Widener Teacher Candidates a Semester Ahead on Classroom Experience

Nicole Carrera, Assistant Director of Communications; Matthew Sullivan '22 communications studies
Widener faculty, teacher candidates, and community mentors at Taylor Arboretum
Widener faculty, teacher candidates, and community mentors at Taylor Arboretum

The first time a student teacher steps in front of a classroom of eager learners to begin instructing can be daunting, and exhilarating. 

At Widener, teacher candidates get an extra layer of preparation for that big moment. The university’s approach makes them even more prepared for the student teaching experience than their peers at many other higher education institutions. 

While official student teaching placements are not typically made until the second semester of their senior year, Widener teacher candidates get valuable experience in classrooms at Stetser Elementary School in Chester a full semester early. 

Through the Community Engaged Teacher Education program, teacher candidates log over 200 hours in the classroom working with students and faculty to develop skills that carry into their official student teaching placements. The focus of the program is on cultural immersion and getting to know the community in which you teach. This approach is grounded in developing relationships with others that may be different from you. We use empathy and develop cultural proficiency as we navigate the complexities of teaching.

Nadine McHenry, professor and director of the Science Teaching Center, leads Widener teacher candidates through their classes and into their student teaching placements. 

“Our goal is to prepare highly skilled, culturally aware students who work collaboratively with families and the community to focus on what is good and right for all children. I want my students to walk away with the idea that no matter what your context is, you can provide the kind of opportunities for kids that will actually connect them to school versus pushing them out of school,” McHenry said. 

The program helps put coursework into practice for teacher candidates. By taking examples from their Widener classes and combining them with pre-student-teaching experiences at Stetser, teacher candidates are able to find their voice as an advocate for their students. That builds confidence for the actual student teaching. 

“We would call it ‘student teaching bootcamp’ because we were there every day for two hours,” said Michelle Garcia ’23. “I think this is one of the best things to prepare us on this journey to becoming a teacher. We’re being shaped way differently [at Widener].”

After completing her program residency at Stetser in a special education classroom, Garcia is now back to continue her work there for her official student teaching placement. She says the relationship that she built with her classroom teacher and the students made her excited to return and continue working with them in this new role.

“I’m required to take on more lessons now which makes sense since I’m there the whole day. We do small groups and all of them are on a different level which was definitely a challenge in the beginning because I had seen it done and taken notes, but I had never actually executed it before now,” Garcia said.

Nadine McHenry (left) and Kayleigh Gehring (right)
Nadine McHenry (left) and Kayleigh Gehring (right)

Hours in the classroom encourage teacher-candidates to step out of their comfort zones in many ways. For Garcia, it’s finding her love of science through teaching it and continuing to implement it into her lessons. For Kayleigh Gehring ’23, it’s learning to be flexible.  

“I’m very much a planner and this experience has taught me that nothing ever really goes as planned being a teacher. You really have to think on your feet and work as a team because the kids are looking up to you,” Gehring said. 

This teamwork further strengthens the close-knit community that teacher candidates create among themselves. While they move on from their fall residency their individual student teaching placements, they continue to stay in touch and lean on each other for support. 

“I feel like [Widener] prepares you for the reality of teaching,” Garcia said. “Creating friendships with one another in the program is the biggest help because your classmates are doing exactly what you’re doing.”

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