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The Assimilation of a Student Teacher

A step-by-step plan for smoothly transitioning a future educator into your classroom.

Found in: Advice & Support

“The primary way to prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another. It is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be.” —Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science

One of the reasons I have stayed at the middle school level for 20 years is that I understand these students’ need for clear transitions. So, when my principal asked me to take on a student teacher, my first thought was: How do I assimilate this person into my classroom? Seeking a smooth transition, I developed a plan to introduce my 165 students to their student teacher.

Task #1: Student Introductions

Three weeks prior to his arrival, I informed all my classes that we’d be getting a student teacher, Mr. Dempsey. I described his purpose for joining us, clarified any confusion, and explained that he would gradually take over the teaching responsibilities. Each student was given an index card. They were to write their name, share a piece of information, and decorate the cards (optional).

The next day, I handed Mr. Dempsey the index cards along with class lists that contained student photos. His first homework assignment? Learn about his students.


“The shortest distance between two people is a story.” ―Patti Digh, author of Life is a Verb


Task #2: Mr. Dempsey’s Video Introduction

Two weeks prior to his arrival, I asked Mr. Dempsey to respond to the note cards by creating a videotaped introduction of himself. Taking a cue from our students, he shared personal facts through information and visuals.

Students saw the 40-second video one week before Mr. Dempsey’s arrival, and were required to jot down information about their new teacher. Afterward, they shared—first, in groups that buzzed excitedly, and then as a class—all the facts they learned, including: He swam on his college team!


“[Kids] don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” —Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets


Task #3: Classroom Procedures and Survival Tips

The week before Mr.Dempsey’s arrival, I gave students two final writing prompts:

  1. Explain, in detail, one classroom procedure that he would need to learn.
  2. Give Mr. Dempsey a survival tip. What should he know about teaching middle school students in order to be successful?

Students responded to the first question with a description of how class Warm Ups are run, how homework is organized, and how papers are passed. They described our THINK Before Your Speak poster, which outlines our classroom culture. I could have supplied this information to Mr. Dempsey, but it was more engaging and meaningful coming from the students.

Their responses to the second question were even more valuable, reflecting students’ honesty and openness. Students came right out and said, “If you don’t follow the classroom consequences, we will take advantage of you.” Others added, “Be strict but not too strict,” “Be patient,” “Have a good sense of humor,” and “Use visuals.”

On Mr. Dempsey’s first day, I introduced him to our students as they entered the class. Some went right over to him and starting talking. Others casually glanced over as if to say: “Oh, he’s here today.” Either way, the initial first day frenzy, when someone new joins the class, was non-existent.

Over the first four days, Mr. Dempsey grew so comfortable and confident that, on Friday, I asked if he would like to take on the homework responsibility. He paused for a moment, and then agreed to the challenge. What happened next was the most unexpected moment of the transition. After Warm Ups, I informed the class that Mr. Dempsey would discuss homework. Without hesitation or prodding from me, the students burst into applause. Some cheered. It was genuine, as they too were ready for Mr. Dempsey to take the lead. They had accepted him into their world.


A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience. —Oliver Wendell Holmes


Task #4: Preparation for Mr. Dempsey’s Departure

Two weeks before Mr. Dempsey’s departure, I spoke with each class. We discussed his reasons for joining us, and how his time as a student teacher had come to an end. Students created goodbye and thank you cards, which helped them process their feelings. They gave the cards to Mr. Dempsey on his last day. In return, he gave each student a small goodbye gift.


“When you take the time to actually listen, with humility, to what people have to say, it's amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.” — Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea


Task #5 - A Thank You Video

Although Mr. Dempsey’s student teaching experience was over, he had one last task to complete: a video thanking the students for their cards. By reading and responding, he validated their thoughts and brought closure to the experience.


“The primary way to prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another. It is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be.” —Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science


Epilogue

The last day of school was my daughter’s graduation, so I asked Mr. Dempsey to return as my substitute teacher. The students were thrilled to see him. When educators build genuine relationships with students, as Mr. Dempsey learned to do, and then mix in structure and purposeful lessons, students trust them. Whether openly, silently, or begrudgingly, students give permission to be guided through academic and behavioral challenges.

Genuine effort requires some listening on our part. We must also allow appropriate time and space for student expression, particularly when transitions are involved. Our student teacher experience was overwhelmingly positive because I allowed students to take the lead in welcoming Mr. Dempsey and introducing him to our classroom—their world. All of us were enriched by the experience.


Jenn Vadnais (@RilesBlue) is currently a math coach for the Redlands Unified School District in California. She writes a blog titled, Communicating Mathematically, found at JennVadnais.com. She still keeps in touch with Chris Depew, a.k.a. Mr. Dempsey, now a seventh-grade teacher in Claremont, California.

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