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Michigan Radio's special week-long series on teacher education in Michigan.There's wide agreement among education experts that teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in how well students perform in school. So how are Michigan schools of education doing when it comes to turning out effective teachers?

For some student teachers, a 5th year just for classroom management

Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

All this week we’re talking about teacher training.

But there’s one thing that’s almost impossible to teach students in college: how to manage a classroom.

It’s like trying to teach someone to be a parent: You can read about it, you can talk about it, you can even watch somebody else do it.

But at the end of the day, you just have to do it yourself.

That’s why schools like Michigan State University have their education students do a whole extra year, what they call “fifth year” – one they spend entirely in a classroom, teaching.

That’s what Kari Young is doing at Horizon Elementary in Holt as her second graders come streaming back in from recess.   

They are pumped up on playground endorphins, spring fever, and the craziness of a reporter with a big microphone standing in their classroom.  

“Is that a gun?” asks one girl, looking at the microphone. “Brendan says it’s a gun!”

“No, it can read your mind!” Brendan clarifies.  

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Pat Ryan, an MSU field instructor, coaches fifth-year student teachers over the school year

So, let's imagine that you are their teacher.

In between the various recess reports kids want to walk you through, painstaking detail by painstaking detail, could you get this class quietly sitting down and engaged in a completely new, conceptually difficult math lesson with no nagging?

Young can.  

“What is a perimeter?” she asks quietly, not raising her voice, as she sits at the front of the class. “That is the question we are answering, ladies and gentlemen.”

Behind her there’s a question written on the board: “What is a perimeter? Write your best guess and come sit in the front,” it reads.

The obedient kids get right to it as soon as they walk in the door. They write down their answers, and come up front to turn in their papers. When they do, Young gives them a new task. 

"Lily, you are sitting so quietly. Could you draw a line segment that is 10 centimeters long?" Young asks, motioning for Lily to come up to the white eraser board on Young’s lap.

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Two of MSU's fifth-year student teachers are teaching in Horizon Elementary's second grade classrooms this year

Meanwhile, the more restless kids are like "oh, what's going on up front?" And within minutes, one by one, the kids settle down, focus, and come sit up front.  And Young hasn't said "be quiet" one single time.

"By the time she has them join her on the carpet, they've already transitioned from worrying about what was happening out at recess to starting to think mathematics,” says Pat Ryan, nodding approvingly from the classroom sidelines.

Ryan is what’s called a field instructor, or field supervisor, in MSU education lingo.

That means she coaches student teachers like Kari Young throughout their fifth year of college.

That fifth year is spent entirely in one classroom, teaching. There's a lead teacher, too, of course.

But the fifth-years are always teaching, too. And they spend big chunks of the fall and spring doing the lead teaching themselves.

"I could have thought I was prepared last year, just with our undergrad and the classes and the brief experiences we had done, but I really wasn't."

This fifth-year concept isn't unique to MSU, but it's still relatively new.

Lots of other education schools have fourth-year students spend a semester as student teachers.

But this fifth year isn't just more time in the classroom.

It's continuous. The idea being, you have to know how to teach kids Week 1, when everything is about establishing classroom rules and getting kids to understand what you expect from their behavior.

So that by spring, they can transition quickly and without drama from recess to talking about perimeter.

And all these things that Young is doing, even the silent signals she's giving them with her hands – the "shh, let's listen" signal, the eyes that say "hey, I see you over there, get it together" – these are things she’s honed in her one-on-one sessions with Pat Ryan, the field supervisor.  

"Early on there was a lesson that was a fabulous lesson, and Kari couldn't get it going because of the [students'] behavior,” Ryan says as they go sit down in child-sized chairs after her lesson wraps up. “And it was really disappointing to you and you got emotional. And so we talked about a few things, and oh my gosh, you just started putting those pieces into place. And you learned to teach while monitoring behavior. You learn not to let those frustrations and distraction derail you.”

For Kari Young, this fifth year has been eye-opening.

"I could have thought I was prepared last year, just with our undergrad and the classes and the brief experiences we had done, but I really wasn't in any way,” Young says, “which I realized once we got here! So being here for that whole year, I’m seeing the kids almost from start to finish. Seeing that growth and figuring out how we need to pace it, and do routines – so many things you don’t think about and don’t realize until I got here. ”

Now she says she feels ready – well, almost ready – to run her own classroom next year. 

Here's a clip of Kari Young at work:


Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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