Creating a model of successful early field experiences

Samuel J. Hausfather
Elizabeth L. Strehle
Mary E. Outlaw

Teacher education appears to be coming around full circle, returning to an apprenticeship model as the source of knowledge about teaching. The original field experience was an apprenticeship under a master teacher, needing no additional course work (Hopkins, 1995). Field experiences were modified as teacher education moved to normal schools and colleges, with model schools and then laboratory schools fulfilling more limited field experiences. The last 25 years have seen a proliferation of more and earlier field experiences, significantly increasing the amount of pre-student-teaching field experiences (Guyton & McIntryre, 1990). Recent reports call for more focus on clinical training and induction programs emphasizing preparing and supporting cooperating teachers as mentors (National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, 1996). This is a new apprenticeship, one often focused more on questioning and experimenting than on practicing what the master teacher models (Hopkins, 1995).

The relationship between the field-experience student and the teacher forms the basis for the success of an apprenticeship model. As the mentor, the teacher plays a key role in defining this relationship. The teacher’s representation of the important components in this relationship is at the heart of a successful field experience for preservice teachers. This study elucidates teacher educators’ and teachers’ views of the field-experience relationship and defines key elements in the creation of successful early field experience. Using focus groups, field experiences were discussed and the creation of successful early field experiences was modeled. Our goal was to identify the key aspects involved in this process, and provide a model which could guide us in analyzing and improving the supervision of students in early field experiences.

Field Experiences as Apprenticeship

As teacher educators move back toward an apprenticeship model for field experiences, new approaches to apprenticeship are needed. The cognitive apprenticeship model (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989) may be helpful in understanding what happens in creating field experiences. In the cognitive apprenticeship model, knowledge, both conceptual and factual, is learned in terms of the context of its use in solving problems and carrying out tasks. There is a focus on learning through guided experience on cognitive and metacognitive skills and processes, not merely physical skills. Cognitive apprenticeship also encourages self-correction and self-monitoring skills, through reflection on differences between novice and expert performance, and through the use of both generative and evaluative processes. The knowledge base of teacher education often deals with a perceived practice/theory dichotomy. As we apply an apprenticeship model to field experiences, we may be able to situate teacher knowledge within authentic activity while maintaining a reflective stance on that knowledge.

Creating a “construction zone” (Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989) where field-experience students can appropriate understandings from classroom teachers requires the creation of intersubjectivity, where individuals share a purpose and a focus (Rogoff, 1990). Joint attention and shared problem-solving are needed to create a process of cognitive, social, and emotional interchange. The creation of a relationship between field-experience student and cooperating classroom teachers allows this interchange to occur.

Too often, early field experiences are unnecessarily perceived by preservice teachers as mis- or non-educative, negating their potentially invaluable educative opportunities (McIntyre, Byrd, & Foxx, 1996). Cole & Knowles (1993) identified four factors that contribute to the success of the field experience. One factor relates to curriculum and instructional matters of the teacher education program. The second centers on preservice teachers’ development of a sense of self as teacher. The third factor is the context of the field experience where issues of isolation, lack of collegiality, and inappropriate role models exist. The fourth factor has to do with patterns of past performances and elements of personal histories which may also contribute to an individual’s inability to master successfully the expectations of classroom teaching during the field placement. Based on these factors, field placements should occur where experiences can be monitored and inquiry supported during the construction of the role of the teacher. The relationship that develops between the preservice teacher and the cooperating teacher has critical implications for what the preservice teacher learns in her or his placement (Kagan, 1992; Strehle, 1995).

Conversations represent a unique dimension of learning to teach (Gonzalez & Carter, 1996). A powerful way to learn how to think about teaching is through the underlying narrative structure of an experienced teacher’s understandings of a classroom event. Providing an opportunity for preservice teachers and cooperating teachers to discuss the classroom event bridges the gap between expert and novice narrative. Conversations with the cooperating teacher aid in the preservice teacher’s interpretations and understandings of decisions made in the classroom. Conversation also helps cooperating teachers understand the frames preservice teachers bring to the field experience, allowing misconceptions to be addressed and avoiding miscommunicating intentions and insights.

The concern in any field-based project is to have the work of the college supported. How do colleges build bridges and gain entry to explore the very context of what they teach? This study engaged cooperating teachers in discussing their perceptions of the teacher education process. Teachers are especially willing to be active participants in the creation of field experiences when they understand that the college is not only asking for them to help, but is interested in listening to and helping them. Too often, we forget or simply ignore the most crucial element of all educational endeavors: the people who participate in them (Zeichner & Liston, 1987). To provide a program where the preservice teacher is engaged in reflective thought, mindful as opposed to mindless, may depend on the cooperating teacher’s advice and recommendations (Dunn &Taylor, 1993).


Through the use of focus groups, the authors challenged teacher educators and supervising classroom teachers to discuss and create a model representing successful early field experiences. Focus groups are a form of qualitative research based on a group interview. The interview begins with the researcher’s questions and proceeds by incorporating participants’ responses to the base line questions (Morgan, 1988). The power of this research methodology lies on the interaction within the group. The researcher typically takes the role of a moderator and creates questions based on topics of interest or concern of the group. The key to success is the observers’ control over the assembling and running of the focus group sessions. The data from focus groups are usually transcribed and analyzed. Researchers are able to observe interaction on a topic with relatively spontaneous responses from participants as well as producing a fairly high level of participant involvement (Morgan, 1988). Generally, the focus group is limited to verbal behavior, consisting only of interaction in discussion groups, and must be created and managed by the researcher. The authors added an additional responsibility for the focus groups by requesting they illustrate a visual model synthesizing their discussion and revealing their understandings of successful field experiences.

The authors held three separate sessions involving a total of ten separate focus groups. The first session involved approximately 38 members of a state-sponsored committee studying the evaluation of student teaching and field experiences. Participants consisted of pairs of college teacher educators and supervising classroom teachers associated with higher education institutions from throughout a major southeastern state. The session began with participants challenged to individually brainstorm and record what goes into making a successful field experience. In pairs, college teacher educators then interviewed supervising classroom teachers regarding the attributes of creating a relationship with pre-service teachers. They were specifically asked to respond to the following questions:
1. How you use pre-service teachers in your class? What do you like them to do? Do you know what the college expects you to do with them?
2. What helps the pre-service teacher the most?
3. How do you give feedback? How do you get feedback?
4. What are your three main goals for pre-service teachers in your classrooms?
Pairs were then put in groups of approximately six and directed to draw a model which synthesizes their discussion and reveals the nature of a successful field experience. Five models were generated, which were then explained to the group as a whole. The authors collected the completed models and notes taken on individual group participation and whole-group explanations.

In the second and third sessions, focus groups were utilized during two daylong retreats to address issues gathered from experiences during the previous three years of early field experiences. Teachers involved were active participants in the creation of partner school relationships between the college and local school districts. Twelve elementary-school teachers and ten middle-school teachers spent a morning divided into focus groups, each facilitated by a college faculty member. Using a prepared list of topics (see Figure 1), the facilitator used questions to initiate discussions among the participants, allowing teachers’ ideas to lead in the direction discussion. Three models were generated by the elementary-school teachers and two by the middle-school teachers. Focus group meetings were audio recorded and the tapes transcribed. Each group constructed a visual model of the relationship among the stakeholders (college faculty, supervising teachers, and preservice teachers) representing key aspects of a successful field experience.

Figure 1: Questions for consideration by focus groups

What is the role of the preservice teacher in your classroom?
What have they done in your classroom? How have you used them?
What do you notice about how they fit in your classroom? How have you interacted with them?
How do you make them feel comfortable? How do you involve them in talking with you?
What are things you say, allow them to do, connect them with pupils, responsibilities you give them, involve them in daily routines?
How do the preservice teachers interact with the students?
How does the preservice teacher make him/her self comfortable or not?
How do we make a field experience successful?
What makes a good fit of preservice teacher and cooperating teacher?
Draw a model of what happens in the creation of a successful field experience.

Examples of Models Generated

Although shared themes were apparent, the ten models varied greatly in the representations generated. While some models used geometric figures and words exclusively, others incorporated symbols or metaphors along with extensive explanations. One model used no words, symbolizing the preservice teacher as a growing flower. Another used the image of a hamburger to explicate “a tasty field experience.” One had five overlapping circles with the successful field experience occurring at the junction of all five. A look at three of the ten models created can provide an indication of both their diversity and the depth of the underlying concerns.

Working together was a theme of one group, which created a model using the analogy of a NASA space shuttle. A triangle of hands was at the center of this model, as communication was emphasized between the teacher, piloting a school space shuttle; the field-experience students, tethered to the space shuttle yet out in the field of stars representing the classroom pupils; and the college, represented by Houston Control communicating with both the teacher and practicum students. Establishing clear goals and multiple opportunities for conferencing were seen as ways communication was facilitated.

The teachers in this group were very concerned with preservice teachers establishing themselves in classrooms. “When I find out what their goals are, then I can work my classroom around to where I can meet their goals as well as mine. It’s so overwhelming for them at first.” At the same time, they were convinced that preservice teachers needed to be involved with pupils from the beginning, “allowing them to experience learning with the kids.” Then conferencing became important as a vehicle for feedback. “What they’re thinking and what they’re seeing may not be what I’m seeing and thinking.” The model they established emphasized everybody working together to support goals established through open communication.

A second model depicted the field-experience student and the teacher as counterbalanced sides of a scale, each side illustrating the characteristics needed and roles to be played by both participants. Characteristics both sides shared included common goals and expectations, positive attitude, flexibility, and cooperation. This group felt teachers needed to provide a comfortable environment for the field-experience student, model appropriate teaching and management strategies, and provide communication and feedback to the students. The field-experience students should be responsible and prepared, and should use the methods they have studied and seen demonstrated in both the college and school classroom.

Concern was voiced about shared goals and expectations between the field-experience students and the teacher, and how the teacher can establish a comfortable environment for the student. Often both the teacher and the field-experience student struggled with how to work gracefully with each other. To actually share the experience and responsibility required discourse between the teacher and students, using time that was not always available during the students’ scheduled attendance. Teachers who found the time commented about the students, “. . . they wanted to talk . . . they really wanted the feedback.” Such time was also valuable in grasping the culture of the particular school. This model reflected the importance of balance and communication between the teacher and the students.

Discussion in another group revolved around conveying the complexity of teaching to the pre-service teacher. Each teacher had a philosophy of how to introduce the pre-service teacher to their classroom based on their own experiences. One felt strongly that the practicum student learned from experience and should jump right into teaching lessons. Another felt the pre-service teacher should observe the classroom teacher and then through time be guided in how to work with the students and teach lessons in the classroom. A third teacher felt she needed to devote more time to being available and answering the questions of the pre-service teacher.

The model created was based on an oak tree. The pre-service teacher was represented by the oak and the supervising teacher and teacher educators were the roots representing sources of growth during the practicum. The strength of the field experience depended on the guidance, support, and sharing opportunities provided by the teacher educator and the supervising teacher. The teachers felt that communication, guidance, instruction, time for reflection, and a supportive classroom were necessary for a collaborative effort to provide a successful field experience.

Results: Defining a model of field experience

Analysis of the ten models yielded four shared themes, essential elements in the creation of successful early field experiences. Although the themes can be described separately, it is their interaction within the context of school, classroom, and college that gives them meaning. Through analysis of notes and audio-taped transcriptions of the meetings and through review of the models created, these four themes have been identified and expanded. The authors propose a model which formulates the interaction of these themes within the field-experience classroom.

The first theme was communication, especially the importance of communication among stakeholders. Although communication would appear to be an obvious aspect of any relationship, the challenges to communication are enormous within the field experience classroom. Teachers are busy people, whose classrooms are marked by multi-dimensionality, simultaneity, immediacy, and unpredictability (Doyle, 1986). Keeping up with the many simultaneous happenings in the classroom is a continual challenge. The immediacy and unpredictability of events make time a precious commodity within the classroom. Finding the time for communicating with preservice teachers is not easy. Participants stressed repeatedly that time for communication was essential if they were to understand the goals and abilities of the preservice teachers with whom they work. Communication was also essential to fulfil the role as teacher educator. Having the time to talk with preservice teachers was essential for the creation of an apprenticeship relationship. Multiple forms of communication are necessary among teachers, preservice teachers and college instructors. Some of these forms included conferencing at various points in the experience, midterm and final evaluations, journals and/or notebook feedback. Yet all of these took time which teachers felt challenged to find.

A second theme focused on the balance and interdependence among school, college, and preservice teachers. Each part of this triad was seen as essential for the success of the field experience. If one of the three perceived itself as the most important or the only “real”world, then the field experience would become detached from the other two. For a successful field experience, both college and school must see themselves as co-creators of the field experience, both partners in creating a field experience for a preservice teacher. The preservice teacher must also see him or herself as a balanced part of this triad, responsible for contributing to creating a learning experience. Teachers felt all members of this triad should be interdependent on each other, creating together a successful experience. Balance and interdependence create a milieu for the creation of successful field experiences. It is a milieu built through trust between the parties, as all see themselves as co-creators of an environment for growth of the preservice teacher.

The third theme identified shared ownership and responsibility for the process of education of preservice teachers. As co-creators of the field experience environment, both school-based and college-based educators needed to be seen teacher educators. While college-based educators define themselves as teacher educators, school-based educators often perceive themselves as merely the classroom teacher, participating with but not educating the preservice teacher. As classroom teachers were brought into the process of defining the field experience, they began to see the teacher educator role as one with which they could identify. In our discussions, they began to both question and suggest how the field experience was created. Classroom teachers saw the necessity for college-based educators to share the teacher-educator role openly with them. Teachers emphasized the importance of sharing and owning the responsibility for creating educative field experiences for preservice teachers.

The fourth theme addressed the importance of the individual’s growth and movement toward a goal, particularly with the support of college instructors, classroom teacher, and fellow preservice teachers. Preservice teachers in early field experiences are just beginning the process of creating an identity as a teacher. Each one brings a different history and differing experiences to this process. Teachers recognized the importance of supporting individual preservice teacher growth in the field experience. Preservice teachers move toward shared goals, yet each must also move in ways appropriate to their own stage of development as a teacher. In order for a field experience to be successful, those involved must perceive the individual goals toward which the preservice teacher is moving and identify their role in aiding and molding that movement. Classroom teachers expressed their concern in understanding the goals of those with whom they were involved and the processes to attain those goals. When all share in this awareness, then a successful field experience becomes more attainable.

These four themes can be seen to work together in a model to guide the development of effective early field experiences (see Figure 2). The preservice teacher is moving through this model, entering a situation with individual goals and developmental needs. Multiple opportunities for communication must be present to express these goals and to provide developmentally-appropriate feedback to the preservice teacher. College teacher-educators and classroom teachers must communicate about these goals and needs in order to establish a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the preservice teacher. Neither should feel sole ownership over this process of development, as both college educators and classroom teachers identify themselves as teacher educators. All of this occurs within a milieu of balance and interdependence. The preservice teacher is a balanced part of a triad creating the field experience. Trust helps establish a sense of interdependence where all members of the triad depend on each other to create the best possible environment for the growth of the preservice teacher.

College teacher educators are an essential part of the process of creating successful field experiences. Too often, in early field experiences, preservice teachers are left by their college instructors to negotiate the experience on their own. Teachers in our study clearly stated the importance of college teacher educators in the creation of successful field experiences. College teacher educators must be involved in facilitating and negotiating with teachers each of the elements identified. Most challenging for college teacher educators, they must communicate with classroom teachers both regularly and in depth. It is through communication that a relationship is created where both classroom teacher and college teacher educator share responsibility for the preservice teacher. In order for the college teacher educator to become co-creator of the field experience, he or she must be seen as a balanced part of the field experience triad.

Within the teacher education program at our college, we have begun to create structures which allow for the involvement of college faculty with classroom teachers in early field experiences. Field-based courses have placed large groups of college students during shared class time in partner schools. Students are placed in pairs within classrooms, allowing for another set of eyes to observe each other and another perspective to react to reflections. College faculty spend this shared class time within the schools with their students, visiting classrooms, talking with teachers, and observing the college students interacting with classroom pupils. Group orientation meetings with involved classroom teachers occur at regular intervals. The resulting relationships between college faculty and classroom teachers empower classroom teachers to share in the responsibility of educating preservice teachers (Hausfather, Outlaw, & Strehle, 1996). This relationship is essential for a model of early field experiences to be successful.

Educational Importance

This study explored the impact of the relationship that develops between preservice teacher and cooperating teacher. The goal of the study was to construct an understanding of the creation of the successful early field experiences and its role in the socialization process of becoming a teacher. Common themes which were revealed lead to the creation of a model which helps us understand the field experience setting and examine how that environment influences the interactions of the preservice teacher, cooperating teacher and teacher educator. The role of cooperating teacher becomes an essential part of teacher education as we move to increase early field experiences. The task for the teacher educator is to gain insights in how to link the university course work with the field experience.

The goal of working with partner schools is to continue to create strong ties that will provide opportunities for conversations between the school and the college. The connection between the college and school will provide the preservice teacher with an opportunity to think beyond what exists in the curriculum to look critically at the processes and values underlying educating children for change within public schools. As we increase the presence of teacher education programs within professional development schools, negotiating the field experience becomes essential.


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Figure 2: A model of elements in the creation of successful early field experiences