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It All Starts in Student Teaching: How We Betray Our Own Via Educational Internships

by Jason Margolis - October 04, 2005

This commentary argues that the educationally altruistic archetype becomes inculcated in prospective teachers throughout their teacher education programs, culminating in student teaching. Through engaging in stressful, difficult, and uncompensated work, teacher education students learn to accept impoverished conditions and become prepared for a career of discontent. By facilitating these arragements, teacher education programs, in many ways, betray their own.

The recent book Teachers Have It Easy: The Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers” (Moulthrop, Calegari, & Eggers, 2005) calls attention to the shameful way teachers are compensated—both financially and culturally—in the United States.  Part of the problem, the authors argue, is that teaching is still seen as “essentially altruistic” (p. 4)—so why compensate someone for doing the right thing?

In this commentary, I argue that the perpetuation of the educationally altruistic archetype—what some might even call the acculturating into a martyr complex—begins in teacher education, culminating in the student teaching experience.  I conclude that if we do not change the structure of student teaching—which inculcates a sense that educators should work incredibly hard while their finances go to ruins—teachers will never escape from the shackles of low pay for high-stress, high-impact work.


In most teacher education, students are exposed to a variety of educational theories, concepts, approaches, models, dilemmas, and foundational texts.  Although some teacher educators work to temper idealism with reality, many preservice students leave their coursework with what has been referred to as “the model of super teacher” (see Margolis, Slavit, & Foster, 2005) as their professional archetype.  “The teacher” is to know their content, know how to deliver that content to groups of students, know how to individualize instruction for 25–150 students, be multiculturally inclusive and responsive, liaise with parents and the community, be a collaborative colleague, an agent for change, a moral model, learner, inquirer, researcher, gatekeeper of academic standards, guardian of democracy, and so on.


After taking a series of courses—or in some programs while they are still taking coursework—the prospective teacher then ventures out into the K–12 schools.  Some programs have one semester of student teaching, while others have three or more.  The average—and, anecdotally, the majority—place students in schools for two consecutive semesters: in Practicum and then Student Teaching.  Often, Practicum and Student Teaching occur with the same teacher in the name of continuity.  For their time in the K–12 schools, students will pay full-time tuition rates of anywhere up to $10,000/semester, depending on whether the program is graduate/undergraduate, in-state/out-of-state, and housed at a high profile research university or a smaller teaching college.


In the best of all possible worlds, the student is placed with a teacher who is thoughtful about the role of mentor.  They also have a supervisor who has taught the subject/grade in which they are interns, and knows how to negotiate school and classroom level politics to work out an optimal learning arrangement.  During Practicum, the student is encouraged to involve himself in classroom activities at a developmental pace, and the mentor teacher shares her thinking about teaching consistently and constructively.  During Student Teaching, the prospective teacher gradually takes over increasing teaching responsibilities, while the mentor remains a model of practice.  The intern and the mentor may even collaborate on a subject/class or two, and the supervisor provides praise as well as supportive critiques as to how the student may improve.  Communication amongst the three—even about difficult issues—remains open and direct.


The typical field placement begins with confusion about roles and expectations.  The mentor teacher may not have even known she was to have a student teacher until a day or two before the student arrives.  During Practicum, there is a disagreement between the supervisor and the mentor teacher about the amount of teaching the student is to do, and the University is unable to clarify official expectations.  Ultimately, the three agree on a plan that mixes observation and actual teaching.  Transitioning into student teaching, the mentor teacher believes they have laid the groundwork for success and encourages the intern to take over most of her classes at the beginning of the semester, and all of them by mid-semester.  She argues that this is what she did during her student teaching and that there is no other way to know what it is like to be a teacher than to teach an entire day for 4–6 weeks.  The supervisor, having experienced the same, concurs.  The intern, who is working three nights a week and two weekend shifts at Starbucks to pay for school, has no choice but to agree.  Exhausted by the end, the prospective teacher successfully completes student teaching and achieves certification and receives two letters of recommendation.


In a worst-case (but not all that rare) scenario, the intern may go through multiple placements until one finally holds.  Previous placements have fallen through due to the mentor teacher getting sick, changing his mind, or not liking the intern or the university.  Once the student has a placement, there is a conflict between the supervisor and the mentor teacher over control, educational ideals, and what is sound teacher education practice.  Confusion about expectations is further exacerbated by bad communication—the mentor and the intern both feel let down, but instead of openly sharing concerns with each other, they make disparaging comments to others in the school and create a rift amongst the staff.  At the same time, there is another problem developing.  The principal has asked the mentor teacher to help with a school-wide project, and she has agreed.  For much of the rest of the year, the intern is left alone with the students—receiving little guidance from her mentor and almost as little from her supervisor who disengaged after the fight with the mentor.  Miraculously, the intern makes it through the year and finishes the program.


After spending many thousands of dollars to work very hard—teaching most/all of a teacher’s load amidst an environment ranging from supportive to traumatic—the prospective teacher now needs to find a job.  She has just worked nearly a year for no money, so receiving any kind of payment for teaching is looking really good.  Further, she has been told that despite the predicted “teacher shortage,” the job market is very competitive right now: Locally, more than 100 applications for every vacant teaching position.  These word-of-mouth statistics are confirmed at a Job Fair where more than 3,000 prospective teachers show up to talk to representatives from 16 school districts—only half of which have definite openings for the following year.

After several months of teaching for free at her internship, and a summer of anxiety over the possibility of not getting a job and being unable to pay back student loans, an offer finally comes through just before Labor Day.  She will make $30,000 in her first year—and it looks like a mountain of gold.


When I student taught in New York State in 1991, I drove 45 minutes every morning from New Paltz to Hyde Park.  My mentor teacher felt the university under prepared its interns and was eager to share this opinion with me frequently.  I spoke to my supervisor three times (the three times he visited).  I almost quit twice.  Mid-year, I was lucky enough to run into a teacher in the English Office one afternoon, who after hearing I was about to teach Julius Caesar, shared with me a can’t-miss activity to engage 10th graders in the concept of betrayal.  After seeing that I was more excited by another teacher’s methods in approaching Shakespeare rather than her own, my mentor teacher barely talked to me the rest of the year.  Et tu, Brute.


Now, as Director of Field Experiences for Washington State University-Vancouver, I spend much of my time intervening in student teaching “emergency” situations.  I witness all sorts of bizarre events unfold that lead to failed placements.  I also see placements that appear to be successful—ones that look like they are mutually beneficial in helping the mentor teacher to grow as a professional and the intern to grow as a teacher.

But even for the “successful” placements, I am deeply concerned.  In fact, in coordinating these field experiences, I increasingly feel complicit in perpetuating the idea that teaching is about enduring high levels of stress and spending many hours in preparation and practice while your bank account and morale shift into reverse.  Because students often consider student teaching to be the most valued part of teacher education (Bullough et al., 2002; Knowles & Cole, 1996), prospective teachers receive a dangerous message, often rubber-stamped by teacher educators.  The message reads: You will always work very hard, never feel satisfied, never be justly compensated, never be rightly respected, and will always feel guilty when making decisions in your own best interest.  This is student teaching.  This is teaching.  And it’s OK.

What would help?  Should student teaching be a paid internship?  Not all internships in other professions are paid, but many are.  The summer after my first year of teaching, I roomed with a friend in New York City who returned from his second year of law school in Washington, D.C., for an internship in Manhattan.  He made almost as much in his summer internship as I did my entire first year of teaching.  The next year, after graduating law school, he was hired at a triple-figure salary—something I would have never made had I stayed in K–12 teaching, and will likely never make in my university work.

He and I are no longer friends. I don’t know why, but I am sure economic class has something to do with it: We could no longer afford to go to the same restaurants, concerts, and vacations.

This year and beyond, via our teacher education programs, another generation of teachers will be socialized into the profession and, I fear, second-class citizenship.  And as Director of Field Experiences, I am increasingly aware that the national image of the sacrificial teacher in many ways has its roots in student teaching.  

Et tu, Brute.


Bullough, R., Young, Y., Erickson, L., Birrell, J., Clark, D., Egan, M., Berrie, C., Hales, V., & Smith, G.  (2002).  Rethinking field experience: Partnership teaching versus single-placement teaching.  Journal of Teacher Education 53 (1), 68-80.

Knowles, G., & Cole, A.  (1996).  Developing practice through field experiences.  In F. Murray (Ed.), The teacher educator’s handbook: Building a knowledge base for the preparation of teachers (pp. 648–688).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  

Margolis, J., Slavit, D., & Foster, A.  (2005).  Does teacher education matter?  A case study of the lasting impact of preservice experience.  Unpublished paper.

Moulthrop, D., Calegari, N., & Eggers, D.  (2005).  Teachers have it easy: The big sacrifices and small salaries of America’s teachers.  New York: The New Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 04, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12209, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:15:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Jason Margolis
    Washington State University, Vancouver
    E-mail Author
    JASON MARGOLIS, a former New York City high school English teacher, is currently an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education and Field Partnerships at Washington State University at Vancouver. His work with student teachers has been published in English Education (2002). He continues to study pre-service and in-service teacher lived experience of educational policy.
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