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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

A Dose of Reality for Future Teachers

A small-town college in New York offers preservice teachers a firsthand look at how society's problems come to bear on student learning.

Increasingly, teachers work with children buffeted by the effects of major social problems, such as poverty, hunger and poor nutrition, drug and alcohol abuse, broken homes, abuse and neglect, and language barriers.
For example, the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1995) reports that in 1993, the number of poor children in the United States reached almost 15 million, up from about 10 million in 1970. Twenty-two percent of all children were poor; but that figure rose to 46 percent of African-American children and 40 percent of Hispanic children. Poor children often suffer from little or no medical and dental care, poor nutrition, and poor health, all of which contribute to school failure. In addition, the Bureau reported that cases of child abuse and neglect climbed from about 800,000 in 1990 to more than 1 million in 1993.
Besides all the problems associated with poverty and abuse, many of today's children will experience two or three different family arrangements before they reach 18. These arrangements not only have psychological repercussions for children, but they also pose challenges for teachers, who may have to work with more than one set of parents for a particular child. Parent conferences, reporting student progress, and school events all become trickier for the teacher.

Learning Close Up

Although the problems in our community, a small town in upstate New York, may not be as pervasive as in large cities, schools in our area are finding that more children than ever come to school with social, psychological, medical, and nutritional problems. The elementary education faculty at SUNY-College at Oneonta decided that we needed to better prepare teachers to face these challenges. After all, many of our students will wind up getting jobs serving the rural poor in our community or urban children in cities like Utica, Albany, Binghamton, and New York City. What better way to learn firsthand of the problems students face, we reasoned, than to ask preservice teachers to observe them firsthand?
So in Spring 1994, we instituted a new graduation requirement, "Early Field Experiences." As part of this new arrangement, elementary education majors must complete 40 hours of field observations in a variety of service agency and school settings. Students begin their early field experiences as sophomores or juniors in conjunction with their Foundations of Education class, and they are supposed to complete the requirement before beginning their Professional Methods courses.
To ensure that students benefit from a broad array of experiences, we divide the requirement into:
1. Eighteen hours in three different social agencies (six hours each), such as an unemployment office, battered women's center, health clinic, rape crisis center, legal aid office, or welfare office.
2. Ten hours (five hours each) in two different non-traditional school settings, such as Head Start, migrant tutorial programs, bilingual programs, Job Corps, alternative high school, Montessori School, Waldorf School—any school that works with a different clientele or utilizes very different curriculums or teaching methods. Although the early field experience requirement is designed for elementary education majors, we ask them to spend five hours in a secondary school, because older students may soon become parents similar to the ones our future teachers will encounter.
3. Twelve hours in one or two traditional elementary schools. In this setting, we ask our preservice teachers to focus on observing sociological dynamics rather than teaching and discipline strategies. (Teachers observe the latter for three days as another part of their program.)
We urge our students to seek out schools with which they have little experience, such as urban schools and poor rural schools, where they can clearly see the effects that major problems have on children's learning. We give students a list of agencies that have agreed to participate in this program, but they may choose other places, and many do. Students are encouraged to conduct their field experience in their home communities, so as not to overwhelm the institutions near our college.
Students are responsible for setting up their own appointments at both the agencies and the schools. This in itself is a growth experience, requiring them to accept responsibility for introducing themselves, conducting interviews, and planning their schedule. In order to make the experiences meaningful and enjoyable, students are urged to begin early, rather than rushing through the visits just to meet the deadline. We have, in fact, prohibited several who did not complete the requirement, despite ample warning, from student teaching.

Reflections on the Experience

Each of our preservice teachers keeps a log of his or her observations and reflections, guided by a list of suggested questions and activities. Most of the students find the visits very valuable. Though some are initially reluctant about the requirement, once on-site they often become more enthusiastic, calling the experience a real eye-opener. They are surprised at the extent of poverty; they are moved by the problems families experience; and they come to realize the value of schools' networking with social agencies and other community groups. Some acknowledge their misconceptions about alternative schools that work with troubled youth. They often are impressed with the dedication of the staff and surprised by their different but effective teaching techniques. Some express a desire to work in such a school, which they would not have considered earlier.
"I couldn't believe that our city served that many people per day," one student, who worked in a coffee house serving daily meals to the needy, said in his log. "Before this assignment, I was unaware that we even had a food pantry in this town. I couldn't help thinking about the number of kids coming to school with nothing to eat and the poor nutrition they probably got at home. At least they get one good meal a day." Another student, who worked in a Good Samaritan center, commented: "I don't know what I was expecting, but I was in shock. I guess I expected to see old men, drunks, or people who were once in the asylum. That is not what I saw, however."
Our early field experience requirement has been in effect now for almost three years. As with any new program, unforeseen problems have arisen and new ideas emerged. We have expanded our definition of "non-traditional" teaching to include many community or school programs that involve children with special needs. We continue to struggle with how to capitalize on the rich experiences that many students have, instead of relying only on reading their logs. Because most do not finish their observations until after completing their Foundations class, finding a way for them to share experiences with peers after the class has ended has been difficult.
What about the benefits? The agencies we've worked with have been positive about the requirement, saying it was long overdue. Administrators who work with student teachers confirm that the experience helps to broaden students' perspectives. When students glimpse what goes on in agencies that strive to help with family and social problems, they see firsthand how budgets and regulations constrain what can be done. In addition, by visiting various schools, students observe both effective and ineffective ways of working with disadvantaged or troubled children.
The primary benefit, however, is increased awareness our students have of the myriad sociological and psychological elements many children bring into the classroom because of circumstances beyond their control. We hope that these firsthand observations help our preservice teachers better understand why some students have difficulty in school and also help our teachers discover workable ways of helping children cope with troubles so they can succeed both socially and academically.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1995). Current Population Reports: 60-88. Cited in Statistical Abstracts of the United States.

June Edwards has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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