November 3, 2012


Getting a feel for the classroom

SUNYBob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland students, from left, Eunah Kim, Jennifer Sadallah, Mary Theresa Muldoon and Brooke Filer, have been involved in a new approach to training teachers: simulations where they face a student or parent. The four graduate students recently traveled to Syracuse University where they encountered actors who played the part of an angry parent or difficult student. The training is being developed by an SU professor.

Staff Reporter

Brooke Filer and Mary Theresa Muldoon had a problem: a male high school student who wanted all of the answers in his biology lesson without doing any actual work.
“He wanted quick answers and didn’t want to think about it too much,” said Filer, a SUNY Cortland graduate student in science teaching.
“It was a lesson about natural selection, and he started out saying he didn’t understand, then kept asking questions,” said Muldoon, another graduate student.
The “student” they faced was an actor, a Syracuse University student trained to portray a range of situations that teachers might encounter, such as bully victim, person opposed to learning evolutionary theory or just someone who has trouble absorbing material.
Muldoon, Filer and fellow SUNY Cortland graduate students Jennifer Sadallah and Eunah Kim encountered the actor during a visit to SU, where the School of Education is trying a new way of preparing future teachers for work: simulations where they face a student or parent.
Ben Dotger, an SU education professor, has developed 32 situations that a science or math teacher might encounter, including a disdainful parent who does not want his daughter learning about “safe sex” and a single mother who fears her son has been bullied.
Dotger said he got the idea from Upstate Medical University, where future doctors and nurses face fictional characters portrayed by actors, called “standardized patients,” who are trained to show 15 medical problems.
Grants from the National Science Foundation and other foundations, along with some funds from his school, have given Dotger the time to develop simulations for teachers and, more recently, principals.
“When I got my degree from Elon University in North Carolina to teach English, I lacked something,” Dotger said in a lecture Tuesday at SUNY Cortland. He said he had no experience with parent conferences or any number of challenges posed by students, in his first year as a high school teacher.
“I was awful,” he told an audience of about 100 education students and 10 faculty at Sperry Hall.
Dotger said he realized even student teaching does not prepare a college student as much as he or she needs to be. He asked the director of the medical school’s simulated interaction models if some of the actors could be trained as “standardized parents,” to offer his students in math and science teaching a way to see what awaited them beyond the classroom.
He created the 32 situations using four design themes: how frequently a teacher encounters them, how important they are to instruction, how much a skill might be important even if not used frequently, and the social impact.
An infrequent but important skill might be understanding how to support a student or even a parent who has been abused. The social impact means whether a topic is sensitive or controversial, such as one situation where a parent demands that creationism be taught alongside evolution.
Along with simulations for principals, Dotger has begun branching out to physical education and other subject areas beyond math and science.
The four SUNY Cortland students went to SU twice in October to try Dotger’s simulations. One was the boy unwilling to learn about natural selection, the other was a female student who did not understand graphs.
The four are students of Angela Pagano, a biology professor who coordinates science teaching at SUNY Cortland.
The four, who plan to become biology teachers, have been observing classrooms in the area and will become student teachers at some point.
They are students in the college’s master of arts in teaching program, which they said takes about five semesters to finish. All four got their undergraduate degrees elsewhere: Kim at the University of Virginia, Filer at Cornell University, Muldoon at Barry University and Sadallah at St. John Fisher.
“Even in student teaching, a college student doesn’t get to interact with parents,” Pagano said. “This is very valuable. Teachers might ask a student teacher to sit in on a conference with a parent, but that isn’t common.”
“You get an experience with students from this that you wouldn’t get from observation,” Muldoon said.

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