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When Holly Wroblewski, principal of Highland Elementary School in Burlington, was a student teacher back in 1999, she got a crash course in the difference between learning how to teach and actually doing it. She remembers well her first day teaching third grade, and how it didn’t go the way she expected.

“I had my denim jumper with my teacher pin, and I remember getting through to lunch, and I had my lesson plans,” she said. “I was very conscientious. I had lesson plans galore, and I got to lunch and panicked, because I had finished everything for the first day of school before lunch.”

And that’s the importance of clinical practice in teaching: getting on-the-ground experience with what it’s really like teaching. 

At Elon University’s School of Education, there is a strong emphasis on clinical practice. 

“You have to be able to put the learning in the classroom into practice in the real world,” said Lesley Henry, a director of education outreach and instructor at Elon University’s School of Education.

At Elon, an education student’s senior year is typically the student-teaching year, where they are placed in a classroom to experience teaching first-hand. But there are elements of clinical practice throughout the curriculum at the school. 

Just about every education class at the university has a practicum component. That means that these future teachers will be working with students in some way.

Early on in their education, Elon students may just be observing or assisting teachers in a classroom. As they progress, things get a little tougher. They will be in the classroom more regularly; they may be designing lesson plans and implementing small pieces of them. 

And then, during senior year, they find out if they have what it takes to be a teacher. They will be in the same classroom all year. In the fall, they may only be in the school classroom a few days a week, but in the spring, they become full student teachers, with all the responsibility that entails. 

They are never alone, however. They are always with full-fledged teachers who are there to guide them, help them, and teach them what the job is really like. 

“If you get somebody who’s enthusiastic and well prepared, it’s amazing to have an extra set of hands, and we do a lot of co-teaching and we can cover a lot of ground,” said Melissa Blum, a kindergarten teacher at Highland Elementary School in Sanford. Multiple students from Elon are placed in Highland for their student-teaching year. 

While Blum says it’s helpful to have them, it’s also a big responsibility for her to be a good role model and make sure the student-teachers know what to see and do. At the end of the day, she says they learn from each other. 

Blum remembers what it was like being a student-teacher herself, and that experience informs how she helps the current crop of student teachers.

“When I was student teaching, I was very nervous, and I wanted everything to be perfect, and I really looked up to my cooperating teacher,” she said. “And now as a cooperating teacher, I can see it from their perspective, and I can anticipate more what they’re going to need because I know what I needed.”

Missy Williams is training to be a teacher at Elon University. She has been placed this year — her senior year — in a third-grade classroom at Highland. She said Elon has done a great job preparing her for what teaching is like. She’s always loved the relationships with students, so that hasn’t been a roadblock for her in her student-teaching year. But she said there were some unexpected things that came with full-time student teaching.

“What’s surprised me was, I guess, just the amount teachers do that we don’t see,” she said. 

The planning and preparation that goes into actually teaching a class day in and day out was largely invisible to her when she was in her classroom twice a week in the fall. But now that she’s there every day, she sees what really happens behind the scenes. 

Colleen Cody has been surprised too, but in different ways. She is working with exceptional children grades K-2 in one classroom at Highland. 

“Being able to be in the field and experience the classroom is way different than just learning about what to do with the children,” she said. 

Colleen Cody, a senior at Elon University’s School of Education, is a student teacher working with exceptional children at Highland Elementary School in Sanford. Alex Granados/EducationNC

But some of the surprises are really unexpected rewards. She talked about one of her students. He is mostly non-verbal, but one day, she was working with him and other students on a writing activity. 

“He out of nowhere just started going, ‘I want to get down,'” she said. “And we’d never heard his voice before. Even though he wasn’t doing the activity, the way he was able to express himself that he wanted to get down, it was awesome.”

Wroblewski, an Elon grad herself, said she has been really impressed with the student teachers who come from Elon today. 

“I feel like they’re so much better equipped than I was back then,” she said. “Their maturity level just seems so much different.”

Ann Bullock, dean of the education school at Elon, says that senior year is a crucial one for prospective teachers. It prepares them for what life will be like in the real teaching world in a way that classes simply can’t.

“It’s really a different mindset for the students to think ‘I’m going to be here all year,'” she said, adding later: “You can’t learn to be a teacher in theory only.”

This is Part Two in a series on clinical practice in North Carolina. Part One gives an overview of clinical practice — the hands-on, real-life experience in a classroom during an educator preparation program — including how programs across North Carolina are honing their approaches to clinical practice partnerships. Parts Three and Four will profile two other educator preparation programs and the clinical practice experience of their students.  


Editor’s Note: Highland Elementary School is located in Burlington. This article originally incorrectly stated that it was located in Sanford. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.