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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are You Prepared To Be a Cooperating Teacher?

By Peter DeWitt — August 28, 2014 5 min read
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Education has changed, and as some of us get older, it’s easy to look at the new crop of teachers entering the profession as unprepared. We believe that many of them walk in blindly unaware of how hard it will really be to engage every child in the classroom, but because ignorance is bliss, most are highly excited to make a difference “in just one child’s life.”

I realize that sounds a little sarcastic, but we have all been there. Finished with our college courses and the 90 hours of observation time, we enter into a student teaching experience where we will spend anywhere from 8 to 16 weeks with a cooperating teacher.

That experience can be a crapshoot.

Some cooperating teachers act as though they only take new pre-service students because of the discount on a college course or the whopping $250 that colleges offer for the placement of their students. Perhaps they have large class sizes...or just want some extra help in the classroom.

Other cooperating teachers cannot wait to create a relationship with pre-service teachers because they want to give back to the profession that gave them so much...and I’m not talking about mandates and accountability. I’m talking about the chance to create relationships with students that can sometimes last a lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to help students find their passions, and see them succeed???

Summer is ending, which means that the new school year is underway.

The New School Year

It’s the beginning of the school year for everyone in North America, which means that it is the time when pre-service teachers enter into their student teaching experience, and cooperating teachers help a new crop of teachers gain some experience with...teaching lessons, using classroom management techniques, working with colleagues, and seeing what it’s like to work with parents.

Hopefully, cooperating teachers don’t have the attitude that student teachers need to know everything before they walk into the classroom, and student teachers understand that they have to make an effort each and every day that they enter into the classroom. The cooperating teacher-student teacher relationship can be very special.

Cooperating teachers should remember:

  • Young at Heart - You were young and new once. Take it easy and understand that most pre-service teachers are scared to death that they will make a mistake. Help guide them...even if they do things that show their lack of experience.
  • Attention! You’re not a drill sergeant meant to break them down and build them back up. Just because a pre-service teacher may want to teach a bit differently than you do, doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for the job. Be open to learning from them.
  • Gopher - The point of having a student teacher is not to have them “go for this” and “go for that.” It’s also not to have a teaching assistant for 8 weeks. It should be a reciprocal experience where a student teacher learns from an expert, understanding that the expert could learn a thing or two from the novice.

Pre-service teachers should remember:

  • Be prepared - No, you don’t get paid, but you do get a great deal of experience. Show up early and stay late...it will help you get used to life as a teacher.
  • Bad days - Not everyday will be a good one. It’s important that you learn from the bad days. Bad days can teach us what to do differently so we don’t make the same mistakes twice, and they also teach us that we do not control every part of our day. Life happens.
  • Student Voice - Learn now that even the youngest students have a voice. Russ Quaglia often says that students tell you how they are feeling in the words they use as well as the body language they offer. Find as many ways as possible to include student voice in your every day practices.
  • Beware of the Principal! Just kidding. Remember that the principal is your PAL, and if you have an experience with a high quality school leader, and they offer to meet with you or do an observation during your experience, please take them up on it. They don’t offer because they get points on their evaluation. Great school leaders want to help the profession by helping to prepare the best student teachers, and they were once teachers, so accept their offer and use it. It may come in handy when you have a job interview.
  • Job Interview - Think of student teaching as a job interview, and act accordingly. If you have a bad attitude and whine most of the time, you’re probably not meant for the profession.

Dave Kzanznak

The other day I was fortunate enough to have breakfast with my former cooperating teacher. We have stayed in touch over the years, which I’m thankful for. Being the first (and only) person in my family to become a teacher, I had no idea what to expect when I went into a 4th grade classroom in the Glenmont School (public) to complete a few hours of observation during my junior year of college.

As I stood in my dress pants and dress shirt, along with my borrowed tie, I entered into Dave Kzanznak’s classroom with two other students who showed up in sweat pants. Perhaps they didn’t take it seriously enough or I took it too seriously, but Dave asked me to come back to complete more observation hours.

I stayed six months. Yes, six months. Dave was a role model, and the way he interacted with students, colleagues and families was the way I wanted to interact with them. Every day for me was a master class. And even though I stayed for 6 months, Dave never made me feel like I stayed too long. He even asked me to be his first student teacher.

As I left my student teaching experience I knew I took everything out of it that I could, and I was very fortunate to have Dave as my cooperating teacher. Many of my friends did not have the experience that I did.

Years went on and we stayed in touch from time to time. Dave became a principal in his district, and years later I followed suit and became an principal in a neighboring district. Having Dave as a mentor was more than just important. By watching Dave I knew I could teach the way I wanted to, and I was open to learning about the diverse needs entering into my classroom...because Dave taught me that teaching was about more than just a good lesson plan.

Being a cooperating teacher is important. It’s been 20 years since I student taught, but those months that I spent with Dave in the classroom inspired me to become a better teacher, and ultimately a better principal. The cooperating teacher-student teacher experience can have many, many benefits...I know it did for me.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.