Early Field Experiences in Teacher Education Programs
Teacher education takes place in a wide range of higher education institutions at approximately 1300 schools, colleges, or departments of education in our nation's four-year colleges and universities (Darling-Hammond & Cobb, 1996). A mainstay of the teacher preparation program is fieldwork (i.e., pre-student teaching field experiences and student teaching). In fact, "field experiences have always been a part of teacher education" (Arends & Winitzky, 1996, p. 542). At the undergraduate level, there is generally a 350-hour, semester-long student teaching experience (Darling-Hammond & Cobb, 1996). Student teaching is typically preceded by a pre-student teaching field experience. Approximately 86% of teacher preparation programs in elementary and secondary education require teacher education candidates to participate in pre-student teaching field experiences (i.e., observational and tutorial field experiences) (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education). These observational and/or tutorial experiences typically take place once or twice a week toward the beginning of the preparation program (Darling-Hammond & Cobb, 1996).
Field experiences "have traditionally reflected a practical/craft orientation to teacher preparation" (Carter & Anders, 1996, p. 569). Field experience, along with methods and foundational study, is among the traditional tripartite set of professional course work in teacher preparation in the United States (Arends & Winitzky, 1996; Cole & McCormick, 1986). Each facet of the professional course work receives different ratings by teachers as evidenced in the research genre known as "ask the teacher" (Kennedy, 1996). Kennedy notes that, "if student teaching is included in the list, it invariably is the highest rated part of preservice teacher education, usually followed by one or more methods courses...[while] if something like foundations is included,...it receives the lowest rating" (pp. 133-134). Field experiences are "commonly touted as the most meaningful part of preservice teacher preparation" (Knowles & Cole, 1996, p. 648). However, it has been reported that half of preservice regular education teachers are not required to have interaction with students who have special needs prior to teaching (Fender & Fiedler, 1990). This is echoed by Swartz, Hidalgo and Hays (1991-1992) who purport that few states require any teaching experience with learners who have special needs. However, according to Ford, Pugach, and Otis-Wilborn, many prospective teachers "...are likely to experience some degree of inclusive teaching during field placements – whether by design or chance" (Pugach, 2006, p. 556).
In light of the general lack of required exposure and interaction with students who have special needs as part of teacher education programs (Fender & Fiedler, 1990), along with the narrow framework of experience (Paine, 1989) and an increase in inclusive efforts in our public schools (NCES, 2000b), it seems reasonable to provide prospective teachers with such exposure as part of their early field experiences. Part of this experience ought to include occasions for reflection as the prospective teacher is engaged in the learning to teach process. For, "if the development of 'reflective practitioners' [Schön] is a goal of teacher education, then it becomes essential to develop strategies that provide opportunities to promote that goal" (Anders & Brooks, 1994, p. 6). Furthermore, these occasions also may offer opportunities for teacher educators to learn more about special education understandings of prospective teachers who are engaged in an early field experience as part of their teacher education program. Moreover, such an undertaking could include observational techniques as part of the inquiry since there is, as Brookhart and Freeman (1992) assert, "...a clear need for observational studies of entering teacher candidates' behavior in early field experiences" (p. 52). Attempting to gain insights into prospective teachers' special education understandings during an early field experience, in which the prospective teacher has the opportunity to interact with students who have special needs and to reflect on their experience, would be an interesting avenue of consideration. This avenue is particularly germane given "...the modern emphasis on cognition, reflection, and personal perspectives in teacher preparation..." (Carter & Anders, 1996, pp. 557-558).