Cover Story: From the Lecture Hall to the School Hall
New Teachers are Between Two Worlds
This is the real deal—the chance to strut your stuff in an honest-to-goodness classroom. It’s enough to make even the most committed education student panic.
“It’s definitely one of those experiences where you feel butterflies in your stomach because you’re in charge,” says Emily McDaniel, a graduate of the master’s credential program at the University of California Santa Cruz. “It’s like teaching a toddler to walk—they jiggle around at first because no one is holding their hand. That’s what I feel like.”
Is it any wonder? For 16 years (or more) you’ve been the one sitting at the back of the classroom, and now, you’re the one sitting behind the teacher’s desk. If that doesn’t throw you for a loop, the long days teaching and even longer nights planning certainly will.
“It’s a little bit nerve-racking,” McDaniel adds. “But, it’s also empowering because you are the one directing the lesson.”
So, how can you make the most of your semester at the head of the class? Whether you’re worried about managing your students or just maintaining your sanity, these tips, suggested by actual student teachers, should keep you on track.
1. Get in the classroom early and often.
Underclassmen, listen up! If you think you can wait until second semester of your senior year to walk into a school building for the first time, think again. Most education programs require some amount of “field time”—hours spent observing or volunteering in a classroom—even before you student teach. And, successful student teachers recommend going beyond your course requirements to find additional opportunities to interact with students.
“If you have a school in your area or know a teacher, ask to volunteer in his or her classroom to get experience working with kids,” says Marchell Josie, a special education major at Ursuline College in Ohio. “Volunteer with Junior Achievement to teach kids about their community or just get a group of neighborhood kids together. Whatever experience you can get, just do it.”
During her four years at Ursuline, Josie clocked more than 400 hours of field time before she began student teaching last fall. She also has 12 years of experience volunteering with a local before- and after-school program as well as with her neighborhood YMCA.
“It’s been great going into the classrooms. I’ve learned a lot about what teaching is like today,” she says. “It’s easy to tell you things in your [college] coursework, but it’s another thing to see how the teachers teach.”
AJ Heroux, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, agrees. “The classroom is one of the most unpredictable places you will be, so get as much experience as you can dealing with kids or in situations where you have to think on your feet,” says Heroux, who tutored students and worked as a camp counselor prior to student teaching.
“Being a camp counselor or coach or being a Boys and Girls Club mentor, any kind of experience like that is going to help you.”
Part-time teaching jobs also offer opportunities for aspiring educators to explore their craft. Robin Musch, a University of South Dakota graduate, spent three summers organizing lessons and planning field trips for elementary students in the Sioux Falls summer enrichment program. Her experiences developed her classroom management skills, she says, which smoothed her transition to student teaching last year.
Meanwhile, Charles Ankney spent more than two years working as a substitute teacher and teaching assistant before he enrolled in the master’s program at Lindenwood University in Missouri. His work experience provided a first-hand look at life in the classroom, he says, and connected him with two educators who became his cooperating teachers during his student teaching placements.
Extra time in the classroom, either through volunteer opportunities or field placements, lets education students investigate schools in various locations as well, which helps them make more informed decisions about where they want to student teach, says Maddie Fennell, a former chairperson for the NEA Student Program.
“Go into diverse communities,” says Fennell, now a sixth-grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska. “Go teach in a school that was completely different from any school you ever attended. I never thought I’d teach in a public school because I spent my entire life in private schools, but as soon as I taught in a public school I knew it was the only place I’d ever want to be.”
Once you receive your student teaching placement, don’t wait until the first day on the job to visit the school either. “For students who will teach next spring, visit the classroom in the fall,” suggests Darlene Allen, student teaching coordinator and advisor for the NEA Student chapter at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus (IUPUC). “Get to know the teacher and spend some time with the students so you can see how the discipline works and the day-to-day operations.”
2. Make your cooperating teacher your ally.
Whether you call her a cooperating teacher, a guiding teacher, a master educator, or a mentor, the classroom teacher who supervises your placement represents your greatest resource. And, despite what you might have heard, your cooperating teacher does want you to succeed (and she won’t fail you if you have a bad lesson.)
“We expect student teachers to struggle, that’s why we’re there to help them,” says Fennell, who has mentored several student teachers in her classroom. “I don’t see how you can go into student teaching and have everything be perfect and learn a whole lot.”
Communication between the student teacher and the mentor plays a large part in ensuring a productive working relationship, says Fennell. The team should regularly discuss the student teacher’s progress and reflect on which lessons worked well and which ones flopped, she says.
“Being open to criticism is a big thing,” adds Christine Tran, a student in the master’s credential program at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Student teachers need to acknowledge what they don’t know and experiment with techniques their mentors offer, she says.
For instance, “My guiding teacher suggested using the overhead. I did it and didn’t like it, and he could see I was awkward with it. But the point is, I tried it,” says Tran. “It’s the whole concept of learning by doing, because as a student teacher you are learning as much as you are teaching.”
Student teachers need to reach out to their cooperating teachers as well. “I approach them for feedback and input. I don’t sit around and wait for them to come to me,” says Ankney in Missouri. “Showing them I am teachable and want to learn has made for a good relationship.”
That philosophy should extend throughout the school building too. “You need to show you want to be part of the school community,” says Musch in South Dakota. “Don’t just hide out in your room or bury your head in your papers. Sit in the teachers’ lounge. Get to know the teachers and interact with them.”
Connecting with staff members schoolwide also lets student teachers observe other teachers in action, something most student teachers don’t spend enough time doing.
“When student teachers walk into a classroom they are dying to start teaching, but you have to sit back and watch,” says Fennell. “You want to maintain continuity of what has been established by the teacher, so you don’t want to come in and change a teacher’s system.”
Besides, the observation time provides a great opportunity to memorize the class seating chart and learn students’ names, adds Ankney, which will help you build a rapport with students and maintain order once you do assume control of the classroom.
Bottom line: “Be willing to work very hard, even harder than your cooperating teacher,” says Fennell. “I’ve seen some student teachers who think they can walk in at 8 a.m. and walk out at 4 p.m. and have everything done. I don’t do that, why should they?”
But what happens if you and your cooperating teacher just don’t get along?
“It’s important to tough it out as long as you can, but if you’re not learning then it’s time to move on,” says Fennell, who switched cooperating teachers during her own student teaching placement. “Go to your university supervisor or go above them if necessary and tell them you need some help.”
3. Set the right tone from the beginning.
When the big day comes and you finally take control of the classroom, how can you ensure everything runs smoothly, or at least as smoothly as possible? For starters, don’t try and buddy up with your new charges.
“Student teachers want to be accepted and want to be friends with their students, but that is their undoing,” says Mary Ann Manos, professor and Student Program advisor at Bradley University in Illinois. “They’ve stepped on the other side of a professional line and many of the behaviors they see as friendly are unprofessional.”
No-nos like accepting gifts from students, attending parties at students’ homes, inviting students to your home, or transporting them in your car don’t just undermine your authority with the students.
They make you vulnerable to allegations of inappropriate behavior, including sexual misconduct, which could cost you your student teaching placement or your career. “If they lose their student teaching placement under allegations of misconduct, their university can remove them from the teacher education program,” says Manos.
So be proactive, Manos continues. Read a copy of your school’s faculty handbook and familiarize yourself with basic policies that impact your teaching practice. (Remember—student teachers must abide by the same school regulations as their cooperating teachers and other school staff.) Then, in the classroom, outline your expectations for student behavior and delineate clearly between your role as the teacher and the role students have as learners.
Finally, if you have a question about your or a student’s behavior, document it and talk to your cooperating teacher or university supervisor.
One way to establish clear boundaries and reinforce your authority in the classroom is by commanding students’ respect, rather than their affection.
“Without respect you can’t have good classroom management,” says Tran at UCLA. “Management is so important because without it you can’t teach. You’re always dealing with discipline.”
Ankney at Lindenwood University agrees. “There is this fear that if the kids don’t like you, the teacher won’t think you’re doing a good job. But it’s not a good thing to fall into because you lose control of the classroom.” That’s a lesson Ankney, an aspiring social studies teacher, learned the hard way.
During his first student teaching placement at Parkway Northeast Middle School in St. Louis, Ankney didn’t outline his expectations for student behavior early in his placement. The result? Lots of small talk during his lessons and a classroom atmosphere that fostered discipline problems, he says. It was a mistake Ankney didn’t repeat during his subsequent assignment at Parkway Central Middle School.
“I built a good rapport with the students, but I put my foot down from the get go,” he says. “It’s important to be firm and strict, but not nitpicky over every little thing that bothers you. The student teachers who have the least control over their classrooms are the ones who try to control everything.”
Learning about your students’ interests by attending extracurricular and community activities can help you build that rapport with them.
“I’ve been to gymnastics games, basketball games, band concerts, and [students] love it,” says Heroux in Wisconsin. “When they see you there as a student teacher they think it’s awesome that you take the time to do that, that they are more than just a column in your grade book.”
Don’t forget to involve parents as well. “Call students’ homes early and often,” suggests Jason Bobis, an aspiring English teacher from Indiana University Northwest. “It’s more important to call home when the students are doing well—even more important than when the students are acting out.”
4. Take care of yourself.
Whether your placement lasts for eight weeks or eight months, you will need lots of stamina as a student teacher. So pace yourself.
“Many [student teachers], especially in the first few weeks, think it will be like the field experiences. They find out very quickly they are exhausted at the end of a day of teaching,” says Allen at IUPUC. “You’re on your toes every minute. You can’t sometimes even take a deep breath, and I’m not sure they always are prepared for that.”
Anthony Daniels, a master’s student at Alabama A&M University, admits he wasn’t. “I was overwhelmed,” he says. “You would never think it takes so much work. When I was teaching fifth grade, I was so tired I would plan on the weekend so I could try and get a nap after school. I even slept 12 hours straight one night, I was so tired.”
Planning lessons several days or weeks in advance and staying organized can minimize the late nights, suggests Daniels. But, trying to juggle student teaching with campus activities or a part-time job will compound your exhaustion. So, student teachers shouldn’t over-commit themselves and should scale back their work hours and other obligations if possible.
“You can’t be the kind of teacher you want to be if you are working from 6 to 11 every night and only have two hours to plan your lessons,” says Heroux. “You have to devote all the time you have to it.”
At the same time, student teachers need to find time to unwind and take care of their own health or needs.
“Teachers have personal lives too,” says Tran at UCLA. “When you make time for yourself and your personal life you can be a better person for both you and your students.”
Exercising, meditating, journaling, and talking with friends can help student teachers manage their stress and avoid burn out, says Bobis. Maintaining realistic expectations about their performance as student teachers also helps, suggests McDaniel of UC Santa Cruz.
“As a new teacher, and someone learning the ropes, you’re constantly learning,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard because you want to do things right the first time, but as a student teacher you have to expect you’ll make mistakes, just make sure they are learning experiences.”
Nobody said student teaching would be easy. Then again, nobody told you it would be this hard either. But student teachers say their placements strengthened their confidence in their teaching abilities and reinforced their commitment to helping the neediest students. And, more than anything, now they can say they did it.
“Student teaching can wear you out and bog you down,” says Tran. “But once everything falls into place and you find out what your teaching style is, it becomes the most meaningful and rewarding profession.”
Looking for a way to see the world but feeling hamstrung by your education course requirements? Consider international student teaching. More than 100 universities in the United States conduct student teaching programs in more than 50 countries worldwide.
Although individual programs vary, most place student teachers in Department of Defense schools, American-sponsored overseas schools assisted by the U.S. Department of State, international schools, or host country schools.
“Initially I chose to apply for student teaching abroad because I thought it would be a perfect way to travel and gain more knowledge about the world of art while teaching at the same time,” says Megan Lester, a graduate of the University of Northern Iowa who student taught in Bamberg, Germany, last year. “This experience has been so much more than what I had hoped for. I have had challenges along the way, both in and outside of the classroom, all of which I believe will make me a better person and a better teacher.”
If you are interested in teaching overseas, check with your university’s office of field experiences to determine whether international student teaching satisfies your state’s teacher certification requirements. (Some states require local student teaching placements.) Then, if your school of education does not offer international opportunities, check out these programs, which serve students from various universities:
Even though student teaching pays dividends for your career preparation, it doesn’t pay the bills. Long hours in the classroom make it difficult for student teachers to work during their “off” hours and some universities even forbid it. And while it would be nice if your landlord accepted lesson plans in place of rent, most student teachers endure a serious financial crunch during their placements. Here are a few ideas to stretch your dollars.
Save, save, save Marchell Josie at Ursuline College started saving money her freshman year in preparation for a semester of student teaching. As a nontraditional student who supports her sister, Josie knew quitting her job wasn’t an option. But the extra cash she stashed away allowed her to cut back her work hours and devote more time to her placement.
Get a gig that pays instead of pursuing a traditional student teaching placement, Cara Dillman completed a paid internship at a K-12 school in rural Bowler, Wisconsin. Although Dillman’s advisor at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point helped her find the job, Dillman still had to apply and be hired by the school district. The semester-long placement satisfied her student teaching requirement and put some extra cash in her wallet.
Similarly, Jodi Scott, a graduate of Washington State University, obtained a special state certificate that allowed her to substitute teach for her cooperating teacher. The substitute experience showed Scott that she could manage the classroom on her own, she says. (Pocketing a day’s worth of sub pay was an added bonus.)
Minimize your expenses Both Robin Musch from the University of South Dakota and Jason Bobis from Indiana University Northwest saved on housing expenses by living with their parents while they student taught. Christine Tran at UCLA, meanwhile, snagged a job as a university apartment coordinator so she could live on campus rent free.
Cutting back on restaurant meals and entertainment expenses also helps student teachers save a few bucks, Musch advises. Attending events that offer free food also comes in handy, adds Tran.
Ask for cash During her final year at Creighton University Maddie Fennell, a former chairperson for the NEA Student Program, realized she was running out of tuition money. So she approached her university president, asked for some help, and the university agreed to cover her tuition, partly to recognize her active Association involvement.
Other students, like Scott in Washington, secure extra school loans to get through the year. (You may qualify to have your school loans forgiven if you teach in a low-income school or a high-demand subject area. Check out http://studentaid.ed.gov/ for details.)
And, of course, if all else fails, “don’t hesitate to write to Oprah,” jokes Tran.