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Stepping Aside: The Art of Working With Student-Teachers

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Although traditional teacher-education programs rely on veteran educators to invite student- or “practice-” teachers into their classrooms, many skilled professionals can be heard expressing some reluctance about sharing instructional responsibilities with green recruits. They may be concerned about their ability to mentor an inexperienced colleague effectively, or simply hesitant to relinquish control of instruction in an atmosphere of high-stakes accountability.

In a recent post to the Teacher Leaders Network Forum daily discussion group, veteran teacher Vicky expressed some reservations of her own about working with a student-teacher and asked for help.

I may be getting the opportunity to work with a student-teacher. I was wondering about your ideas for starting the year off right, helping the student-teacher, and balancing the load of mentoring the student teacher and teaching the students myself. I'm excited about the possibility, but I'm also a pretty hands-on control freak kind of person, so I want to alternately challenge and excite the intern but not be unfair or scary. Tips?

Nancy, a veteran K-12 music teacher, replied:

Great questions, Vicky. My first suggestion would be adopting the perspective that you will learn as much as the novice teacher—about yourself, your beliefs, and your practice. The first step is probably building a relationship in which the novice teacher trusts you enough to share real information and opinion (and vice-versa).

Create a safe space to communicate honestly, in both directions. A student teacher who feels comfortable enough to share fears, anxieties, confusion, and frustration—and knows that he or she is not being judged, but honored as a learner by a veteran teacher who also has fears and frustrations—will be a student teacher who can grow.

My second thought is that from your students’ perspective there should be two experts in your classroom. I know from personal experience with student-teachers that there is a constant temptation to subtly reinforce the distinction between the real teacher and the practice teacher. The sooner you can relinquish control over your students' loyalties, the sooner your newbie will be able to build the working relationships with students that let them genuinely teach.

When I was student-teaching in a high school band classroom (back in the 70s), my supervising teacher took every opportunity to show that he was boss−including sitting in the band pretending he was a disruptive, obnoxious student while I was directing them. He told me that the students were behaving respectfully only because he was still in the classroom and that I needed to know how to handle difficult kids.

When student-teaching was over, dozens of kids approached me to say how much they liked working with me, and how angry they were when he tried to humiliate me. It took me years to realize that the supervising teacher was threatened by having a rival for the students' regard. The more generously you share your students with a novice, the better their experience will be.

Louisa Jane, a high school science teacher, agreed:

First, let me second Nancy's advice. Treat your student-teacher from the start as a trusted peer. Be open to answering questions and give opinions when asked. I have learned much from student-teachers and have collaborated with them to develop new lessons that I kept using long after they left for their own classrooms.

One thing I do early on is warn the student-teacher that some students will tell them how much better I am as a teacher and how much better they like me, while others will say the student-teacher is better as a teacher and better liked. Most will not express an opinion one way or the other. I've always suspected the students who offer such opinions early on are either manipulators, those who love change, or those who hate change, but it seems to help the student-teacher stay unrattled when he or she knows the comments will come.

Ellen, who teaches 8th grade English and history, wrote:

I had my first student-teacher last fall. Once I got out of the way and put myself in the role of facilitator and reflective questioner−and let go of the feeling that “I need to teach her everything she needs to know!"—it was a good experience.

Here’s an excerpt from my blog, where I fully describe my own shortcomings early the process:

The reality is she’s going to be a fantastic teacher because she understands the reflective process and is willing to learn what the kids need from her instead of implementing “her” program and expecting the kids to fit into it. I stopped hovering, stopped trying to keep her and my kids from making the sorts of mistakes that helped all of us in the teaching profession become better teachers, and she has grown exponentially….

I learned great lessons about how to be a good cooperating teacher from my failures. My role in that relationship is to:

• Model good teaching and be explicit about why I choose to do what I do.

• Model the reflective process I use as I think about what happens in my classroom.

• Ask good questions that push the student-teacher to think and find her own answers.

• Create a climate where mistakes are not negative but tools for learning. Be supportive and encouraging.

You're not there to give answers, you're there to help your intern find his or her own answers. It’s the way most of us got to our current level of proficiency as teachers, but with more support than most of us received.

Mark, a second-career educator, wrote about his own experience as a student-teacher:

Focus on the good as well as any shortcomings. I had the good fortune of having an outstanding cooperating teacher. When we sat to review the day, the first thing she would ask me was to reflect on what I thought went well. Her rationale was that the things that need improving stick out and are easily identified. As a result, strengths tend to be overlooked rather than developed. I thought it was a very positive way to start a conversation.

Marti, an elementary school veteran of 32 years who now works full-time with novice teachers, added the following advice:

My first tip would be: Organize, organize, organize! Whatever organizational strategies you have developed over time, find a way to share them. Not as the only way but simply as the way it has evolved for you to work with kids and materials.

New and aspiring teachers desperately need ideas that get them thinking about effective organization. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by all the copies to run, the papers to discuss, the posters, videos, puppets, project materials, etc., etc., etc. If you can have your intern come in BEFORE your classroom is all set up, and talk your way through how and why you do it the way you do it, that's huge. Setting up shop is something my novices quake in their boots about!

I've had about a dozen student-teachers, ranging in age from 22-45. They also ranged from excellent, to good, to OK, to truly terrible. Some expect that teaching is like being a camp counselor or a big buddy, and expect it all to be fun. Some are truly distressed at the amount of work (since, from the outside, this profession looks "so easy"). The more you can unfold about the realities of the job, and how to make it work while maintaining balance in life, the better.

Having a student-teacher will not save you time. The joy in doing this, truly, is having two adults to share in the growth of the kids, so that you both feel the pride of success and the agony of failure. You will have another human to think with and plan with. In the end, it's well worth it!

Joanie, a reading specialist, wrote:

Teachers new to the classroom (career-switchers, student-teachers, practicum students, for example) all need to feel welcomed. Simple things like greeting and introducing them by name, sharing bulletin board space, allowing the classroom furniture to be moved, supporting a "try it" mentality without the gavel, and asking lots of guided, non-judgmental, questions will help people make the leap into full classroom loads. I especially like Nancy's suggestion of "rolling up the sleeves" and enjoying learning together. So many new teachers are coming into the profession better prepared and with a lot of enthusiasm. We need to nurture it!

John, a preschool teacher, cautioned:

Having a student teacher was one of the hardest experiences I have had in my class. I really think the difficult part is letting go and not talking too much. Another thing at my grade levelwas breaking down the idea that learning is only fun and kids are cute. It really does kids and teachers a disservice to couch teaching in these squishy concepts.

Susan B., who teaches upper elementary grades, added:

Our interns do not begin until school has been underway for two or three weeks. I always obtain contact information ASAP with my new interns so I can invite them to participate and/or observe as much as they wish during the preparation week before school and the days preceding their first official day. If they are able to participate early, it removes a LOT of their stress both for their internship and for their first year as a beginning teacher.

Of course, remain sensitive to the fact that your intern may well have other obligations that prevent them from coming early. But if it is at all possible, have your intern come and observe the first day of school (even if they have to set aside other obligations). I have had many beginning teachers tell me how much their look at my first day took the stress out their own first day in their classroom.

Kathie, a 6th grade teacher and coach, wrote:

To quote Ellen’s point: “You're not there to give answers, you're there to help your intern find his or her own answers.” That's a huge point to keep in mind. It's not easy because novice teachers look to the master teacher as the expert, and they lack experience in reflecting on their own practice to identify problems and solutions. Nonetheless, this is a critical area in our development as teachers, so I would try not to be lulled or coaxed into providing easy answers. Model, but do not direct.

Also: Organization is multifaceted in a classroom, and encouraging teachers to set up routines from the very beginning is very helpful. Without organizational skill, new teachers can get completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the job. You might model how you do certain things (e.g., my planning for the following week is always done by Wednesday, any photocopying done on Thursday, and papers and materials in day-of-the-week order by the time I leave Friday, plus agenda on the board before I leave each day). This routine has served me well since the 70s, and no matter what happens that throws me off, I always know I'm ready for my students when I walk in the door each day.

David, a high school English teacher, also emphasized the importance of ceding control.

This might sound counterintuitive, but I would say that the longer the student-teacher will be there, the more likely I would be to step aside early. I was in a student-teaching placement that lasted the entire school year, and I was able to take the reins on day one. It was an internship in all but name, and though the first few weeks were rough, it helped greatly that the students and I all knew I was the one they'd be working with for the duration. They weren’t used to anyone else and didn't think they could go over my head if there were any problems.

As the cooperating teacher, I've had student-teachers arrive in February and stay for periods as short as six weeks in a high school. Students are less likely to bond much in that time or to see the student teacher as the "real" teacher, so it really doesn't make much difference if the student-teacher flies solo for three of those weeks, or four, or two.

Bottom line: I think it's good to give up as much control as possible, as early as possible, and establish yourself as someone who is an expert at reflection, refinement, and support. Let the student teacher learn to analyze the lessons, reflect, and problem solve. I also benefitted quite a bit from watching a master teacher/mentor who always asked me for my observations, suggestions and critiques of her own teaching. She made it clear that her 30-plus years hadn't given her all the answers, and she valued my perspective.

What other advice would you give Vicky about working with her first student teacher?

—John Norton

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