OPINION: Something’s Rotten in the MSU College of Education

OPINION: Something’s Rotten in the MSU College of Education

By C. Rose Widmann

March 17, 2021

For most seniors at MSU, graduation is something to look forward to. Seniors in the College of Education’s Teacher Preparation Program, however, are feeling anxious as graduation day draws near. In the fall, pre-service teachers will participate in a year-long mandatory teaching internship that prepares them to take over their own classrooms. 

The internship year is briefly outlined in CoE orientations, but details are kept on the back burner until senior year. In October 2020, CoE seniors were shocked to learn the financial details of the internship: 40+ hours a week in the classroom (potentially online), in addition to a full day of graduate-level classes per week. 

If MSU remains online, that’s another full day of Zoom meetings. If they’re in person, teachers must commute from their locations every week with no reimbursement for travel costs. Not to mention the technological needs: high-speed internet, multiple screens/devices and software/organizational materials. The costs of the internship year just keep growing. 

This leaves many students with more questions than answers: how will they support themselves financially while an unpaid program is necessary for their career? Where will they live? How is their mental health and physical health being supported? How is burnout and Zoom fatigue being mitigated? Will there be changes made due to the pandemic? 

The answer for some of these questions is that change will be slow to come, if at all. The CoE has maintained the top teacher preparation program in the U.S. for years and is hesitant to change, lest they lose their place at the top of the award list. For years, faculty and students who have spoken out against CoE policy have been gaslighted and silenced to pretend there are no problems with the teacher preparation program. 

As a former student in the teaching program, I experienced gaslighting when speaking against the costs of the internship program. I asked how I could afford to pay rent and out-of-state tuition while working full-time as an unpaid intern, and here are the solutions I was given: move in with my parents to avoid paying rent, work over the summer to make enough money for tuition or take out $50k in loans. Or drop out. 

I was an out-of-state student who already worked three jobs just to make ends meet, and I already had $30k in student debt. So I was forced to drop out. I was led to believe it was my fault for choosing the program in the first place and was told I should choose a different career if I wasn’t willing to “invest in my education.” 

The lack of transparency does not end there. It’s incredibly unclear what to do at the end of your senior year if you can’t afford the internship. Some students have been told they can take a gap year to save up for the internship. I was told that the requirements for curriculum would change during that time, so I would have to take more classes before I could move to the internship. Some people have been told that they can just graduate at that point with a degree in education, but I was told that wasn’t something MSU offers and that I would not be allowed to graduate if I chose that path. 

This begs the question: what about just dropping the education track and graduating with a basic degree? I was told that those were two separate tracks, and I had to take more classes in order to actually graduate with any degree after five years. 

That’s not the same story that every student hears: some have heard it is completely possible, and still others have been told to change majors since they ‘aren’t committed’ to their degree path. It seems redundant that the classes for the education track wouldn’t satisfy the requirements for the regular degree because students are still getting a four year degree either way. The back and forth of what is allowed and what is not has gotten so convoluted that students feel gaslighted when they learn what others were told, and everyone hears a different story.

So what is the CoE doing to support its students? From an outside perspective, not a lot.

Last semester, a series of town halls were proposed to allow students to air concerns to faculty. The first town hall was scheduled during sections of internship prep courses and not publicized by the college, leading to low turnout. During the town hall, students were once again encouraged to “invest in their educational career” and, when asking about mental health support, students were told to attend a “virtual mindfulness workshop” on the weekends. As if they have the time to spare for that, either as undergrads or while trying to stay afloat of their workload as interns. 

At this point, mindfulness isn’t going to help. The only things that pre-service teachers are going to have on their minds is how the college is failing them, on top of all the challenges that the post-pandemic world has thrown at them. Proposing mindfulness as a response to the trauma that financial strain and pandemic life has inflicted on students is virtue-signalling at best and outright insulting at worst. 

Many students are fed up with the smoke and mirrors experience at the CoE and are enacting change on their own. Members of Empowering Spartan Educators (@empoweringstudenteducators), a movement aimed at changing CoE policy, created a petition demanding change in the CoE that later received unanimous ASMSU support as Bill 57-79. 

The result of Bill 57-79 is that ASMSU supports and backs the ESE’s petition for institutional change. ESE also attracted the support of the Michigan Teachers Union, MEA, as well as local and campus news stories on the issue, and has plans in the works to make the unfunded fifth-year internship an issue MSU can’t continue to ignore. 

MSU President Stanley was in attendance at the ASMSU general assembly where ESE spoke about their experiences and proposed Bill 57-79. His response was favorable but vague, promising to bring the issue up with the MSU Provost now that he is aware of the issue. 

It will be vital to the movement to hold President Stanley, the MSU Provost and the Board of Trustees accountable going forward to continue to make this change something that MSU can’t brush aside. While the slow nature of change means there will be little done to assist pre-service teachers this year, there is hope for change in the future. 

Despite the outpouring of support from MEA and ASMSU, ESE is fighting an uphill battle against critics of their movement. Many comments on local and campus news stories tell pre-service teachers to “suck it up” and berate MSU students for demanding equitable education. Even within the CoE, there is pushback against students for speaking up about requirements that leave graduates under mountains of debt. 

These critics don’t seem to realize that teachers are necessary for our nation. The U.S. has experienced a teacher shortage for years with no end in sight. But the reality is, if you want your children to go to school, you must have teachers who aren’t burnt out on teaching before they’ve even begun. 

The CoE has touted for years that their program “guarantees employment” and “prepares students for the real world of education” but hasn’t adapted their outlook for the national teaching shortage. No program teaches you how to teach in a shortage, because the reality is depressing: you will do twice the work for half the pay, and it won’t get better. And if your program fails to teach you how to teach, then you’re paying thousands of dollars for an education you build for yourself. 

I spent four years in CoE classes but learned how to teach in my regular English classes along with many others in my cohort. Professors who were not specifically education-based shouldered the burden of guiding pre-service teachers on responsible teaching practices so that we wouldn’t go into our classrooms unprepared. 

When CoE faculty are asked about when we learn classroom management and lesson planning, the usual answers are that “you should have learned that already” or “you’ll learn that in the internship.” Interns have reported that the graduate-level classes they take during the internship recycle curriculum from junior and senior-level education classes, bringing nothing new to the table in terms of classroom management or responsible teaching. So what is the College of Education teaching, if not how to teach? 

Well, they’re teaching us that education is reserved for only those who can afford it. And they’re maintaining an unempathetic institutional body that cares more about numbers than the students enrolled in it. By gaslighting students and maintaining organizational disarray, the CoE’s proposed advantage only contributes to teacher burnout and a less diverse workforce. 

A 2013 study showed that nearly 50% of teachers feel burned out after five years in the field, and that rate has only increased. With the strain of the pandemic and the challenges of virtual classrooms, burnout is increasing exponentially.

I witnessed one of my friends in the internship year try to work a full-time overnight job in order to pay their bills, and they barely survived. My friend no longer works in education after spending five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree that burned them out before they even got to the workplace. Pre-service teachers are limping away from the internship annually with no interest in pursuing the career they love, despite the college’s boasted ease of employment upon graduation.

Yet, the CoE is still perfectly comfortable putting pre-service teachers through the wringer. The internship year was financially difficult before the COVID-19 pandemic; now it’s impossible for many. The internship year is not covered by government assistance since the tuition is charged at graduate level and students having technically “graduated,” so financial aid like Pell Grants and undergraduate scholarships are null and void. And the CoE has the audacity to wonder why their program is primarily upper-class white folx and Michigan residents. 

The bottom line: the internship year is a monumental cost to students mentally, physically and financially. It’s time for the MSU College of Education to do better. 

C. Rose Widmann (they/them) is a fifth-year senior pursuing B.A.s in English and theatre with multiple minors. This is their first semester with The Current, but they have been a contributor for HerCampusMSU since May 2020. C was most recently published in Otherwise Engaged: A Literature and Arts Journal. When not writing fanfiction or fantasy novels, C is competing for both the MSU club fencing and gymnastics teams. Insta: @C.rosewidmann