By Pam Clifton
It’s the moment an education major has been waiting for. Student teaching is one of the hardest, most challenging and stressful times of a soon-to-be teacher’s life. It can also be one of the most rewarding experiences.
The first day for the student teacher can be challenging for the cooperating teacher as well if he or she has not prepared the students. It can be intimidating for a teacher-in-training to walk into a room full of students he or she doesn’t know.
John Hartley, an MSTA member and sixth-grade science and social studies teacher, has had eight student teachers over his 21 years at West County R-4. He makes the transition as smooth as possible for his student teacher by introducing his students to them. He explains that they will have a guest for a few months and that they are to be polite and respectful at all times. His goal is to first let the student teacher work with the students in small chunks so they both become acquainted with one another.
“Each student teacher is different on when I feel comfortable to let them have ‘control’ over the classroom,” say Hartley. “They will learn and watch what works for certain kids, how to manage and grade class assignments and other paperwork, etc. Every approach is different per grade.”
Hartley’s first step is always to have his student teacher watch him and to learn the class routine for the first few weeks. This gives him the chance to show the new teacher how the class textbooks are aligned with the class presentations. He then generally asks the teacher to prepare a lesson for one class in science and social studies. His classes are divided into three science classes and three social studies classes. If the teacher does well, Hartley allows the person to teach that lesson to the other classes. He then increases the student teacher’s responsibilities over time until they are the full-time teacher. Even after this transition takes place, he is always nearby and regularly gives his opinions, recommendations and advice. He also briefly meets with the student teacher at the end of each day to discuss successes and improvements.
“It’s very important to use positive reinforcement when we talk because the student teacher is usually pretty nervous,” he says. “I always try to build up my student teachers’ confidence by sharing my positivity and enthusiasm in my classroom because the kids feed off this output.”
The teacher is showered with cards of appreciation, a desk plaque and a “graduation party” at the conclusion of student teaching.
Like Hartley, Jon Sorens also provides daily feedback to his student teacher. He feels this allows student teachers to voice any concerns they have and they can “walk through” lessons beforehand.
Sorens is a fifth-grade teacher at Shoal Creek Elementary in the Liberty School District. He has been a teacher for 15 years and has had two student teachers. Catherine Holmes most recently student taught in his room from August to November 2018. She was placed in Sorens’ classroom through district assignment.
According to Sorens, he was lucky because Holmes was outgoing from the beginning of the year. He was impressed that she attended back-to-school night and Meet the Teacher. “She was right there introducing herself to the parents and students alongside me and even taking the lead if I was conversing with another family and a new one had arrived.”
Sorens appreciated her initiative because he expects student teachers to “jump in and get comfortable” with the kids from the first day. He said this is going to be their occupation for the next 20-30 years, so they need to be at ease. He always completes several get-to-know-you activities at the beginning of a new school year, so it was easy to include Holmes. This is an important step in acclimating the new teacher with the students.
The first week or two are important for observation so the student teacher feels comfortable with class routines, expectations and more. Sorens tries to get student teachers involved right away through having them sit with different tables of students to assist them in their work. This helps the student teacher develop a positive rapport with students and helps those who have academic, social or behavioral needs in the first few weeks of school.
Sorens said a student will be disruptive at some point, so he wants his student teachers to feel equipped to handle those situations. On the other hand, there are many times when students work well and he wants the teacher-in-training to be “prepared to properly recognize this and praise students.” Because Holmes had a lot of initiative, he started her out with simple read-aloud activities. Some of it was guided reading, which allowed Sorens to see how the student teacher free-styled or improvised in situations.
“I think read-aloud [time] is an easy way to get the student teachers in a leadership role in front of the class,” said Sorens. “It is not a graded activity, but it allows them to set up some of the expectations for when they are doing lessons.”
Sorens said to get student teachers involved as soon as possible because “even timid teachers can flourish in small chunks early on which will allow them to grow their confidence more quickly.”
Because of the way his schedule is set up this year, he was able to chunk the daily preparation into more manageable amounts by meeting before school, during plan time and recess when not on duty. They also met before school to reflect on the day and prepare for the next day.
“I think of it like a game plan in sports,” said Sorens. “We plan, do a walkthrough, and then prepare extra.”
Like most cooperating teachers, Sorens gradually releases control of his classroom to a student teacher by first looking for a subject area in which the new teacher is most comfortable. This year, his school started using the Eureka Math program, so Holmes attended a summer training and the two worked together through the first unit before she took over. English language arts was a subject Holmes took on gradually, first by working with students on Greek and Latin roots and then adding grammar and finally reader’s and writer’s workshops.
Sorens is a positive person and tries to give frequent verbal praise. “In my opinion, when things didn’t go well, especially early on in a placement, it is so important to find the positives.” He used things like, “I liked when…” and “The way you handled…” This allows the cooperating teacher to make recommendations for change and to avoid “you” statements. He gave feedback by saying, “I might try…” or “in the past this has worked for me.”
When Holmes’ student teaching ended, Sorens made a gift card bouquet from cards the students brought in for her and added flowers. He also gave her little treats like coffee and candy during her teaching.
Sorens said he learned from his student teachers because they have new and valuable ideas, information and energy to share. He said to make sure teachers let their building’s staff know about student teachers by setting up times for them to visit other classes, including them in professional development activities, and networking. It’s also important to build the new teacher’s toolbox by sharing resources with them, giving them a day to go through to make copies of units and worksheets, letting them see all available resources, and more.
Sometimes student teachers are involved in other areas of a school. Angie Stone is a speech language pathologist for West County R-4. She has worked in the district for seven years and had eight years of prior experience working in nursing homes. Her student teacher, known as an extern, is Michaela Yates. She began working with Stone in January and finishes in April.
After completing her work in a school setting, Yates must also complete the same amount of time in a medical setting. She intends to work in a school setting when she has completed her externships. Both periods of training take about 26 weeks.
This is Stone’s first experience having an extern, so the two are learning together. Yates does everything Stone does during speech therapy with her K-12 students, but Stone supervises each step. This includes planning and giving treatments and lessons, attending IEP and evaluation meetings, typing IEP and evaluation documents, evaluating and screening students, and more.
“I’m loving this experience and learning a bunch from Michaela,” says Stone. She said she’s trying to enjoy the process and experience and remember that Yates is fresh out of a certification program where she’s learned the “latest and greatest” techniques and tips, so there is just as much knowledge to be gained from them.
“Michaela gave me a fresh perspective on some of my more challenging students and I am glad and proud to say those students are improving and thriving because of it.”
Check out Pam’s tips for preparing for a student teacher.
Pam Clifton teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts and reading at West County Middle School in West St. Francois Co. R-4. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.