Published Online: May 23, 2011

Updated: March 24, 2012

What I Learned From My First Student Teacher

I hate saying goodbye—and found it downright impossible when it was time to part ways with my first student teacher. For the first five months of the school year, my student teacher joined me once per week in my daily lessons, meetings, joys, and frustrations. For the last four months, she has been with me every day, embracing the true teaching experience.

We left things at "see you later"—but that still felt inadequate, considering the influence that she has had on my teaching identity (and vice versa).

I learned so much from being a bystander in my own classroom, watching someone else teach lessons I designed, and reflecting on difficult situations from her point of view. We both worked hard to create a professional relationship that allowed us to comfortably seek each other’s guidance, input, and feedback. Most importantly, our students benefited from having two teachers in the classroom. The combination of our efforts allowed for increased differentiation through small group and individual instruction.

See Also
This is the third in a series of articles by Sarah Henchey on supporting student teachers. Also, read "Preparing New Teachers in Frustrating Times" and "My First Student Teacher."

For all these reasons, I’m looking forward to taking on another student teacher next year. Here are some takeaways I’ll keep in mind:

Project positive energy but avoid sheltering your student teacher from the realities of teaching. Now more than ever, student teachers need to be aware of the current climate in education. And they need for us to model coping strategies to help them see past these frustrations. Working with my student teacher this year, I tried to make it clear why I was a teacher: the kids. On days when the meetings and red tape were beyond belief, I tried to end the afternoon by helping the student teacher to reflect on an amusing or successful moment from class.

Offer support but don’t force it—teachers need to learn when and how to ask for help. As a true "helper" personality, this was difficult for me. Whenever I saw my student teacher struggling, I wanted to rush in with suggestions and reassurances (and often did). Looking back, I recognize that learning to be a teacher requires one to figure out when to reach out to others and who is there to support you. Next year, I hope to focus more on helping my student teacher learn this lesson—one that will serve her well, particularly during her first year of teaching.

Explain your actions and motivations. Teaching involves lots of behind-the-scenes decisions. As experienced teachers, we know the reasons behind our actions (and inactions). We know why we designed an assessment, why we handled that parent delicately, and why we chose our battles with that student. To ensure that our student teachers understand what they’re seeing, we must share our thoughts with them, so that the decision-making process is more transparent.

Help the student teacher to break down the experience, focusing on specific aspects of effective teaching. I remember my own student teaching experience: looking out onto the classroom and not quite knowing what I was seeing. I wasn’t always sure what was important to observe during each day’s lesson. When I entered my own classroom, I found myself overwhelmed by the juggling act that is teaching. I regretted that during my student teaching, I had not paid more attention to strategies for organizing activities, increasing student engagement, assessing learning, and analyzing student work.

That’s why, this past year, I tried to create opportunities for my student teacher to focus on these critical issues. For example, we observed student participation through tally marks in order to see who was participating in activities and whose attention was wandering. To gauge classroom management, we focused observations on the amount of positive and negative reinforcement given to each child. We also chose specific students to analyze through mini-case studies, using portfolios and classroom observations. These tools and discussions allowed us to analyze our effectiveness and create action plans for improvement.

Don’t be afraid to admit your shortcomings and welcome feedback and support from your student teacher. Some of my initial anxieties about accepting a student teacher were based on the fear of being judged by her. However, I quickly realized that giving into this fear would limit the potential mutual benefits of the experience. Acknowledging my weaknesses as a teacher and accepting feedback from my student teacher helped us to build a stronger professional bond and operate in a climate of mutual respect.

Experienced teachers who value the importance and quality of our profession must step up and welcome student teachers into our classrooms. We must create authentic environments that teach them how to balance responsibilities, cope with challenges, and thrive in the teaching profession.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with my first student teacher—and I think I’ve figured out the most appropriate farewell: "Thank you for all you taught me."

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