Rene Yestrepsky woke up early every morning to start her day as a student-teacher in the Warren Consolidated School District. Then, after leaving school each day, the unpaid student-teacher went to Old Navy to work 30 hours a week and earn some income. The 26-year-old currently teaching in South Carolina says the experience in Michigan was difficult, but also rewarding and necessary.
Yestrepsky, a Clinton Township native who spent two years teaching third-graders at Riverside Elementary School in the Waterford School District, is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of student-teachers who have gotten their hands-on teacher training in the metro Detroit area. She said she thinks there are two types of mentor teachers who guide student-teachers through the training process as they work toward their degrees from institutions of higher learning.
“It’s not possible to completely slack off and have the teacher do nothing and sit there,” she said. “It’s their job to teach you and they are being critiqued, as well, but some do take advantage of it more than others.”
From her experience as a student-teacher, the beginning of the internship consisted of her doing some of the lessons for the students at Warren Consolidated’s Siersma Elementary School. But the last weeks of the student-teaching period were an entirely different animal, she said.
“By the end of the internship, you were doing everything — units, testing that went along with the day,” she said. “You went to all the meetings and were present for everything that was after school or before school. You were basically the teacher in charge.”
But still, the process was invaluable in her maturation as a teacher.
“You can learn how to do lessons in your (college) classes and things like that, but when you’re in the classroom with 30 kindergarteners, it becomes very real,” Yestrepsky said, adding that she would spend three or four hours every day finding lesson plans that would engage the students at Siersma. “You basically have to look more at your class and class makeup and things like that. They don’t teach you that in college.”
Somewhere between giving a teacher an apple as a child and being the teacher receiving the apple, college students hoping to stand in front of a classroom one day with pupils of their own must first undergo a required amount of training in a classroom setting with a certified teacher.
Under administrative rules set forth by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), general education student-teachers funneling into Michigan’s 500-plus school districts from about 30 teacher preparation institutions throughout the state take part in a minimum of six semester hours (180 actual hours) of professional education preparation and directed student teaching over a minimum of 12 weeks, according to Steve Stegink, a higher education consultant with the MDE. Those hoping to be special education teachers, he said, have an additional eight weeks of training within the special education environment tacked on.
“Each university or college is different in how they prepare their teachers,” said Blake Prewitt, a principal at West Bloomfield High School. “We do know which universities do a better job preparing (teachers) and it has a lot to do with how much time they (student-teachers) spend in the classroom.”
Under Public Act 451, before a person can become a student-teacher, they must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the school or school district that the teacher preparation program they are participating in requires high academic achievement, a demonstration of successful group work with children, knowledge of research-based teaching, and a working knowledge of modern technology and the use of computers.
All teacher preparation institutions are expected to provide university supervisors in that classroom experience, although generally they view the student-teachers between five and eight times. Those supervisors also work together to develop a collaborative agreement with the schools on how that student-teacher will function in that classroom — i.e., how much of the time will be spent observing the certified teacher, how much time will be shared instructional time, and also the amount of time that the student-teacher functions alone in front of the classroom.
Stegink said that while student-teachers are not specified or identified in a state law passed a few years ago that requires the fingerprinting and background checks of all school employees, K-12 schools can ask that teacher preparation institutions or teacher candidates verify that they are not subject to convictions that would preclude them from being in close contact with public school students.
Student-teachers generally aren’t paid unless they are brought on post-training as a substitute teacher.
Danelle Gittus, a public relations specialist for the Oakland Intermediate School District (OISD), said the OISD doesn’t participate in the student-teacher process, but that all the work in that area is done at the local school district level. However, they do work within student-teacher requirements at colleges that contact her annually, such as Eastern Michigan University, which she said “places a lot of its students in Walled Lake (schools),” as well as Michigan State and Oakland universities.
Dr. Toni Stokes Jones, interim associate dean for academic accountability at Eastern Michigan University’s Office of Academic Services, said the university — before they send a student-teacher into the classroom — requires that the prospective teacher complete prerequisite courses with a grade of “C” or better, maintain a GPA in their major and overall of 2.5 or higher, and receive positive evaluations on their professional behaviors from professors.
The student-teaching phase of their training typically lasts for an entire semester, or about 15 weeks, and “very rarely” does someone complete their student teaching with less than an entire semester in a classroom.
When student-teachers are applying to teach, they indicate preferred placement in terms of grade-level, as well as school district. But in the end, the buck stops at EMU, Stokes Jones said.
“EMU has the final decision” on where the student-teacher works and at what grade level, she said.
While the amount of student-teachers EMU has out in the field varies from semester to semester, the university typically has somewhere between 400 and 500 student-teachers working on that aspect of their training.
And although there has been significant backlash and public outcry from some circles over teacher pay and benefits — leading some in the education field to feel as if they are being attacked — Stokes Jones said she hasn’t noticed students in EMU’s College of Education getting too worked up over it.
“It (more so) causes them to be concerned about finding a job when they graduate,” she said. “They want to know, ‘Will I be able to find a teaching position? Will I be able to find one in Michigan? Or somewhere else? Will I be able to teach in the content area I’ve focused on?’”
Currently, EMU has nine student-teachers working in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District and eight in the Huron Valley School District, according to Stokes Jones. There are two working in the West Bloomfield School district and none in Waterford’s, although the university did place one in the Waterford district during the fall semester and expects to place “a couple” in that district in the Fall 2011 semester.
There are four EMU education majors so far slated to do their student-teaching in Huron Valley during the Fall 2011 semester, according to Stokes Jones.
In a given semester, EMU typically grants about 12 student-teaching placements in Oakland County.
Pamela Zajac, public relations and marketing coordinator for West Bloomfield Schools, said that while retention rates — in other words, how many of the student-teachers the district brings in each year that are eventually hired for full-time teaching positions — were unavailable, she knew that “a number of them” had been hired and that the student-teaching experience in West Bloomfield “definitely” gives them the upper leg in the application process.
“A lot of times, they’ll sign up as (substitute-teachers) and they start working here and it gives them more exposure in the buildings,” she said. “Typically, if they do get hired, they get hired” in the same building where they were student-teachers.
Blake Prewitt, principal at West Bloomfield High School, said that this current semester there are “three or four” student-teachers working across the curriculum at the school of about 1,900 students and a little over 100 faculty members.
Sometimes, Prewitt said, student-teachers will work with a few different mentor teachers if they are shooting for two different teacher certifications, such as those required to teach either middle school or high school students.
The school gets a lot of their student-teachers from Central Michigan University, Oakland University, and Eastern Michigan University. In addition, they’ve had student-teachers from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Prewitt said.
“Those are generally where we get our teachers,” he said.
Josh Wenning, supervisor of secondary education for the Waterford School District, said there are currently 16 student-teachers working at the elementary school level and 41 at the secondary education level, which includes middle and high schools.
Last year, there were a total of 34 student-teachers for secondary education, he said.
None of the student-teachers are paid for their work in the district.
Wenning said the goal for student-teachers in Waterford is to have them be the lead teacher for “a significant amount of time” — something he said was the “best opportunity to see the realities of being a full-time teacher” — although when the student-teacher actually takes the helm of the classroom varies for each person.
“If they show the capability of being exceptional teachers and demonstrate a high level of talent, that mentor teacher will be able to pull back more quickly” to let the student-teacher lead the class, Wenning said.
But just because the district expects a substantial portion of the student-teaching time to be spent with the young teacher leading the class alone, that’s not an excuse for the mentor teacher to slack off.
“It’s not simply a free day or a day off,” Wenning said. “Their role is to be an active part of that building. They have an obligation, and as a former building principal myself, if a teacher couldn’t prove to me that they were willing to do the work needed to be a mentor teacher, they wouldn’t get a student-teacher.”
And while the district doesn’t mandate that the student-teacher be involved with any of the school’s extracurricular activities, the expectation is that mentor teachers “almost always” encourage the student-teacher to gain a vested interest in those program, whether it’s through attending athletic events or attending plays and musicals.
“Additionally, we do expect them to attend things like staff meetings, professional development, and school improvement meetings,” Wenning said. “While I can’t make a teacher be a coach or sponsor a club, you have to be an active participant in these activities.”
Plus, participating in those activities could make a student-teacher stand out among the crowd as a possible candidate for full-time employment, something that’s at a premium now given that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has called for cuts of $475 per pupil in education spending next year — which Wenning said is likely to trigger layoffs in districts around the state. That said, the current political debate over teacher salaries and benefits is likely taking a backseat to what Wenning speculated is the student-teachers’ main concern: Landing a job.
“For a lot of them, they see the current job market and a lot of the districts are going to be cutting while a lot of them are just trying to get a job,” he said. “As the debate locally and nationally goes on about teacher unions and collective bargaining and all those things that are in the news right now, what I perceive is that a lot of young teachers are saying, ‘I just really need a job.’”
Yestrepsky has a different view.
“Basically, you have a job that you have to do,” she said. “But on the same token, with how much they are taking away our health care and changing our benefits and freezing our pay, we are working a good 60 hours a week for a job we aren’t nearly being paid enough for. It’s kind of a Catch-22. No matter how much you do it, you have to do your job.”
Janet Roberts, director of community and fund development for Huron Valley Schools, echoed similar sentiments about how mentor teachers operate when they have someone else working in the classroom with them.
“With new teachers, you’re giving them that hands-on experience but it gives the mentor teacher an opportunity to fine tune your skills,” she said.
Additionally, Roberts said that student-teachers have “done stuff” for the district such as creating activities like a middle school enrichment class as they have worked on completing their teacher training.
While concrete numbers weren’t available on how many of the district’s student-teachers have gone on to full-time careers in Huron Valley, Roberts said she knows of at least a couple “in the last several years” who have gained employment with the district following their student-teacher work there.
Repeated calls to the Walled Lake Consolidated School District went unreturned prior to press time.