The old image of student teachers sitting in the back of primary education classrooms taking notes for use in their future teaching days is a thing of the past. Aspiring educators emerging from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education are equipped with multiple field experiences to ensure that their first full-time teaching jobs are far from unfamiliar.

But the student teaching experience isn’t even the first exposure Curry students have teaching students from kindergarten through high school.

“Long before they student teach, they’re actually involved in clinical experiences with supervisors, mentor teachers and interacting with children,” said Curry School placement coordinator Adria Hoffman. “So student teaching is actually the culminating experience as opposed to the first experience.”

These experiences, called Practicum, place students in schools once a week to work with individual students and small groups of students.

“I think the goal of the Practicum is mainly to expose you to the classroom, because most of your classwork that semester at the Curry School is centered around methodology and philosophies of teaching,” said April Johnson, a UVa student working as a teaching associate at Walker Upper Elementary School. “You’re seeing it, and then the student teaching is when you actually get to put it into practice.”

When Curry students finish their Practicum, they become teaching associates who are matched with faculty clinical instructors. The overall goal is to expose them to rural, suburban and urban contexts while also working with collaborative classrooms, English language learners and multiple grade levels.

“We have legal agreements with schools and school divisions throughout Virginia to place these students,” said Audrey Breen, director of communications at the Curry School.

The Curry School has especially strong partnerships with Albemarle County and Charlottesville City schools, in which approximately 80-90 percent of student teachers are placed.

“Our secondary faculty really know the teachers in those schools because not only have they been here a long time, but most of them are former educators themselves,” Hoffman said. “They’ve known these folks for a longtime, they’ve followed their careers, and they know their personalities, so it’s almost like a Match.com.”

Curry students fill out profiles of themselves to submit to Hoffman, answering questions about their personalities, teaching goals and previous teaching experiences. Hoffman and her team then match the students to the best clinical instructor.

“Students might say they haven’t had the opportunity to work in a particular context, and they feel like that would be really beneficial,” Hoffman said. “Or if they want to be prepared to work with kids with disabilities, they’d like to be placed in a collaborative classroom. I share those responses with school leadership to match the students.”

Hoffman added there have been 400 placements this semester.

Once they have been matched and begin their semester-long positions, teaching associates briefly take on an observer role before gradually assuming more responsibility in the classroom, until they completely take the reins by the end of the semester. Throughout this time, they receive constant feedback from their clinical instructors in addition to more formal weekly evaluations.

Johnson said the biggest benefit of the teaching associate program is being able to work with the principles she learns in the classroom in a more hands-on manner.

“Kids aren’t textbooks,” Johnson said. “They don’t fit perfectly into categories. Even if something might work today, it might not work tomorrow. For me, I’m learning to be willing and open enough to change along with them.”

Clinical instructors share their knowledge of current teaching theories while preparing the student teachers for their careers after graduation.

“Sometimes the clinical instructors say that one of the best rewards is that they’re helping to prepare their future colleagues,” Hoffman said. “Many of our TAs are hired where they student taught, so there’s a real benefit to help the person who might be teaching down the hall from you next year.”

Additionally, clinical instructors are able to share classroom responsibility.

“I’m really enjoying seeing the interactions April has with the kids,” said Walker teacher Erika Trent, who serves as Johnson’s instructor. “Two teachers in the classroom is how it started from day one. It’s been really nice to have an extra adult in the room.”

While the program aims to benefit all parties involved, the final emphasis is always on the students.

“At the end of the day, for all of us involved in teacher education, our primary focus is on the classroom, not our students,” Hoffman said. “They’re there to serve other students. So if we’re serving them well, then we’ve done a good job.”

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