I sat at my computer in the summer of 2013 pondering whether I’d be able to begin my student-teaching.
I wondered whether spending four years learning to teach was worth the time and money, and whether my dreams of leading a classroom would ever come to pass.
I wondered if I should wait to apply for a fast-track program after graduating, or if I should take a year off to work so I could save more money.
Thousands of aspiring teachers have to make similar choices each year: Is the cost of student-teaching worth it?
Also known as “clinical practice,” student-teaching isn’t just about observation any more. Yearlong programs, in which student-teachers take on the responsibilities of full-time teachers, are common.
For a full year, I worked alongside my mentor-teacher planning lessons, leading discussions at parent-teacher conferences, grading, teaching regularly and more—all with zero salary or monetary compensation.
The financial downside was crushing. Because I wasn’t being paid for time spent in the classroom, I had to take out significant loans. I needed the money for tuition, but also to afford housing, transportation and food.
I arrived at school early in the morning and often left late in the evening, so part-time jobs were tough to schedule. Moreover, I was completing my student-teaching placement in Chicago, where living expenses were significantly higher than what I’d been accustomed to on my college campus.
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Ideally I would have had the time and support to focus on developing my skills as an educator without the stress of supporting myself financially. Loans were the only option to ensure that I could take advantage of the student-teaching experience.
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When I packed up to head to Chicago, I knew I’d be taking on significant financial stress throughout my entire clinical experience — not to mention when it came time to repay loans on a teacher’s salary after graduation.
Despite those financial strains, I completed a full academic year of clinical practice.
The experience prepared me for the responsibilities of full-time teaching, and I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without the mentoring and support I received that year. After I struggled to establish rapport with students during my first few lessons, my mentor-teacher stepped in to model some relationship-building strategies — things I still use with my current high school students on the South Side of Chicago.
I had the opportunity to practice those and other essential skills, like creating strong unit and lesson plans, aligning content to standards and collaborating with other teachers during my student-teaching experience. When I finally had my own classroom, I was more effective for having learned and practiced those key skills as part of my teacher preparation.
I was lucky to be able to complete my clinical practice, but the steep cost could keep others from entering the profession, especially students like me who come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds yet have the passion to pursue careers in teaching and make meaningful impacts on the next generation.
Much news has been made of teacher shortages and fewer students pursuing teaching for their careers. Colleges around the country are reporting fewer applicants and enrolled students in their education programs.
We seldom talk about the barriers to becoming a teacher. For many, teaching is out of reach due to the expensive nature of clinical practice. It’s too expensive to become an educator, and it’s too risky to forgo high-quality preparation. I knew that if I wanted to be successful in the classroom, I had to acquire clinical experience.
There are some alternatives that aspiring teachers can choose to offset the expenses of clinical experience and make completing quality preparation a reality for more educators — especially those who can’t afford to give up a job, don’t have affordable housing options nearby, or are already struggling with the burden of student loans. But those programs aren’t available everywhere, and they don’t prepare nearly enough quality teachers to fill every vacancy across the nation. We need our teacher preparation at large to change so that all candidates have the time, money and practice they need to be successful.
Colleges, universities, schools and districts need to work together to find solutions that allow more committed aspiring teachers to enter the profession — paying stipends, providing housing and creating paid positions for student-teachers can all make a difference for educators like me. Sustained practice is the foundation for preparing excellent teachers — it shouldn’t be the biggest obstacle for them to overcome.
Thanks to my clinical experience, I started ahead of the curve compared to most novice teachers. That foundation has also allowed me to continue to learn and grow as a teacher and a professional.
Now, five years later, I ask myself, “Was the cost worth it?”
My answer is an unequivocal yes.
The price I paid was significant, but I wouldn’t trade having a full year of practice before taking on my own classroom. If aspiring teachers are in a position like I was before I began student-teaching, I recommend considering your options carefully, but don’t deny yourself the opportunity to develop foundational skills through student-teaching.
Devin Evans is a 10th-grade English language instructor at Butler College Prep High School in Chicago and a participant in the Practice Makes Preparation program at the Bank Street College of Education.