If there is a make-or-break moment in a young teacher’s career, it is the student teacher experience.
UNC Pembroke elementary education major Casey Smith is thriving in her student teaching internship this fall. At Pate-Gardner Elementary School in Scotland County, Smith’s success is owed in part to the dedication of her teacher-mentor Lindsey Spangler.
Spangler is exactly the kind of teacher-mentor UNCP’s Dr. Bryan Winters is looking for. Dr. Winters, who is director of University-School Programs, has 62 student teachers embedded in 12 school systems this fall.
“The research shows it is vital that beginning teachers have an excellent student teaching experience,” Dr. Winters said. “If successful, this experience builds self confidence in the classroom and, ultimately, longevity in the profession.”
Dr. Winters did some of that research himself when he wrote his doctoral dissertation on student teaching. “It does not always work out,” he said. “Our goal is to place our student teachers with strong mentors who are outstanding clinical teachers. When it works as it should, it’s a great experience.
“UNCP has a reputation in the region for sending out strong candidates,” Winters continued. “Many end up being employed by the system they interned with.”
After several hours in Lindsey Spangler’s kindergarten classroom in this small and spotless school, it is evident that both mentor and mentee are succeeding. During the morning Language Arts period, they took turns leading lessons with Brenda Bullard, the teacher aid.
It is fast-paced, hands-on instruction, and the three teachers worked constantly and as a team. No teachable moments were wasted; even during the after-lunch bathroom break, children were on on-task. A successful lesson often ended in an enthusiastic “go me” chant.
Smith, who is from nearby Laurel Hill, graduated from UNCP in December. She has three job offers, although she would dearly love to work at Pate-Gardner.
“I love it here; it’s a great school,” she said. “UNCP’s education program is very strong, and…I’ve been exposed to the whole gamut here. It’s been a great experience.”
Spangler gives her student teacher high marks, saying, “I think Casey will be a wonderful teacher.”
“She is very caring, thoughtful, and kind. Casey is also very organized, thorough and diligent,” Spangler said. “Casey also has a very good work ethic. She is always willing to help anyone in need and take on any task or challenge eagerly.”
Spangler, who is from nearby McColl, S.C., is also a UNCP graduate. “I know what it was like to be in Casey’s place,” she said. “I’ve tried to expose her to everything.”
“Everything” means just that for Spangler. She is president of the school’s parent-teacher organization (PTO) and chair of the School Improvement Team (SIT) and Scotland Scholars, the after-school program. Smith participates in everything.
In the classroom, Smith is so calm and in-control with the children, it is tempting to say she is a natural. She laughed at that thought. “I worked my way through college at a day care for five years,” she said. “That was tough, but it really helped prepare me, and it taught me to be adaptable and flexible.”
Smith acknowledged that there is much more to learn and said Spangler is a great teacher. “She’s very gifted with technology,” she said. “She’s taught me how to put a lesson plan together for the Smartboard.
“Also, she’s taught me you have to have communication between teachers and with the principal,” Smith said. “She’s taught me all the important things.”
On this day, the teachers dressed the students as Pilgrims and Indians for a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and more. When Smith puts on her costume, she gets applause from the students. In the lunchroom, older students, who are Scotland Scholars, wave and smile. Casey Smith has made an impact on the entire school.
For Spangler, mentoring a student teacher is a professional obligation, and there are rewards, too. “This is my second year with a student teacher,” Spangler said. “I enjoy the experience. This is where you learn if this profession is for you.
“Having a student teacher is worth the experience because I love sharing ideas, experiences, and providing the student teachers with the experience,” she continued. “The hardest part of the experience is maintaining classroom routines, structure, schedules and behavior.”
Dr. Winters thanked Spangler for her contributions to the teaching profession and looked into the future for Smith. “Lindsay (Spangler) has left an indelible impression upon Casey and will undoubtedly influence her long tenure in the classroom,” he said. “It can be hard for the intern to say goodbye at the end of student teaching to those students he or she has developed relationships with, as well as leaving the cooperating teacher.
“Thank you, Ms. Spangler, for paying it forward,” Dr. Winters said. “The mentoring that occurs during student teaching is one of the most important contributers to maintaining quality teachers in the profession. Those first years following student teaching (are) so critically important.”