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Myths and Realities of International Field Experiences

Can teachers be expected to study abroad during their preparation programs? Or do too many obstacles exist? Caitlin Haugen of Global Teacher Education busts some myths.

by Caitlin Haugen

It is time to debunk the myths around student teaching abroad, perpetuated by colleges of education.

I often meet with teacher educators who express an interest in providing overseas student teaching opportunities, but find the barriers too great. They cite myriad challenges rendering these experiences unattainable. 

As I listen to these challenges, I have started to see a pattern emerging of commonly cited barriers—most of which are viewed as impossible to overcome. Not so.

Over the last year, I have done research on international student teaching in the United States in order to get a better grasp on the availability of these programs and a better sense of how they operate. 

I learned that many of the commonly perceived challenges are, in fact, overcome in institutions all over the country. These barriers are prevalent in the dialogue around internationalization of teacher education, but they are unfounded, so I have started to refer to them as myths. 

Below I share and attempt to debunk some of the most common myths I have encountered to encourage more campuses to pursue these opportunities. Not all of this research has been published on GTE, so I offer a sneak peak of the findings so far.

MYTH: State certification requirements stand in the way of international student teaching. Pre-service teachers are required to complete their field experiences for a specific number of weeks (14 to 15 weeks in most states) or hours in the state where they receive licensure or in a state where the institution has reciprocity.

REALITY: Institutions in 35 states currently offer international student teaching experiences. While 35 falls a bit short of 50, this is still significant as institutions in well over half of all states have found a way to work with state licensure requirements. Further, while every state has a weekly or hourly requirement for licensure, not all of those need to be completed in state or—in the case of international student teaching—in country. Most states have a minimum in-state requirement (usually about ten weeks), while the remaining weeks may be completed elsewhere. 

MYTH: Supervising student teachers abroad is too expensive or not rigorous enough. Sending faculty abroad is costly, and they will refuse to go on a short, whirlwind supervising trip. Student teachers will not get the same quality of supervision nor will they be held to the same standards as their peers in the United States if overseen by local educators.

REALITY: Campuses can and do send faculty members abroad to supervise student teachers—and they are willing to go. Forty percent of survey respondents reported that a faculty member travels abroad to oversee some or all aspects of supervision. For those who do not, 33% rely completely on local supervisors (the remainder cite a hybrid approach, for instance 17% said they rely on technology to facilitate supervision). All but two of nine third-party program providers use local supervisors (one is the Department of Defense Education Activity program that places student teachers in American DoD schools abroad). To assume a local supervisor is incapable of providing the same quality supervision as a U.S.-based faculty member is ethnocentric, plain and simple. Universities hire adjuncts all the time to meet their teaching needs, including to supervise student teachers. There is no reason they cannot use the same hiring principles and training abroad. 

MYTH: Educators who student teach outside the US will be ill-prepared to teach in American schools. They will lack the skills necessary to succeed. They may have experience in cross-cultural settings, but not the same as they will encounter in this country.

REALITY: Teacher preparation programs operate under the assumption that pre-service teachers—with support, practice, and supervision—learn skills they later apply to the classroom once they graduate, and perfect with more teaching experience. To assume international student teaching fails to provide the necessary transferrable skills because the experience occurred outside the United States is also ethnocentric, and not well founded. Most pre- and in-service teachers recognize that our classrooms are growing more diverse. A recent report by the American Federation of Teachers, however, illustrated that many in-service teachers feel poorly equipped to address the needs of diverse learners and ill-prepared in culturally responsive teaching practices. Conversely, international field experience literature suggests that educators who completed their student teaching experiences abroad reported feeling better prepared to teach students from different cultural backgrounds. The global competence skills learned while student teaching abroad can be applied to classrooms anywhere in the world. To assume otherwise is contradicting the very nature of teacher preparation. Further, as the response to the first myth illustrated, pre-service teachers complete a significant portion of their student teaching stateside. A vast majority of international student teaching experiences are eight weeks or longer, which means participants student teach a total of 18 weeks as opposed to their peers in the US who complete 14 - 15 weeks. So, pre-service teachers who student teach in the United States, on average, graduate with less classroom experience than their peers who complete their requirements abroad.

MYTH: Overseas student teaching is exceedingly rare. There is not enough evidence to support these experiences, and few example programs to draw from.

REALITY: Of all of the internationalization strategies I support, international field experience appears to boast the widest body of literature. It is a concrete strategy, and often the place where many schools of education start the path to internationalization. Currently, nearly 120 campuses provide overseas student teaching opportunities through a third party provider or via their own institutions. Considering there are over 1,300 teacher preparation programs in the United States, this number seems to support above myth because it means fewer than 1% of colleges of education are offering these opportunities. I disagree. I find this number promising. Some of these programs have been successfully operating for over 40 years and offer a wealth of experience and knowledge, and the number of opportunities grows every year. Deans and faculty interested overseas student teaching should not look to campuses that are not providing these experiences, but should instead turn to those in the 35 states that are. I invite them to become myth busters, not myth makers.

A word on my methodology: I was guided by an advisory committee as I interviewed representatives from individual campuses and from organizations that act as third-party providers to facilitate these opportunities for pre-service teachers. Additionally, Global Teacher Education conducted a survey of campus-based international student teaching programs.

In the coming months, I will be sharing the findings from the research on international field experiences in a series of articles, including the results of the survey. Hopefully this work will continue to educate teacher educators on the realities—not the myths—of student teaching abroad.

Follow Caitlin on Twitter @GTEorg.

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