As a future educator, you will likely find that one of the most enjoyable and meaningful components of your program is your actual time in the classroom. One of these experiences is called a teaching practicum, where you have weekly visits to a specific school and classroom to begin your analysis of what educational pedagogy looks like in real life. This will prepare you for a student teaching experience where you ultimately take over as the teacher over the course of a semester, with the support of your supervisor and cooperating teacher.
In reality, every one of these experiences is critically important to who you become as an educator! There are many times that, as principal, I reflect back on the various teaching practicum experiences I had in college when I am thinking about how else we can meet the needs of our learners and their families. There are a few key things you can do as the student to make your teaching practicum an experience you remember from for years to come!
Target Your Focus Early
Meet with the teacher early to identify two to three students that you should track more closely over your visits to learn about the progression of instruction and development for a student. Consider what courses you are taking concurrently and ask if the teacher has a student in mind that would provide you rich and authentic examples of your course learning in action. For example, if you’re taking a course on math differentiation, ask to “follow” a student receiving math supports and modified work so you can see your coursework in action. Being proactive with your focus can maximize your learning, as well as your impact.
Your cooperating teacher knows you are learning, but may not know exactly what is clear or unclear to you as you join their classroom in this weekly visit. Make sure you give yourself time (outside of instructional blocks with students) to ask about why the teacher made certain choices, resources they use, or their approach to dealing with a difficult situation (i.e. who do they collaborate with first, when do they go to the principal, etc.) Avoid asking for personal information on students or feedback about other colleagues; it may come off as unprofessional.
Keep a Journal
In order to remember the things you notice and wonder while instruction is live, it’s important to keep a notebook so that when you do have time to sit down and process your questions with the teacher, you have notes handy to reference. Carve out time at night to read back through your notes and highlight key takeaways that you may want to look back on later as you prepare your philosophy of education or statement essay before graduation.
Learn the Routines
As an adult in the classroom, it’s important you quickly learn the routines: What is the bathroom policy and sign out procedure? Where is the emergency folder? What are the typical strategies the teacher uses to garner student attention (i.e. “1, 2, 3, eyes on me”). You should also ask your teacher about classroom rules and protocols for when a student is having a challenge or is being unsafe. Ultimately, the students will see you as another adult in the room and at times, they will look to you for feedback and approval. Knowing these routines and expectations early will build your own confidence in helping students while ensuring their safety and success.
There is nothing better as a classroom teacher than having another set of hands and eyes in the classroom. However, if all that person does is watch, it can end up being a frustrating dynamic from the teacher’s perspective. Whether your comfort level is helping to prepare student materials, or jumping right in with a small group of learners, think about how you can “pitch in” to be a contributing member of the classroom. Your teacher will welcome any effort you feel you can contribute, and if they know what you are learning in class (i.e. phonics instruction), they will try to set you up with hands-on experiences to try your learning out in action. If nothing else, offer to help with the bulletin board; that is always a surefire way to be quickly appreciated by the classroom teacher!
Keep an Open Mind
If you were really hoping for a first grade experience but ended up getting placed in fourth, go in with an open mind and remember that there is great value in spending a practicum out of your comfort zone. Reflecting on my own experience, I realize how important it was that my experience included urban, rural, primary, and intermediate grades before I embarked on my career.
That said, if you are finishing out a practicum and don’t feel like you have had a chance to see instruction at the level you are curious about, it’s okay to ask your teacher/supervisor to see if they can set you up with an additional experience right within your current practicum. For example, they may find a first grade teacher you can visit, whether it is for one day or a part of your school visit each week.
Your practicum is a short experience when compared to student teaching, but it is still extremely valuable because of the authentic learning it provides. By using the tips above, you can leave a lasting impact even in your relatively short time in this role. Most importantly, be sure to enjoy the privilege of being in the company of children!