giant-screen theater, or take a ride on the motion simulator.

Site G: A therapeutic behavior program, which provides a variety of specialized day treatment programs for families and children 18 months to 8 years old who have been suspended from child care or preschool. The program’s research-based methods help children learn positive behaviors to replace problem behaviors. Pre-service teachers participated by observing, collecting data and documentation, and assisting therapists in the classroom.


What did the community programs have to say?
The authors emailed a survey to community site directors/administrators and asked them to describe how their partnerships with either university benefited their programs and to list any advantages or challenges of hosting the students.

The results of the survey data are as follows:


Site A
another person to assist in the classes
materials for use in class and ideas for lesson plans
Site B
an extra set of hands for education programs
help/assistance to build meaningful relationships with the kids
help to foster a love of learning in our kids
Site C
fresh eyes to see a new perspective about the programming we offer
a connection to the world of formal education
welcoming new students each semester keeps us on our toes and fresh
Site D
creating relevant educational content through the production of our first children’s book
spreading knowledge of this educational audience to more people on our staff
broadening our programming to include this younger audience and their families
Site E
developing and delivering children’s education programs
helping with our family fun program and craft ideas (to make sure they are age appropriate)
Site F
make connections to children and families through authentic means in informal learning environments
strongly connect early developmentally appropriate practice and science in everyday situations
experience diverse families and children of various experience and background levels and engage in learning moments together
understand the world of early childhood learning and the importance of play
engage in open-ended Developmentally Appropriate (DAP) constructive pedagogical frameworks
Site G
potential to enhance our relationship within the professional community
contribute to the development of young professionals
increase awareness among the community of young professionals about young children with severe behavior problems


Site A
transportation to our education program and availability to attend multiple classes during the week
lack of knowledge about movement and dance and possibly not able to physically carry out the requirements of dance
Site B
student’s schedule or availability
amount of work to student ratios
Site C
the challenge of time to teach the pre-service teachers
getting the partnership started could be challenging
Site D
Site E
Site F
helping to make learning and teaching connections from the museum setting to the classroom can be challenging for some intern/student placements
fit of placement is also extremely important
Site G
There are very few challenges, we are open long hours so students consume little in the way of resources while they are here.


Where do we go from here?
The qualitative data in this study illustrates that community programs value and benefit from hosting pre-service teachers in their education programs. Although challenges come with collaborating with teacher education programs, the experience is gratifying for community sites that serve children and families. Some of the community programs even stated that they gained as much from the students as the students did during their semester of student teaching or field experience. Because many community programs offer a variety of children’s programs, creating partnerships with universities may offer valuable benefits to both parties.

The data from community programs helps to shed new light on student teaching and field experience placements outside a traditional early childhood classroom. These experiences have provided the opportunity for students to build foundational concepts and offered a wider assortment of hands-on activities geared toward teaching young children.

The importance of employability after alternative field placements is another consideration because students have acquired a set of unique skills, which may provide them with a broader range of career opportunities (Purdy & Gibson, 2008). Pre-service teachers in this research study gained specialized knowledge while completing student teaching and field hour requirements, which they would not be able to obtain in a traditional early childhood classroom.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children advocates in its position statement (2009) that early childhood pre-service teachers who are in well-designed teacher preparation programs will develop professional knowledge in a community of learners through high quality field experiences. This statement supports the idea that pre-service teachers need to be actively engaged in learning opportunities that help to establish their beliefs and values about teaching.

In addition to becoming educators who connect life experiences and new learning, early childhood teachers are critical to the positive outcomes for all young children (Early & Winton, 2001). In order to broaden the skills and knowledge of future pre-service teachers, it is imperative that we begin to think outside the box.

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About the authors
Tracey K. Hoffman, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Education and Society at Miami University in Middletown, Ohio.

Melanie Adams is program coordinator in the Department of Early Childhood Development and Education at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio.