[By Dr. Vicki Caruana, assistant professor at Regis University] One of my favorite toys growing up was the Barrel of Monkeys. I loved linking those little plastic monkeys arm in arm and hanging them from the highest point in my room. I was reminded of this familiar image last week when I presented my research at the Teacher Education Division (TED) of the Council for Exceptional Children – a professional organization for which I am an active, invested, and faithful member for more than 25 years. I have had many mentors along the way in my years as an educator, but last week I was blessed to see and spend time with one of my earliest.
Dr. Susan Blanchard is a professor of special education at St. Petersburg College in Florida. She has spent more years than she’d like to admit in special education and is well known in the field. But she is more than that to me.
Sue Blanchard was my supervising professor (clinical instructor) in 1984 when I was completing my final student teaching in preparation to becoming a special education teacher. She evaluated my performance in the field, but she also provided much needed mentoring that offered me a lens through which I continue to view the acts of teaching and learning today. She observed my teaching in the classroom to make sure my pedagogy was sound. She showed me by example how to deal with the daily dilemmas of teaching, how to engage in critical discourse in a way that was productive, and how to be an advocate for my students without becoming an adversary.
Our weekly seminar sessions during my student teaching were an opportunity to debrief the dissonance we experienced as we compared what we knew were best practices and what we saw in the schools every day. Sue made it safe to question, to complain and sometimes even to cry. Her feedback was constructive and valid. That relationship had a direct impact on what kind of teacher I became and continue to be.
Clinical educators, whether they are teachers, counselors, or even nurses, know that the practical experiences they facilitate for their students are palpably critical to their development as professionals. Studies suggest that the time spent in clinical settings may even have more influence on pre-professionals’ perspective toward their roles and responsibilities toward those in their care than their coursework . The personal interactions between mentor and mentee weigh heavily and have the potential to tip the scales in favor of one perspective or another.
The role of a clinical educator (or supervising teacher) is different than the role of an advisor. Clinical educators are role models, consultants, problem solvers, and supporters. A big part of their job is to provide constructive and timely feedback, career guidance and sources of information on job opportunities. They can also provide letters of recommendation throughout a professional career.
Effective clinical educators model professionalism and demystify the clinical experience. They are the entry point into the profession!
Two major working principles for a successful mentor/mentee relationship include effective communication and accessibility (The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center). An effective communicator provides encouragement, but very clear, critical, and constructive feedback. In order to provide effective monitoring of student progress, the clinical educator must provide ongoing contact. Accessibility is key.
The goal of most of these clinical experiences is to enable students to develop critical thinking skills that are related to real-world activities (Tang, Addison, LaSure-Bryant, Norman, O’Connell, & Stewart-Sicking, 2004). Strong clinical experiences supervised by strong clinical educators foster a stronger perceived self-efficacy among students.
Students emphasized the extent to which connected teachers supported their learning: the teacher was ‘always willing to help’, offered help to ‘shy students’, and was an advocate for students by ‘being there’ for them. One linked the teacher as helper with her perception of the relationship: ‘I felt she was there to help me and more on an equal level as people, rather than as ‘teacher’, and ‘student’. As coach and guide, connected teachers ‘walked’ students through psychomotor skills, provided gradually less structured learning experiences and, according to students, provided more learning opportunities by being willing to ‘teach as needed’ according to their learning needs. (Gillespie, 2001, p. 572).
There is a combination of competency and compassion that must exist for the clinical experience to be meaningful for students. Effective clinical educators are sensitive to teachable moments and capitalize on the context in which their students are engaged.
As I consider how well my own clinical experiences have connected me to my own practice today as a supervising professor in the School of Education and Counseling, I see how important it is for me to bring my student teachers along on this journey to their professional careers. Arm in arm, with compassion, competence, along with clear and constructive feedback, we connect them to the real world.
Gillespie, M. (2001). Student-teacher connection in clinical nursing education. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 37(6), 566–576.
Tang, M., Addison, K., LaSure-Bryant, D., Norman, R., O’Connell, W., and Stewart-Sicking, J. (2004). Factors That Influence Self-Efficacy of Counseling Students: An Exploratory Study. Counselor Education & Supervision, 44, 70-80.
The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center. (n.d.). The power of mentoring.
Dr. Vicki Caruana is an assistant professor at Regis University, College for Professional Studies, School of Education & Counseling.
Dr. Vicki Caruana, Ph.D is an assistant professor of education at Regis University in Special Education, a former classroom teacher, and parent turned writer who seeks to educate and encourage kids and those who live and work with them to strive for excellence. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Specific Learning Disabilities, a Master’s degree in Gifted Education, a certificate in Educational Leadership, and will obtain her Ph.D. in Special Education in 2011. Her best-selling book “Apples & Chalkdust” has sold more than 600,000 copies! She has written more than 80 articles and 20 books and is a frequent guest on national radio and television programs. Vicki speaks at educational, parenting, homeschool and writers’ conferences. Vicki is also an educational spokesperson whose most recent client is Nintendo®. Her radio media tour reached more than 3,000,000 listeners nationwide.