Teaching is a profession that cannot be simulated in anything except an authentic school with real-life kids. In order to know what it is really like, one must experience it for themselves.—Sarah Henchey, 2003, after two months of full-time student teaching.
I didn’t technically sign up to host a student teacher. When the call for cooperating teachers went out last winter, I simply told myself I just wasn’t there yet; perhaps after a few more years. However, a few months later, when the local university, my alma mater, still needed a placement for one of their pre-service teachers, I gave into the pressure and agreed.
So, now what?
The realization that I will be responsible for mentoring and supporting a future colleague is just beginning to hit me. Am I, as someone entering their sixth year, truly qualified to help this individual in the way she needs? After all, there are many days where I still struggle to keep my own head above water amidst the parent contacts, grading, discipline, and never-ending meetings. What will she think when she sees a lapse in my composure when I’ve simply had enough by the end of the day? Will I be able to help her feel confident and competent during her first year? When do they teach you how to prepare other teachers?
All these questions have led me to reflect on my own student teaching experience. At that time, middle school education majors were expected to spend time student teaching in both of their concentration areas. I was placed with two teachers—one with seven years of experience and one with three—who were also navigating the role of cooperating teacher for the first time.
I have no doubt my cooperating teachers also struggled with feelings of cluelessness when trying to prepare me to take over their classes. As I read through my weekly reflections from that semester, I realize how I judged them at times and privately second-guessed some of their decisions. There was a tone of smugness in my writing, as if I somehow knew better. Part of me argues that evaluating their decisions was actually my role and learning during this time; however, I now recognize my own anxiety at being judged. I take pride in my growth as a teacher, but by no means, consider myself to be a finished product. I remain always a work-in-progress.
I discovered my opening quote for this article about two-thirds of the way through my reflection journal. It must have been at that point that I realized how integral the student teaching experience is to the transformation from college student to authentic teacher.
Where else, besides the classroom, do pre-service teachers learn the on-the-job lessons necessary for effective teaching? No one else showed me how to handle a social studies class a day after our country invades another—or how to support a child when they’ve buried a parent the week before. It’s not enough to tell people how to teach; we must show them. Ready or not, I realized it was time for me to use my own experience before and after becoming a teacher as a springboard to step out on a limb, show my vulnerabilities, and grow alongside my own student teacher.
She’s with me one day a week through December. In January, she starts full-time and gradually begins to teach classes. By the end of February or early March, she should be in full-fledged teaching mode for all classes using her own materials.
I know our days together will hold challenges for us both. How do I relinquish control when I hold such ownership over the class and my students? How does she establish her role as an equal rather than a subordinate? How do we both talk openly and honestly about our weaknesses and work together to improve our teaching?
Nevertheless, I look forward to sharing the valued lessons and insight I’ve gained during my teaching thus far. I want her to know why I feel it’s important to give kids the benefit of the doubt even if it means being a sucker sometimes—how remembering that most parents simply want the best for their child can get you past the initial defensiveness in parent conferences. I want to help her learn from her mistakes and then let go of them so they don’t become ghosts that haunt her teaching future.
I’m eager to learn from her as well: Show me how to incorporate new technology into the classroom. Take me back to the days of my teaching “firsts”—the first time I really got through to a kid, or the first time a shared laugh with a student built a relationship. Remind me of the rose-colored glasses on days I seem too jaded.
I have no doubt this year will create more questions than answers about my own teaching identity. I can only hope that, in the end, both she and I will have gained insights into what it takes to be an accomplished teacher.