By Stefanie D. Livers

University supervisors are often overlooked, underprepared, and on the outskirts of teacher preparation, but they provide an important link in helping improve mathematics teaching and learning.

MC1603_Livers_WebPreparing teacher candidates for the classroom is not easy. They enter preservice programs with strong beliefs about teaching and learning (Nosich, 2009). Such beliefs are especially detrimental in the teaching and learning of mathematics; they are the reason traditional mathematics teaching continues to perpetuate classrooms nationwide (Beswick, 2006; Wilkins, 2002).

Traditional approaches are problematic because they are not congruent with the Common Core Standards for Mathematics. The adage that continuing to the same thing will continue to bring the same results rings true in education, especially in mathematics education.

Despite the new, more rigorous standards, national reports, and legislation, the instructional norm in mathematics classrooms continues to be teaching mathematics based on procedures and skills. This grim situation stems from the beliefs and preparation of teachers. Teachers choose instructional strategies based on their own belief systems. If these belief systems are not identified and challenged, the beliefs are a barrier for change and limit the use of new instructional strategies. Getting around these barriers requires identifying the restrictive beliefs and creating an atmosphere of change in teacher education programs.

Two problems are evident in mathematics education. First, elementary teachers are not prepared to teach math (Ma, 1999) because they don’t understand the new processes well enough. Second, many lack the requisite credentials to teach math as a result of the increase in emergency certified teachers. In sum, teachers are expected to teach mathematics in ways in which they have no experience and to use a curriculum that is vastly different from their expectations and knowledge (Adler et al., 2005).

In a nation where high-stakes testing and standards-based curricula drive the instructional practice, the research highlights little change in instruction. The key factor to changing mathematics instruction and making the mathematics education reform movement a success is the teacher. Teachers must design effective instruction and choose appropriate materials for meaningful mathematics instruction. This means we need high-quality, university-based teacher preparation.

The enhanced scrutiny of teacher preparation programs grows out of the public’s impatience, intense media scrutiny, and the shift in accreditation and standards. This has prompted colleges of education to be held accountable for the teachers that they produce. College programs and faculty now face more evaluation. A critical influence on teacher candidates is the university supervisor assigned to their field placement site. The supervisor connects theory and practice during the critical time before student teaching (Grossman et al., 2008). As accountability increases for teacher preparation institutions to prove effectiveness of their teacher candidates, all aspects of the program have to be evaluated and supported. University supervisors must be provided with the necessary professional development to prevent the disconnect that often occurs between the philosophy of the teacher education program and the reality of the field placement.

Why coaching?

Legislation, national organizations, induction processes, and high-performing schools have also recognized the value of instructional coaches. There is little question that coaching provides a higher-quality professional development than traditional one-time, sit-and-get professional development.

University supervisors are ultimately coaches in the field (Slick, 1998) for teacher preparation programs. They provide supervision, support, and guidance that full-time professors cannot provide for preservice students. Anderson and Radencich (2001) found that university supervisors who functioned as coaches were more effective than those who took on just a supervisory role. Coaches observe, provide feedback, facilitate in lesson and unit planning, and locate resources. Additionally, coaches build key relationships founded on trust and respect (Joyce & Showers, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 2004). Teacher candidates learn to accept feedback, new ideas, and advice on planning and implementation of lessons through this coaching process. University supervisors assist teacher candidates in planning and teaching, yet they often are hired with little or no training. This is a problem and perpetuates the disconnect that often occurs among field placement schools and teacher preparation programs (Boz & Boz, 2006).

Changing the program

Challenges with mathematics education prompted a college of education at a major Midwestern public university to change its expectations of elementary university supervisors. This university is the largest teacher-training institution in its region and is dedicated to its the local school districts and recognized for its involvement in teaching, learning, service, and research.

Elementary math instructors saw a disconnect between elementary mathematics methods expectations and the feedback and expectations of the university supervisors supporting teacher candidates in their field placement classrooms. The university supervisors focused more on behavior management and lesson design than math content. If teacher candidates used hands-on or technology-based instruction and had good classroom management, the elementary supervisors generally gave them high marks. Nonetheless these same teacher candidates had to reteach lessons and retake courses despite good reviews from the university supervisors.

The elementary program agreed to change expectations for elementary university supervisors:

  • Add more professional development for university supervisors;
  • Add a math specific observation tool;
  • Observe all candidates on elementary mathematics methods; and
  • Require each supervisor to be observed twice using the observation tool and having the post-conference conversation with the teacher candidates.

For the first year of implementing these changes, the professional development included coaching, best practices in reform-based mathematics instruction, and using the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) (Piburn & Swanda, 2000). The NCTM process standards and the Common Core standards for mathematics also became part of the professional development. Coaching was needed because of the expectation for university supervisors to lead reflective conversations in the postconference conversations. The department agreed on a day and a half of training for the university supervisors with follow-up session throughout the semester.


University supervisors are an integral part of teacher preparation even though they are often overlooked. The professional development given the university supervisors proved to be beneficial in changing teacher candidates’ beliefs and instructional practice. Teacher candidates were given a pre- and post-survey about their beliefs of mathematics teaching and learning. A subset of candidates participated in culminating interviews, which, combined with other pre- and post-data, revealed a significant increase in teacher candidates’ beliefs about teaching mathematics, and a significant increase in their beliefs about self-efficacy in teaching mathematics.

Four teacher candidates found the feedback from the university supervisors to be positive and focused on the lesson planning. One teacher candidate said the feedback was overwhelming, because, “The university supervisor expects me to meet all the standards but the teachers in my school (field placement) weren’t meeting the standards.” Another teacher candidate talked about how her supervisor helped her with mathematical understanding.

Said one student, “When it came to understanding (mathematics), I think she (the university supervisor) kind of broke it down and kind of let me know, OK, this is what you need to teach the children, and this is what they’re doing in the schools. I had to kind of apply that when I was planning and teaching.”

The teacher candidates mentioned that a disagreement still existed between the university supervisors and the elementary mathematics instructors despite the program changes. One teacher candidate referred to an instance where the mathematics methods instructor had her reteach her lesson and the university supervisor did not feel that it was necessary.

Data from the observations revealed that university supervisors asked more open-ended questions and paraphrased in their postconferences with teacher candidates after program changes were implemented. University supervisors said they listened more and put the emphasis on teacher candidates’ reflections. They let teacher candidates problem solve and come up with their own strategies and ideas for improving their practice. University supervisors’ expectations for teacher candidates’ mathematics lessons changed as a result of the training. Interviews displayed an increase in the expectancy of real-world and hands-on learning. They wanted to see the teacher candidates actively involving students.

With the program change of requiring university supervisors to observe the mathematics lessons and to use the RTOP (Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol), an increase in dialogue about feedback on mathematics teaching was noted. Four university supervisors read and covered each indicator on the RTOP. Two had teacher candidates reflect on each indicator. Other university supervisors assessed teacher candidates using the RTOP and gave them a copy. Three teacher candidates found this feedback helpful. One university supervisor read lesson plans before teaching in order to give feedback.

University supervisors were interviewed to determine if the program changed the instructional practice of teacher candidates in mathematics. All but one university supervisor saw a change in teacher candidates’ mathematics planning and teaching. The university supervisors noticed a greater focus on teacher candidates preparing lessons that encouraged K-5 students to explore and use different methods to investigate problems. They saw an increase in a variety of instructional strategies and assessment. One university supervisor shared that it was easier for teacher candidates to execute the lesson; it was the easiest content area for them to plan and teach. Another university supervisor said teacher candidates were well trained in mathematics. They noted a definite emphasis on conceptual understanding, and teacher candidates focused on this in their planning. One university supervisor had this to say:

There was a lot more postdiscussion about concrete materials used in teaching and conceptual understanding. Teacher candidates focused more consistently and intentionally on open discussion about how each child solved the problems. The supervisors noticed that they also seemed to be trying harder to meet the needs of all learners.

Next steps

This change in teacher preparation yielded results within one semester. Several other areas within the program need to be addressed, as well, based on this study. The biggest area of need is program compliance. Despite approved changes to program expectations, a few university supervisors resisted the changes. This resistance came in the form of attendance, following through with observations, and communicating schedules. Resistance affected the results of the program changes. These issues call for the program to escalate their evaluation of university supervisors and add these compliance issues to their annual review. Another issue was the time devoted to professional development. University supervisors need more than a day and a half in order to perform their tasks effectively. The last issue for teacher preparation is the choice and hiring of university supervisors. In this program, some of the teaching faculty also served as university supervisors. These faculty are content specific, but not in the area of mathematics. This poses these questions: Do these faculty focus more on content in their areas of expertise more than mathematics? Should university supervisors be generalists? 


University supervisors do help in the preparation of teacher candidates. Their relationship with candidates is important in order to address misconceptions and beliefs about the teaching and learning of mathematics. University supervisors given the appropriate tools are able to have meaningful conversations with teacher candidates that provide the opportunity for reflection and change. Clearly from this implementation and change of program focus, change is possible and more work needs to be done to support the university supervisors in their support of teacher candidates.

The current expectation for teacher preparation programs is to be held accountable for the quality of their graduates. Elementary student test scores in mathematics will soon be linked directly to their teachers and then to teacher preparation program. This places additional pressure on colleges of education. The integrity of a program is based on the consistency and implementation of expectations. This means teacher preparation programs are responsible for all faculty providing support and education for teacher candidates. The performance of all faculty is important, especially the university supervisors who are expected to bridge the theoretical course work and the practical work in the field. 


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Boz, N. & Boz, Y. (2006). Do prospective teachers get enough experience in school placements? Journal of Education for Teaching, 32 (4), 353-368.

Grossman, P., Hammerness, K.M., McDonald, M., & Ronfeldt, M. (2008). Constructing coherence: Structural predictors of perceptions of coherence in NYC teacher education programs. Journal of Teacher Education, 59 (4), 273-287

Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development. (3rd Ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Ma, L. (1999). Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics: Teachers’ understanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nosich, G. (2009). Learning to think things through: A guide to critical thinking across the curriculum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education

Piburn, M. & Sawada, D. (2000). Reformed teaching observation protocol (RTPOP) reference manual. Technical Report.

Slick, S.K. (1998). The university supervisor: A disenfranchised outsider. Teaching and Teacher Education, 14 (8), 821-834.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilkins, J.L. (2002). The impact of teachers’ content knowledge and attitudes on instructional beliefs and practices. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the NorthAmerican Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of MathematicsEducation, Athens, GA.

STEFANIE D. LIVERS ( is and assistant professor of elementary mathematics at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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