Preservice teachers’ perspectives of failure during a practicum

September 2021

Source: Teaching Education, 32:3, 237-250

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study examines four cases of practicum failure in the final year of a Bachelor of Education program from the perspective of the students.
The four accounts shared in this study represent a compilation of data from practicum reports, field notes, interviews, and questionnaires completed by the preservice teachers.

Although the accounts reflect the preservice teachers’ perspectives, they come from a compilation of the data, not a verbatim representation.
The four preservice teachers who participated in this research agreed to do so with the belief that sharing their stories might help other students experiencing failure.

This study used a descriptive phenomenological theoretical framework and methodology.
Descriptive phenomenology involves reporting the experiences of the participants as they describe them (Giorgi, 1997) but also seeking to produce a general structural statement that reflects the essential structure of the experience being investigated.
For this reason, preservice teacher participants were asked to share their perspectives on their practicum failure.
Data were collected from practicum reports, field notes, interviews, and a preservice teacher questionnaire.
Each of the participants were in their early twenties and had completed their undergraduate degree the year before entering into an after degree Bachelor of Education Program.
They agreed to share their experiences with the hope that it would help other students in similar situations.

Data analysis
Data collection was based on field notes, practicum reports, interviews and a questionnaire to create an account that represented the student’s perspective on the failure.
The interviews were unstructured and provided the students with an opportunity to share their perspective on the failure and to consider what they might do differently if they were given another placement opportunity.
These interviews took place prior to the student receiving a new placement.
The questionnaire was completed after the student had met the requirements of the program, thus allowing the students the opportunity to reflect on their experience of practicum failure.

Results and discussion
By sharing their perspectives on their failure, the students identified the issues they believed were factors in their practicum failure.
Wayne indicated there was a personality conflict between himself and his associate teacher.
Nathan struggled with taking on increased teaching responsibilities and having to learn content.
Melissa realized she didn’t know how to create a complete lesson plan and avoided asking for help from her associate teacher.
Rachel felt she was unprepared for an increased teaching load because her previous practicum had focused on teaching students one on one.
Each of the participants commented on the stress of failure and the impact it had on their confidence.
As the students reflected on the reasons for their failure, each of them indicated their failure was not completely their fault but was a shared responsibility with their associate teacher or the university.
As each of the students went on to eventually complete their Bachelor of Education program, this study points to the importance of resiliency in the face of failure.

Personality conflicts
From Wayne’s perspective, a lack of communication and mismatched personalities led to his practicum failure.
Graham (1997) described differences in style, gender and patterns of communication as those that can lead to tensions during the practicum.
Differing communication styles was also identified by Sudzina et al. (1997) as sometimes hampering early dialogue and resulting in a lack of clear expectations.
Rachel felt her associate teacher did little to guide or support her during the placement.
In their examination of the role associate teachers play in student teacher success or failure Sudzina et al. (1997) found that incompatibility can result in the associate teacher being more of a tormentor than a mentor.

Increased teaching responsibilities
All of the preservice teachers in this study were generalists, and as such were expected to have sufficient content knowledge to teach all subjects in their division with the exception of French.
Three of the four participants in this study, Nathan, Melissa and Rachel, encountered difficulty when their teaching responsibilities shifted from 50% in the second placement to 80–100% in their final placement.
In their 2006 examination of mentor teacher perspectives, Siebert et al. found that mentor teachers believed many preservice teachers were not prepared for the amount of work teaching required.
Similarly, Ralph et al. (2008) reported preservice teachers experienced ‘heavy workloads, time-management difficulties’ and a general feeling of being ill prepared for their responsibilities (p. 165).

Lesson planning
Lesson planning was identified as an issue for three of the student teachers.
Problems with lesson planning were identified by Knowles and Sudzina (1991) as a contributing factor to many preservice teacher failures.
In their examination of mentor teacher perspectives, Siebert et al. (2006) described the difficulty many preservice teachers have creating lessons that connect lesson activities with the objectives of the lesson.
Without that connection, the activity becomes nothing more than a time filler and missed opportunity to deepen understanding.
The role of lesson planning in student teacher development is critical, and preservice teachers may be mislead when their associate teacher requires only an outline in order to deliver a good lesson.
The ability to teach from a lesson outline is one that takes years to develop.

Schmidt and Knowles (1995) identified teachers’ reluctance to engage in difficult conversations as a lack of assertiveness.
For at least two of the preservice teachers in this study, Wayne and Melissa, the experience of struggling led to avoidance of difficult conversations with their associate teacher.
Wayne indicated his associate teacher accused him of not responding to emails while Melissa failed to admit she needed help.
This avoidance prevented Wayne and Melissa from developing a clear understanding of what steps were necessary to improve their performance.
Without a clear understanding of their role, associate teachers may feel such difficult conversations are best left to their university supervisor.
The avoidance of discussion with their associate teacher and their university supervisor resulted in a downward spiral of anxiety, fear, and panic until the relationship between the student and the associate teachers was damaged irreparably.

Stress of failure
Failure in the preservice teaching practicum has been described as a ‘difficult, damning experience’ (Knowles & Sudzina, 1994).
Preservice teachers faced with the possibility of failure or termination of a field experience often worry about the long-term implications, fearing they will be less likely to complete a successful placement in the future or find employment (St. Maurice, 2001).
Each of these preservice teachers described how the practicum failure led to stress and difficulties coping.
Unlike the findings of an earlier study examining teacher failure (Schmidt & Knowles, 1995), all four of these preservice teachers planned to pursue teaching after their experience with failure. In fact, St. Maurice (2001) noted that participants in his study reflected on their experiences with failure as beneficial to their personal or professional development in the long term; ‘preservice teachers improved as professionals, because the benefits of terminating a student teaching assignment exceeded the liabilities’ (p. 385).

Reflection has long been a part of Bachelor of Education programs, and the student teachers in this study were required to complete written reflections on each of their lessons.
However, in order for reflection to improve teaching it must go beyond surface level thinking about what went well and what did not, to an examination of one’s role and the impact on student learning (McCann et al., 2009; Probst, 2015).
From the preservice teachers’ perspectives, other parties involved in the practicum were at least partially responsible for their failure.
This is consistent with Schmidt and Knowles (1994) finding that beginning teachers believed their failure was a shared responsibility.
Without reflexivity, ‘preservice teachers begin to blame others for their lack of success in the placement.
They see their associate teacher, their students, or their field experience instructor as the problem’ (Hill et al., 2018, p. 192).

Perhaps the most interesting finding resulting from this study is the resiliency these students displayed.
While failure impacted the confidence of the students, they all proved resilient enough to complete the program requirements.
St. Maurice (2001) noted that for some adult learners, ‘termination may be considered as a part of a professional development process in which novices can learn to succeed by reflecting upon failure’ (p. 376).
Each of these preservice teachers experienced failure during their practicum.
With support and additional practicum time they eventually met with success.

Giorgi, A. (1997). The theory, practice, and evaluation of the phenomenological method of qualitative research. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 28(2), 1–13.
Graham, P. (1997). Tensions in the mentor teacher-student teacher relationship: Creating productive sites for learning within a high school English teacher education program. Teaching and Teacher Education, 13(5), 513–527.
Hill, S.L., Burns, A., Danyluk, P., & Crawford, K. (2018). Critical conversations on reflexive inquiry in field experiences. In E. Lyle (Ed.), The negotiated self: Employing reflexive inquiry to explore teacher identity (pp. 183–196). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Sense.
Knowles, J.G., & Sudzina, M.R. (1991). Skeletons in the closet: Failure in student teaching. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Teacher Education, New Orleans, LA.
Knowles, J. G., & Sudzina, M. R. “failure” in student/practice teaching: a skeleton in the teacher education closet Knowles, J. G., & Sudzina, M. R. (1994). Paper presented at the annual meeting of the association of teacher educators. Georgia: Atlanta.
McCann, T.M., Johannessen, L., & Ritter, J. (2009). Mentoring matters: Working with student teachers. The English Journal, 99(1), 114–117. Retrieved from
Probst, B. (2015). The eye regards itself: Benefits and challenges of reflexivity in qualitative social work research. Social Work Research, 39(1), 37–48.
Ralph, E., Walker, K., & Wimmer, R. (2008). The clinical/practicum experience in professional preparation: Preliminary findings. McGill Journal of Education/Revue Des Sciences De L’éducation De McGill, 43(2), 157–172.
Schmidt, M., & Knowles, J.G. (1995). Four women’s stories of “failure” as beginning teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11(5), 429–444.
Siebert, C.J., Clark, A., Kilbridge, A., & Peterson, H. (2006). When preservice teachers struggle or fail: Mentor teachers’ perspectives. Education, 126(3), 409–422.
St. Maurice, H. (2001). Supervising unsuccessful student teaching assignments: Two terminator’s tales. The Educational Forum, 65(4), 376–386.
Sudzina, M., Giebelhaus, C., & Coolican, M. (1997). Mentor or tormentor: The role of the cooperating teaching in student teacher success or failure. Action in Teacher Education, 18(4), 23–25. 

Updated: Jan. 04, 2022