SRU research team examines how supervisors can better evaluate student teachers


Student researchers lookimng to improve the student teacher evaluation

From left, Emily Armentrout, a Slippery Rock University graduate student, teaches a class while Monique Alexander, assistant professor of elementary education and early childhood, observes. Armentrout and Alexander are part of a faculty-student research team that is examining the techniques supervisors use to evaluate student teachers.

Sept. 26, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — When student teachers instruct a class as part of their "college-supervised instructional experience," their professors or other supervisor will visit the host school to observe the instruction and make sure instruction is being delivered effectively. These periodic reviews provide student teachers with valuable feedback. But what about their supervisors? How can they provide better feedback?

Those are questions being asked by a faculty-student research team at Slippery Rock University, led by Monique Alexander, assistant professor of elementary education and early childhood. The group is conducting a study titled "Supervision as Inquiry: A Self-Study of Evolving Supervisory Practices."

"We know what happens after an observation, but we struggle with what supervisors are writing down or typing on their computers in the back of the room," Alexander said. "Student teacher supervision is done in a million different ways. At times, the way teacher educators supervise student teachers does not align with what we are teaching them. (Student teachers) are on this path to becoming teachers and they have to know how to collect their own data, read the data and assess what that means for their practice, yet we do not give them data; we give them narrative statements about what we saw."

According to Alexander, who has supervised student teachers at three institutions since 2014, there is no standardized way across all institutions to supervise student teachers. Each institution has its own frequency and observation tools, such as a form the supervisor completes. Some schools conduct weekly observations and some have used video to evaluate performance. Some larger institutions have adjunct professors or graduate students supervise, which is what Alexander did when she was a graduate student at Penn State University, where she earned her doctorate degree in curriculum and instruction in 2016.

At SRU, tenure-track faculty supervise each student-teacher six times per semester using a standardized form. After supervising student teachers as an education professor at Bucknell University and now in her third year at SRU, Alexander noticed how her own observation techniques evolved since 2014 and she began researching the best practices across the profession, only to find none.

"We don't have any research specifically about what supervisors are writing down; I really want to open that door," Alexander said. "If we know what we are supposed to be doing in the post-observation conference and we know what we want students to learn, supervisors have a responsibility in that middle space to make sure they are capturing information that can be useful."

Alexander just so happened to save all her student teacher observations, which includes more than 300 dating back to 2014. That provided the evidence to conduct a self-study of her own observations and how they evolved. Alexander then brought on two SRU students to help code her observation documents, Emily Armentrout, a graduate student majoring in adapted physical activity from Slippery Rock, and Ayanna Weems, a senior early childhood and special education major from Slippery Rock.

Alexander and Armentrout received a $4,800 Summer Collaborative Research Experience grant from SRU to conduct the study and to travel to conferences to present their findings. Armentrout, who earned her bachelor's degree in early childhood education and dance at SRU in 2019, was particularly interested in the research because last spring she was a student teacher under Alexander's supervision.

"As a student who went through that experience, and then finding out through research that each university does (supervising) differently, I'm seeing the disconnect between what (teacher educators) are doing (at other institutions) and what they are expecting (student teachers) to do," Armentrout said. "We have wonderful professors who are teaching us how to teach but when they are supervising (many do not know how to) apply that knowledge."

"Emily is an excellent student and we had a great (student teacher/supervisor) relationship," Alexander said. "She would tell me about her student-teaching experience and we had this mutual inquiry about how supervisors and student teachers can interact and exchange information in a way that would support the student teacher."

By analyzing Alexander's evaluations since 2014, the SRU research team is looking at the observation tools and how they've changed (for example, when Alexander was at Penn State she just typed observations without any form providing direction), as well as Alexander's philosophies on the process, which became more inquiry-based. As Alexander progressed, she started asking the student teachers questions to find out why they did what they did instead of offering objective statements about what was observed to be right or wrong.

"When you are a novice teacher educator, you do everything based on what you did as a teacher," Alexander said. "But I've found that good teacher educators make their student teachers talk about why they are doing things."

Alexander and Armentrout will present their self-study at the Council of Professors of Instructional Supervision Fall Conference, Oct. 17-19 in Augusta, Georgia, and will submit their findings to an academic journal by the end of the year. Their goal is not to recommend an observation tool for supervisors to use but rather provoke teacher educators to be more intentional with how they supervise student teachers.

"The tools need to be personalized, but there also needs to be an important connection made," Armentrout said. "We're not trying to create a tool for everyone to use; we're just trying to create awareness so people can develop or think more critically about their own philosophies on supervision and how they're going to take those philosophies and apply them."

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