Student teachers learn to be creative problem-solvers

By

Trista Sobeck

Back in November, college leaders and local school administration members gathered to watch a presentation of what could be part of the future of how MLFTC student teachers learn how to create change — and ultimately improve the system — from the inside out.

As part of the curriculum, senior-year college students who were placed in Washington Elementary School District as student teachers — 14 to be exact — were given an opportunity and the tools to try out a mindset of “educator as designer” while in their classrooms.

These student teachers presented the problems they chose to help solve, the journey their thinking took, as well as the outcomes and student reaction.

“This is the first time we used the concept of design thinking in the student teaching curriculum in such a large way,” says Lisa Wyatt, design strategist and project manager at MLFTC.

Becoming educator as designer

Wyatt worked closely with Michele Amrein, site coordinator and MLFTC clinical assistant professor, to embed a design project into th student teaching course. Amrein teaches MLFTC courses and oversees all student teachers placed in the Washington district, as well as numerous mentor teachers who coach student teachers.

Together, Wyatt and Amrein were able to create a section in the curriculum that accommodated the ability for student teachers to:

  • Identify a challenge in their classrooms

  • Research ways to address those challenges

  • Collaborate within teams consisting of MLFTC student teachers

  • Prototype and try out their solutions in their classrooms, and

  • Obtain feedback

The college is putting more stock into teaching the concept of principled intrapreneurship — taking control of an issue, having ownership over that challenge and asking the right questions to solve the right problem — that will ultimately lead to a better learning experience for preservice teachers and increased job satisfaction within the teaching field.

“I think that some of the impact that [student teachers] have learned through this process won't be recognized by them for a while if they see it at all. It is more of an expansion of awareness in terms of believing that they can make a difference, as so many of them have said when asked why they wanted to become teachers,” says Amrein. And this awareness can help carry teachers beyond burnout to fully embracing the field of education that they chose.

A showcase of the journey to new creative ideas

This process, although necessary and motivational, was not easy and was sometimes fraught with stress. “There was struggle, and at times, it was super messy,” says Wyatt. “Becoming a new teacher is hard and we added on another layer.” However, when Wyatt has conversations with students involved in the pilot, she knows it paid off.

“One student was going to have a gallery walk where she had students create colorful flags to illustrate the idea of fractions,” explains Wyatt. She continues to say that the student thought the lesson would be chaos with children walking around freely in the classroom. The result? It went off without a hitch and the kids loved it.

The student teacher was demonstrating creativity as a teacher. Research shows this is the earmark of a successful educator.

However, the process of student teaching is stressful for new teacher candidates, and most times the students don’t even feel that they have the time to think creatively, nor do some even consider themselves creative.

Andrea Somishka (BAE ’18), whose group took on the issue of encouraging students to make more environmentally friendly choices, says, “Creativity is a word that I wish applied to me. Being in college is stressful when I also work part-time and student teach during the week. The stress makes me uninspired, so I often find it difficult to be creative or find the motivation to at least try. Doing a mostly full takeover of the classroom has been eye-opening because I see the true constraints of teaching in a general educational setting.”

This sentiment rings true with Melanie Bertrand, assistant professor in Education Leadership and Innovation at MLFTC and faculty fellow with the Design Initiatives team: “What stuck out to me with most of the presenters … was the amount that they had worked to implement their idea, even during a hectic semester of student teaching. I like to see teachers taking inquiry into their own hands.”

Bertrand could easily identify how pivotal this project was for the teacher candidates. “I could see that the experience was very empowering for the students. I think these experiences teach future or new teachers that knowledge about how to improve teaching doesn’t lie just with the mentor teacher or with some researchers who are considered experts, but rather with them as well.”

Aside from reminding future teachers to be creative and take time to reflect, the project has also reinforced why these students got into teaching in the first place.

According to Irene Blanchard (BAE ’19) who focuses on special education, it’s key to remember to be mindful. “The things we talked about were things that should be done on a regular basis and we felt that it was not something that is done all of the time. This is something I want to implement in my own classroom, but as I am finding there is so much focus on the academic aspect it is hard to check in with my students. I will definitely be making time to check in with my students in my own classroom in the future.”

A wide breadth of challenges to solve

All challenges that the student teams tackled were phrased as “how might we” questions. They were:

  • How might we support student learning by increasing student engagement?

  • How might we help parents support their children academically?

  • How might we encourage students to make sustainable and environmentally conscious decisions?

  • How might we create an emotionally supportive environment in classrooms?

This process is not just to solve a problem, but to learn from the journey. According to Amrein, this pilot provides a very new way of teaching future teachers. “It is different from past experiences because students have more freedom to work toward a subject that they choose,” she says.

A traditional student teaching class asks students to develop a two-week unit plan. “Many [students] end up following a scripted curriculum with minor changes because this is the expectation of their school and placement classroom,” says Amrein.

“This [pilot] project focuses on the job of the teacher from a larger view. And that’s important because we are trying to prepare our students for a future in education that is constantly changing. They need to be comfortable with that and not be afraid to get involved.”

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