The student teaching experience represents both the culmination of the formal education of a teacher candidate and the dawn of their careers. Perhaps a bit ironically, experience is an excellent teacher, and student teaching represents one’s first and best hope of gaining valuable practical experience in applying one’s knowledge of pedagogy. Pre-service teachers can take several steps to ensure they incur the maximum benefit.
Build a Collegial Relationship
Teacher candidates are often young, and student teaching may be their first foray into a professional work place. By establishing some norms and professional expectations at the onset, a student teacher can begin to grow trust and confidence with their mentor teacher. Establish the best forms of (email, text, phone, in-person, etc.) and appropriate times for communication outside of the work day.
For instance, a cooperating teacher might not appreciate a 2 am text to ask them to check over a lesson plan for the next day, even from a student teacher they like very much. The student teacher should ask the mentor teacher what their expectations are in terms of deadlines and lesson planning. Are they the kind of teacher that finishes plans the week before or the night before? Do they expect to review the student teacher’s plans before each class? Should a schedule be established to have these discussions or can they do this as an on-going conversation? Part of learning to be a teacher is learning to work on a team, and the student teaching experience is the first opportunity to collaborate with another professional educator.
Utilize Your Mentor
Student teachers have access to an incredible resource: an experienced teacher who is invested in their success and willing to give up some of their time and classroom autonomy to give the student teacher the opportunity to flourish. Taking advantage of that willingness to share is the key to a successful student teaching experience. Student teachers must:
- Regularly ask for feedback about everything. Were the questions I asked appropriate? Did I give enough wait time? Did I come across all right in that PLC meeting? Should I have looked at the data differently?
- Be prepared to accept the feedback even if initially you may disagree with it.
- Watch closely the ways the mentor teacher establishes expectations in the classroom. Do they model for children what is expected? Do they use multiple modes of communication? Do they employ non-verbal communication techniques? Anchor charts? How do they get kids to understand what they expect and how to do it?
- Ask questions about why and how they do things that seem to come naturally. Some really are innate, but most are skills or dispositions that the teacher has honed as part of their craft.
- When stuck or unsure of what to do, ask for help and be ready to receive it.
Observe as Many Teachers as You Can
In addition to frequently observing one’s mentor teacher, a student teacher can create a high-quality experience by arranging to observe multiple teachers in the school. Work with the administration to establish a schedule or at least gain permission to go into different classrooms to observe as many different levels, grades, subject areas, and teacher personalities as possible. Watching closely the decision-making processes of all the educators one encounters in a school during student teaching can allow exposure to multiple styles and perspectives.
An enthusiasm for fresh ideas and evolution is invigorating, and it is often what mentor teachers love about their student teachers. However, it can also instill a false sense of superiority in student teachers and leave them with the impression that experienced teachers may be “out of touch.” Student teachers should be encouraged to listen, observe, and ascertain the reasoning behind decisions before passing judgement on the teachers with whom they work. If one can suspend certainty about the way things “should be”, sometimes a better sense of the way things actually are and the most productive ways to respond to the current status quo will emerge.
Embrace a Growth Mindset
Be comfortable with failure. Embrace it. Striving for perfection, while admirable, can be a stumbling block during the student teaching experience. As a teacher, one will experience failure regularly: that of a student, a lesson, maybe even a system. A student teacher who fails and learns from it has gained far more than one who has simply continued to maintain a level of equilibrium by checking off requirements. Also the act of overcoming a failure by reflecting and refining ones practice is a critical element to becoming fully functioning professional educator. We act, assess, analyze, reflect, and refine. That’s who we are.
Exercise Classroom Management
Classroom management is probably the area most often cited by cooperating teachers, principals, and university supervisors as an area for potential growth in student teachers. One hopes that their students will all be compliant and that their lessons will flow seamlessly from each nugget of wisdom imparted to the next. However, hope is not a strategy.
A student teacher must create a classroom management plan through which they regularly employ specific strategies to build positive relationships with and among students, set non-instructional routines, and reinforce expectations for student conduct. Student teachers often doubt their legitimacy as classroom managers. If they can embrace this role with confidence, and assert themselves as the leader of the classroom, though, they could begin their career at a major advantage and leave room to focus on the essential function of teaching: facilitating student learning.
A student teacher who builds a strong, trusting relationship and maintains an open-minded approach will leave their apprenticeship with the knowledge and experience necessary to lead a classroom.