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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
Action Research:
Assessment & Preparation for Assessment: Preservice Teacher Education: Increasing the Role of the Cooperating Teacher

by Judi Fenton (New York City)

Judi FentonThe Problem of Inadequate Preparation and Reduced Teacher Retention
The Necessary Steps Toward Improvement
Responsibilities and Recognition in the Student Teaching Triad
Involvement: Current Practice vs. Ideal Practice
A Better Working Relationship Through Better Structure and Better Supervision
The Benefits of Greater Involvement

Teacher education is assumed by the lay public to rely heavily on student teaching, but this is rarely the case. The opportunity to apprentice under an experienced, capable, and involved cooperating teacher* is an invaluable lesson. Much of the success or failure of our teachers is based on the success or failure of the student teaching experience.

The Problem of Inadequate Preparation and Reduced Teacher Retention
Up to one third of new teachers leave the education profession within the first few years of teaching (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). They are not well prepared for the realities of teaching, which indicates a failure on the part of our training institutions and our school systems. We are not furnishing new teachers with the knowledge, skills, and support necessary to succeed in our profession. An excellent, and grossly underutilized, potential source of these necessities is the cooperating teacher.

It has been said that the cooperating teacher is the most important influence on new teachers' staying in the field of education (Barker et al., 1994; Chun et al., 1991). Guyton (1989, cited in Conner & Killmer, 1995) proposes that the success or failure of a student teacher can be traced to the influence of the cooperating teacher. According to Conner and Killmer (1995) ". . . researchers agree that effective cooperating teachers are essential to student success . . . " They continue, "There is little evidence in the literature that teacher education institutions are formally pursuing preparation of cooperating teachers on a consistent basis."

For increased retention of new teachers and subsequent improvement of the educational system, it is important to upgrade the student teaching experience. Cooperating teachers must be better prepared to advise, support, and educate the student teachers who will be the future of teaching. It is highly likely that the retention rate of new teachers will improve if substantive cooperating teacher involvement is incorporated into the process of educating new teachers.

The Necessary Steps Toward Improvement
Greater involvement entails looking at the present and building for the future. The current role of the cooperating teacher must be carefully examined. There must be a focus on what needs to be done to enable the cooperating teacher to become a genuine involved partner in the education of incoming teachers.

A number of issues of concern in the student teaching process must be addressed. Responsibilities of the student teacher, the cooperating teacher, the teacher educator, and the student teacher supervisor need to be delineated. Teacher educators must recognize the importance of student teaching in the curriculum; they must also reach a level of confidence in the cooperating teachers. The cooperating teacher needs to be involved earlier in the teacher education process, not just in the senior year student teaching but in the entire university experience. Supervisors and cooperating teachers need to establish a working relationship with significantly increased communications. All-in-all there must be a greater involvement by cooperating teachers in the full education of students of teaching. Finally, a joint remuneration for the cooperating teachers' efforts, supplied by the university and the school system, would clarify their links and serve as a bridge between the two entities.

Responsibilities and Recognition in the Student Teaching Triad
Unfortunately, the role of the cooperating teacher has not been explicitly defined; consequently, it is nearly impossible for the full potential of the cooperating teacher to he realized. Cooperating teachers have reported that they are uncertain of the expectations of the role, the same problem exists for the student teachers with whom they work (Koskelar & Ganser, 1995; Gibbs & Montoya, 1994; Kagan, 1993, p. 133). This uncertainty leads to frustration on the part of all involved, as well as disengagement from the process of educating new teachers. A clarification of the roles of the members of the student teaching triad is the first step toward improvement. Teacher educators have said that there are not enough "good" teachers with whom to place their students (informal interviews by the author, 1996). If they are uncomfortable placing student teachers with practicing teachers they have educated, this demonstrates a fundamental failure of the teacher training institutions themselves. There is a cyclical problem of professionals teachers who had inadequate student teaching experiences when they were in college, who are considered inadequate mentors to the next generation of student teachers. The university must begin to graduate the kind of teacher with whom they would gladly place their next class of teacher education students. Part of producing these teachers will be placing them in classrooms with fully prepared and involved cooperating teachers.

The acceptance of cooperating teachers as capable by teacher educators is only the first hurdle in their relationship. Teacher educators typically perceive the role of cooperating teacher to hold little value. They view the cooperating teacher as incidental, at best, and, at worst, as a stumbling block causing the student to "unlearn" everything she has been taught in education courses (informal interviews, 1996). Several teacher educators indicated that their programs have been organized to require the shortest student teaching time that their licensing state allows, in order to limit the influence of the classroom experience on university theory (Kagan, 1993). This indicates a complete lack of faith in this crucial stage of teacher education.

With reflection, this disapproval can be combatted. If the cooperating teacher is truly involved in the education of teacher education students, she will have greater contact with the university. Through this contact, teacher educators will gain a greater understanding of the intricacies of real teaching practice and the cooperating teacher will be further schooled in theory by the university. The trust of the teacher educators, no doubt, will increase. These solutions will be addressed further below.

The negative views on cooperating teachers expressed by teacher educators indicate an elemental disregard for the realities of teaching and are not conducive to creating a constructive teacher training situation. Limiting the education student's contact with the classroom teacher is alarming given: the obvious advantage of on-the-job experience in any field, and the specific, significant, beneficial influence the cooperating teacher can have on the student teacher. The cooperating teacher must receive training and support from the university in order to maximize this positive influence.

An interview of several thoughtful teacher educators clarified the position of many universities (informal interview by the author, 1996):

  • "The cooperating teacher offers only one way to put theory into practice."
  • "That's the problem. It is not always the best way."
  • "It is the responsibility of the university to moderate the relationship."

The need for such a moderator and for increased broadening to and awareness of university theory by cooperating teachers seems valid. The difficulty is that the same tunnel vision problem exists at the university.

Involvement: Current Practice vs. Ideal Practice
Certainly, the university or the individual professor has views on how children best learn, and these are the views communicated to the student as "best practice." If there is significant cooperating teacher involvement in discussions of curriculum at the university level, the challenge of viewpoint can be explored and both sides will benefit. We must create the contexts and opportunities for dialogues between the cooperating teacher and the university professor with an eye toward defining the role of the cooperating teacher.

Unfortunately, the practical aspects of teacher education come late in conventional teacher training programs. Kagan believes that ". . . programs of preservice teacher education are inappropriate because they are based on the university perspective . . . separated from real classrooms" (1993, pp. 142-143). This can be remedied with the early involvement of the cooperating, practicing teacher. Their involvement must be incorporated earlier in the university educational process (before senior year) through at least the following three additive steps:

  1. collaboration of cooperating teachers in the university course and curriculum planning;
  2. guest lectures/college class visits by cooperating teachers;
  3. student teaching or other community school "site visits" by education students prior to senior year.
Even when the student is finally engaged in the classroom, the cooperating teacher with whom she is placed is usually an afterthought in the program. Cooperating teachers must be involved by the university well in advance of the day the student teacher is placed in the classroom. Joe tells of his less than unique experience when this did not happen:
Two student teachers arrived in my school one morning in September. The Principal immediately decided one would work with me and minutes later that student teacher was thrown in my class with no preparation time for either of us.

To the ire of my principal, I refused the student teacher. I have had student teachers before and would have gladly welcomed another with appropriate advanced involvement. I felt bad for that student but could not endure the situation as it was.

This illustrates the lack of respect shown to cooperating teachers by both the universities and the school systems in which they work. Cooperating teachers must be involved in the entire process -- planning, structure, goals, and the actual decision to host a student teacher. Without the constructed contexts to involve the student teacher, the cooperating teacher has little incentive or even ability to be cooperating and the student teacher will be an observer, a student but not a teacher. This is an example of the flaw of the current system of extreme limited involvement he cooperating teachers.

A Better Working Relationship Through Better Structure and Better Supervision

Conventionally, the university has had the major input into, and thus the control, over the education of teachers. Typically, the teacher education and student teaching circumstance is set up as follows:

  • Students take education courses from professors in the university setting.
  • Near the end of their coursework they are placed in a classroom to complete the practical part of their studies--student teaching.
  • They are placed with a cooperating teacher and are usually supervised in their student teaching by adjunct professors who are hired part time to supervise many student teachers in different settings.
These supervisors are a significant part of the problem. They are in place to be the liaisons between the university and the classroom, but, based on informal interviews, it is determined that, most often, they are not effective in this role for two reasons. The supervisors have little knowledge of what goes on in the school classrooms, since they only visit periodically (due to the volume of students they supervise and the dispersed locations). Additionally, they often do not have knowledge of what the students are learning in theory classes. Obviously, this lack of knowledge does not equip the supervisors to fulfill their role as liaisons and the whole dynamic is set up for failure.

One cooperating teacher and student teacher pair volunteered this story:

Debbie had been productively working with her cooperating teacher in a child-centered early childhood classroom for several weeks in advance of her supervisor's visit. Her cooperating teacher thought Debbie was a natural teacher of young children, warm, nurturing, with the wonderful talent of picking up on their cognitive cues and finding the "teachable moment." Their classroom was set up in learning centers and the children participated in self-directed activities, where adults acted as facilitators, rather than the directors of the learning.

Debbie came in visibly upset one morning. Her supervisor wanted to visit to see her teach a formal reading lesson to the whole class. She told the supervisor that they did not do whole class formal reading lessons, but the supervisor still required it.

She and the cooperating teacher debated whether or not they should try to please the supervisor and do the lesson or be true to the children and to themselves. The problem was that Debbie would probably not pass her practicum if she did not perform the lesson. In the end they decided to try to please the supervisor and Debbie did a lesson that they felt would, at least, not harm the children. Neither the children nor Debbie showed a true reflection of their potential during the presentation.

Kagan cites a similar example and refers to this problem as "the games a student teacher is forced to play in order to win the approval of his or her university supervisor'' and calls them "artificial disruptions in the normal routine of [the] classroom'' (1993, p. 5). Such a poorly constructed program design harms the children, the education student, the cooperating teacher, and the university. Obviously, the children are not receiving consistent messages. The education student must play the game and unwittingly learns the old teacher trick of closing the door and doing what she knows is right for the children. The cooperating teacher is alienated because her views are not valued or respected by the university. The university is also harmed because it is perceived as out of touch by those involved in practice. Student teacher supervisors need to be more involved and take into consideration the concerns of all parties involved.

The Benefits of Greater Involvement
These problems situations are less likely to occur if the cooperating teacher has greater involvement in planning coursework and interacting with both the university professors and student teacher supervisors, thus bringing the classroom perspective to the university. Another benefit of this involvement is that the cooperating classroom teacher is then fully aware of what the student teacher is studying in theory courses.

According to Richards and Killen (1994), the lack of cooperating teacher knowledge of content and structure of university courses contributes to the gap between the university and the classroom. If the classroom teacher is an integral part of the planning team, this gap can be diminished.

Not only will these recommendations of increased cooperating teacher involvement benefit the incoming teachers by better preparing them and benefit the children in the educational systems through the resulting retention of well-trained teachers, the involvement will also benefit the current cooperating classroom teacher. Because the cooperating teacher isn't involved every day in discussions of theory, she is not necessarily making the existing connections between theory and her own practice. By becoming an integral part of the training program, the cooperating teacher will reconnect with theory that has long since become taken for granted in her practice and will be able to delineate more clearly these connections for both the student teacher and herself. In turn, this involvement and new theory involvement of the cooperating teacher, will strengthen the teacher educator's opinion of the classroom. What better way could there be to continue the pedagogical influence of the teacher trainers (who are so disillusioned with the practice in the classroom), than by building up the role of the cooperating teacher and thus insuring classroom teacher's exposure to new ideas and research and refreshing them in theory.

Anne undertook her student teaching in a college affiliated with a local elementary school. The cooperating teachers met regularly with college professors and supervisors to discuss curriculum and coordinate observation schedules. The entire triad--cooperating teacher, supervisor, and student teacher also met to discuss how the student teaching was progressing.

She cites student teaching as the highlight experience of her teaching education; she felt supported by the college as well as her cooperating teacher. Anne was secure in the knowledge that all parties were working together to enable her to be the best teacher she could be. She has now taught in the public schools for 15 years and seeks out opportunities to include student teachers in her classroom.

She does lament that she never has the involvement that her cooperating teacher had and thus questions the potential for her student teachers. She also receives no payment for her added activities compared to the $1,000 paid the cooperating teachers at her college in the early 1980s.

The final step in involvement and recognition for cooperating teachers is remuneration. Currently, cooperating teachers are rarely paid for their many hours of service; when they are, it is usually in insignificant forms such as one free course and/or library and parking privileges (Barker et al., 1992). No system or salary scale requires teachers to be cooperating teachers (although they may be pressured into such). There is very little incentive, beyond a strong moral professionalism, for working teachers to take on this activity so disdained by many teacher educators.

Barker and colleagues (1992) found that ". . . teacher education programs are benefitting from the services of educational professionals at a remuneration rate that is embarrassingly low." They concluded, "If we don't do something to try to increase payments and rewards' the partnership which is so important in the training of future teachers is in danger of losing its most significant member."

The cooperating teacher should be paid by a collaboration between the university and local school districts. This would facilitate and clarify their involvement, as well as enhancing the appeal of working with a student teacher. This payment would show cooperating teachers are valued as important mentors for student teachers. When they are paid, it can be anticipated that they will participate in planning teams to plan coursework, in trainings, in theory-practice discussions with professors, and in extensive work outside the classroom at the university.

It is clear that our current system of teacher education rather consistently fails the incoming teachers through the disengagement of university theory and classroom teaching practice. An obvious solution is to fully utilize the cooperating classroom teachers. These well-placed individuals are the best facilitators of the linkage; they can act as this necessary bridge.

Recently, there have been calls for the drastic reorganization of teacher education programs (e.g., Goodlad, Darling-Hammond). Most of these basically call for the complete scrapping of our current system. These calls are often overarching and not specific. (Dr. Goodlad, himself, complains of the "vagueness" of these demands [1993, pp. 5-6].) The reformers are missing evident ways to work within the current system of teacher education.

The university, having devised the theories on how children learn, must provide to our future teachers a strong knowledge of these educational theories. Equally important is their ensuring the education students' gaining practical experience at the classroom level. What is missing in our present system is that critical link between educational theory and the ways theory can be put into practice. Kagan (1993) says of the university,

Sadly, in trying to justify our own role, we have come to monopolize the power to define teaching. In the process of promoting our own functionally valuable perspective, we have disenfranchised experienced practitioners . . . who remain a silent underground of dissenting voices . . . Perhaps it is time for teachers to reclaim the right to define and evaluate their profession and to help decide how novices are best prepared for the classroom. (p. 3)

Teaching is the application of theory to practice, and that is what the cooperating teacher does. Therefore, she is the most logical person to help the teacher education student connect theory and practice.

A strong working relationship between the university and the cooperative teacher allows the student teacher to experience true classroom difficulties (not those created by the professor). Those difficulties can then be addressed in the university setting. With this basis of knowledge, the former students enter the teaching workforce more prepared and less surprised by the day-to-day challenges. Consequently, they are less likely to quit under the weight of those challenges. This form of on the job training promotes the teacher retention which is absent in so many schools today.

Incorporating authentic and substantive cooperating teacher involvement into teacher education will effect a great step forward. It will improve rather than destroy our current system and require rebuilding from scratch. We simply must use, to the fullest extent, the resources and personnel we already have available.


Ambach, G. (1996, November). Standards for teachers: Potential for improving practice. Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 207-210.

Barker, B. O., Burnett, K. R., Funaki, I. F., & Goodwin, R. D. (1992, February 15-19). A national study to assess payments and benefits in cooperating teachers working with teacher training programs. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Teachers, Orlando, Florida.

Chun, J., King, I. L., & Shigezawa, E. (1991, February 19). A partnership for enhancing the effectiveness of cooperating teachers in Hawaii. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (1993). Inside outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Connor, K., & Killmer, N. (1995, October 11-14). Evaluation of cooperating teacher effectiveness. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois.

Cotton, E. G., & Fischer, C. R. (1992, February). School and university partners in education: The selection and preparation of effective cooperating teachers. Paper presented to the Association of Teacher Educators National Conference, Orlando, Florida.

Darling-Hammond, L. (ed.). (1994). Professional Development Schools: Schools for Developing a Profession. New York: Teachers College Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1996, November). What matters most: A competent teacher for every child. Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 193-200.

DeBolt, G. P. (ed.). (1992). Teacher Induction and Mentoring. School-Based Collaborative Programs. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Fenton, J. A. (1996). Personal interviews with education students, education professors, and cooperating teachers.

Gibbs, L. J., & Montoya, A. L. (1994, February 12-16). The student teaching experience: Are student teachers the only ones to benefit? Research report presented at the Association of Teacher Educators Annual Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia.

Goodlad, J. (1997). In Praise of Education, New York: Teachers College Press.

The Holmes Group. (1995) Tomorrow's Schools of Education. East Lansing, MI: Author.

Kagan, D. M. (1993). Laura and Jim. What They Taught Me About the Gap Between Educational Theory and Practice. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Koskela, R., & Ganser, T. (1995). Exploring the role of cooperating teacher in relationship to personal career development. Wisconsin: ERIC Publications.

Lieberman, A. (1995, April). Practices that support teacher development: Transforming conceptions of professional learning. Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 591-596.

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America's future. New York: Author.

Petrie, H. G. (ed.). (1995). Professionalization, partnership, and power: Building professional development schools. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Polacheck, D. (1992, February 28). Professional awareness for cooperating teachers. Paper presented at AACTE Annual Meeting.

Richards, C., & Killen, R. (1994, July 3-6). Collaborative solutions to key problems in the practicum. Paper presented at the Australian Teacher Education Association Annual Conference, Brisbane, Australia.

Scannell, M., & Wain, J. (1996, November). New models for state licensing of professional educators. Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 211-214.

Shanker, A. (1996, November). Quality assurance: What must be done to strengthen the teaching profession. Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 220-224.

Shen, J. (1995, April 18-22). Student teaching in the context of a school-university partnership: An ethnography of a student teacher. Paper presented at the AERA Annual Meeting, San Francisco, California.

Wilson, L. J. (1996, February 24-28). Mary and Ann: A reciprocal preservice teacher and cooperative teacher relationship. Paper presented for the Association of Teacher Educators Annual Meeting, St. Louis, Missouri.

Wise, A. E. (1996, November). Building a system of quality assurance for the teaching profession. Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 191-192.

Wise, A. E., & Leibbrand, J. (1996, November). Profession-based accreditation: A foundation for high-quality teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 202-206.

Young, A., & Copenhaver, R. (1993, November 12). When teachers and administrators are asked: Improving teacher education through collaboration. Paper presented Illinois Association of Teacher Educators Fall Conference, Utica, Illinois.

* A cooperating teacher is an active teacher working in a community school who allows/invites a student from a local university to study and work in her classroom as a student teacher at the request of the university.


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