Student teaching has been around for almost a century, but mandatory unpaid internships could be a contributing factor to the shrinking of the teaching profession despite the need for educators.
Student teaching is a required part of teacher training in the education system, but people are starting to acknowledge that student teaching is simply an unpaid internship. Some in the education field believe that paying student teachers could potentially increase the amount of people that go into teaching.
Student teaching is the required practical application of teaching skills that involves someone who wishes to become a teacher to work under the supervision of a current teacher in the classroom. They observe the teacher, work with students and practice the practical skills necessary for running their own classroom. The last few weeks of their internship are generally spent teaching students by themselves with little help from their host teacher.
According to Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss in their research study “U.S. schools struggle to hire and retain teachers,” there has been a drop in those who have completed a teacher preparation program. This program is what traditionally includes student teaching.
“From the 2008-2009 to 2015-2016 school years, there was a 15.4 percent drop in the number of education degrees awarded and a 27.4 percent drop in the number of people who completed a teacher preparation program,” Garcia and Weiss wrote.
This observation has only increased in recent years, and many educators are worried about the lack of teachers going into the public school sector.
Shelly Vroegh, the 2017 Teacher of the Year in Iowa, has made it her mission to increase the number of teachers recruited and retained in public schools.
“Public school educators are very much feeling devalued and disrespected right now,” Vroegh said. “It can be very disheartening, and it can make people wonder why they would sign up for a job where they don’t feel valued or respected.”
This pressure to increase recruitment is heightened because there is a lack of funds to pay teachers that are actually employed by the school, let alone student teachers.
Vroegh, who student taught and has mentored student teachers, said it is incredibly difficult to work while being a student teacher.
“It’s really hard to go out and get an additional job because it’s demanding and it requires a lot of time and effort and energy if you want to do your student teaching the right way and do it well,” she said.
With student teachers unable to work another job and generally still being in college while pursuing their teaching license, student teachers actually pay tuition to become unpaid student teachers.
Even with student teachers paying tuition, sometimes there is not enough funding to support their supervisors, who have to watch them teach in their student teaching placement.
Chad Lang, who spends a lot of time focusing on recruitment for Glendale School District, points out that this economic stress impacts rural schools the most.
“The reality of [student teachers] is that it has financial ramifications on the university as well because they need to have student teaching supervisors,” Lang said.
Lang went on to explain that people who work for the teaching program have to go out and supervise the students. When there are limited amounts of these people, the radius of schools that student teachers can attend is small.
“[This system] is fine for schools in the radius that get access to student teachers,” he said. “But it really affects rural Iowa because they don’t have access to the student teachers they need to potentially recruit them.”
Lang said it is extremely difficult to get great candidates when a school is far away from the teaching programs at colleges and universities.
“A funding mechanism for student teachers and for student teacher supervisors would be hard to figure out, but I think it can be done,” Lang said. “We have to figure something out or we are going to lose more candidates in the education field.”
According to Jack Schneider, a professor of educational studies at Carleton College, student teaching has long been debated in America. Student teaching first emerged formally in the 1930s, he wrote on his website.
“A standard course of study included general education, courses in educational foundations and pedagogy and a practice teaching component,” Schneider wrote.
Student teaching became a lot more common in the 1950s and became required in almost every state by the 1980s. The standards for student teaching ranged from four to 18 weeks.
According to the Iowa Department of Education, a traditional teaching route includes 14 weeks of student teaching. The traditional path is required for all elementary and middle school teachers.
Student teaching generally involves a large time commitment for both the student teacher and the host teacher.
“It takes time for me to have a conversation with a new student teacher about each of my unique little learners,” Vroegh said.
In elementary schools, it's even more of a time commitment because the students are in the room for a majority of the day. Vroegh said the time before and after school was often spent working with the student teacher to make sure they felt comfortable and were getting practical experience.
There is a way to avoid student teaching by using the alternative license pathway. This is only available for adults with a degree in a teaching field and is limited to high school teaching only. After 12 to 18 credits of coursework, a person can be hired with an intern license. After a year with their intern license, they can take a few more credits and become a fully licensed teacher.
The difference between an intern license and student teaching is that those with intern licenses are paid as full teachers for their intern year.
John Montesi described the pros and cons of student teaching versus intern credential on his website. He interviewed Maria J. Gross, the director of clinical experiences at the School of Education at Azusa Pacific University.
“Intern credentials are ideal for independent, self-motivated students who are not afraid to place themselves in the challenging situation of leading a classroom while receiving occasional, focused support,” Montesi said.
Gross expanded on Montesi, saying, “The intern’s site mentor and district support is more intermittent and often takes place during professional development, before or after school meetings or in professional learning communities.”
Gross said for those who want a less-independent introduction to teaching, student teaching is the better choice, even though it is unpaid.
Vroegh believes the student teaching experience is irreplaceable.
“You really have to have that experience of working alongside someone who can mentor and support,” she said. “College can never fully prepare you for what it’s like to be in a classroom with those 23 or 25 little bodies who are all so different. Providing that opportunity for a teacher to work alongside a veteran mentor who has experience and strategies is so important.”
Not all people see the benefit in student teaching. A.M. Pines is a student who wrote an opinion piece titled “Abolish Student Teaching: End the Unpaid Internship Killing Education” about the problems with student teaching.
“Everything was fine until I was preparing for student teaching and realized there was no way I could make my basic bills without extra funding,” she wrote. “This is a problem a great number of potential teachers face: How do I support myself while trying to become an educator?”
Pines explained her experience, saying most student teachers had to pay full-time tuition, work full-time unpaid and possibly be prohibited from holding an outside job. Pines also said the program administrator can remove a student teacher if they have an outside job.
Schools suggest getting loans, cutting down on expenses and applying for welfare to pay for living expenses during the student teaching experience.
“I know many individuals that would have pursued teaching if the huge financial burden of a teaching degree and student teaching itself were not in the way,” Pines wrote. “It’s unreasonable to ask someone to cover a quarter to a third of a year of living expenses on loans and credit cards, especially for a job that won’t get you more than $30-40k starting, if that.”
A large majority of states do not allow full-time students to qualify for welfare or other potential government help. Pines emphasized how this limits representation from lower socio-economic communities in public education.
“The available pool of talent is increasingly dwindling to only those that can take the financial hit,” Pines wrote. “As the number of working poor grows, it shouldn’t be shocking that students are not pursuing teaching.”
With the lessening pool of potential teachers attributed to financial burdens across the board, people have presented ideas to increase recruitment and retention.
Lang explained the public school sector has been forced to adapt to compete with private teaching jobs.
“[Public schools] don’t use headhunters, but we use personality screening devices and we really look for fit,” Lang said. “We try to be creative. For example, we offer a free YMCA membership to all of our staff.”
Lang went on to mention that some school districts have some housing available and how other districts offer country club memberships or access to other benefits and perks.
Even with these creative solutions, there are limitations because of the rules regarding the public use of funds. It is public schools’ responsibility to prioritize and be fiscally responsible to taxpayers.
Jarod Kawasaki, a researcher at UCLA Center X, wrote in “Stipends, jobs for student teachers needed to diversify California’s teaching force” that the financial burden placed on student teachers is limiting representation in the teaching field.
“Taking a year [to student teach] is a barrier for potential teachers, especially teachers of color,” Kawasaki writes.
California is the most ethnically diverse state in the United States and has almost two-thirds of the populace identifying as Black, Asian American or Latinx.
According to Kawasaki, only one-third of teachers are from a community of color.
In 2018, a Learning Policy Institute report found that diversity in public education can have a positive effect on the academic achievement and school experience for students of color. However, it also showed that student loans are disproportionately discouraging for people of color entering the education sphere.
Garcia and Weiss wrote, “A shortage of teachers harms students, teachers and the public education system as a whole. Lack of sufficient, qualified teachers and the staff instability that accompanies turnover threaten students’ ability to learn … high teacher turnover consumes economic resources that could be better deployed elsewhere.”
They go on to write that the distribution of teacher turnover based on socioeconomic backgrounds is uneven across the United States, which puts low-income students at risk for a worse public education experience.
Weiss and Garcia suggest tackling working conditions and removing factors that are dissuading people from entering the profession, specifically focusing on high-poverty schools, which are likely to have the highest rates of teacher shortages.
Jenna Fisher, a sophomore in early childhood education, believes student teaching is still a valuable experience.
“The [education] classes are important, but student teaching is really putting your career into action,” she said. “Being in the classroom is one of the most beneficial parts of the student teaching experience."
Fisher also said she is not sure whether paying student teachers is a viable option to increase the number of future teachers.
“I would love to be paid to student teach, but ultimately, it wouldn’t make me work harder or impact the work that I do,” she said. “Ultimately, those that go into teaching don’t do it for the money. They do it for their students.”
There is no clear solution regarding the problems in the education system, and experts do not agree on the best way to go about tackling most of them. Even with the challenges facing the education system, including student teaching, educators are still passionate about what they do.
“I have to push [the challenges] to the side and remind myself that I am here for kids and I am here because what I do does makes a difference,” Vroegh said. “I can control the fact that I really care about kids, and I care about helping educators get better at what they do.”