Everyone seems to agree: The more hands-on, pre-service experience in the classroom—where you observe and practice with an effective teacher who gives you helpful feedback—the better.
Why is this important?
Practice makes perfect. In fact, teachers with pre-service, or classroom, experience as a part of their preparation program are more likely to feel prepared for their first year in the classroom. And having the opportunity to observe other teachers and practice teaching is important for success as a first-year teacher.
What can this look like?
Pre-service, hands-on experience can come in a variety of forms.
In traditional undergraduate or masters programs, it looks like one or two semesters of working full-time in an experienced teacher’s classroom (this is usually called student teaching) during your final year. Before that, you may observe classrooms in person and deliver instruction through virtual reality.
Some alternative certification programs offer several weeks of pre-service practice with an experienced teacher during summer school, and some will allow you to do a semester of student teaching while enrolled.
Residency programs usually offer a full year of pre-service teaching experience, where you may have some practice in the summer and then a "clinical year" embedded in a school.
Heads Up: Several alternative certification programs have "internship" components. This can sound like pre-service experience, but it is just the term for your first year as the primary adult in the classroom before the program has recommended you to receive your certification. Some programs will have pre-service experience before this internship year—just make sure you understand the program components.
As a general rule of thumb, more pre-service experience is better, but quality definitely matters. Make sure to ask any prospective programs about what the pre-service experience includes, how they select any mentor teachers and how you will receive feedback on your practice.