Professional Development Opinion

Response: Seven Strategies For Working With Student Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 10, 2014 15 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

This week’s question is:

What are your suggestions for teachers who are supervising a student teacher, as well as for student teachers themselves?

In Part One of this series, we heard from Emily Geltz and Linda Rief, who co-authored their contribution (Emily was Linda’s student teacher two years ago); Carol Ann Tomlinson, Jessica Bennett and Jane Fung.

Part Two’s responses come from Michael Opitz and Michael Ford; PJ Caposey; Patty O’Grady; and Sally Zepeda.

Today’s final post in the series features what I think is a particularly interesting combination -- a quest response from Ted Appel, the principal of the inner-city school where I teach, who describes the innovative requirements he insisted upon if a university was interested in placing student teachers with us; followed by a commentary from Pia Lindquist Wong, director of a university teaching credentials program who found that her ideas dovetailed with those of Ted’s - the two then developed a partnership.

In addition, I include many comments from readers.

I also had a interesting conversation with Emily Geltz and Linda Rief on my ten-minute BAM! Radio Show that should be live in a few days. BAM! seems to have resolved their technical problems, but are still a bit behind. They did, however, just post my show about book recommendations for teachers, and you can listen to it, and previous shows, here.

Response From Ted Appel

Ted Appel has been principal of Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento for eleven years:

As the principal of a larger urban high school which serves a very diverse student population, and has a corps of highly skilled and committed teachers, I have been encouraged by area universities to “take on” student teachers each semester. I have resisted due to the fact that while the student teachers could get a good experience here, our students wouldn’t necessarily fare as well. Why would I replace the school’s strongest teachers with young, inexperienced students? Our students, many of whom enter high school significantly behind grade level, need as much time as possible with the best teachers we can provide.

I let the local universities know that I would only be willing if I could figure out a way that having student teachers would be in the best interest of the students and school. With this in mind, I proposed the following conditions for working with a teacher training program and having student teachers at the school:

Rather than having one or two student teachers, I asked for at least 10. In this way, the student teachers would be a collective presence on campus, contributing to a positive school culture. Having young adults on campus who may have just graduated college can be one more good influence on our students.

The student teachers would not “take classes over” like many traditional student teacher programs. Student teachers would be assigned to a supervising teacher and together they would agree when and what a student teacher would do. Only when the supervising teacher believed the student teacher could deliver quality lessons would the student teacher be allowed to conduct classes. The supervisor at no time would be turning the class over to the student teacher. The goal is to provide the student teacher with a positive teaching experience, not just learn techniques to survive -- this is often the case when student teachers are thrown into a class and told to take over. The results are often disastrous for both the student teacher and the students. The goal is also for the students to receive just as good or better support than they would if they only had the veteran teacher. With two teachers in the class, the veteran and student teacher can team, group students, monitor smaller groups of students, and differentiate in ways not possible with one teacher.

Student teachers would spend one period tutoring special needs students. This experience helps special needs students with the one on one help they often need and gives student teachers some experience tutoring and getting to know special needs students.

Student teachers would engage in weekly seminars with administrators focused on instructional strategies. Additionally, student teachers would do weekly “rounds” with administration, observing teachers use of instructional strategies being taught. The seminars would help administrators refine their teaching and staff development skills. The “rounds” help student teachers ability to constructively observe and diagnose good teaching as well as keeping the faculty conscious of their own practice.

By instituting these conditions, students, student teachers, and the school all benefit. Students get the additional support of the student teachers along with their regular teacher, student teachers get a positive and varied experience, and the school benefits from student teacher presence and the instructional focus they create.

We’re in the second year of working with California State University, Sacramento using these partnership guidelines, and it’s safe to say that everyone involved feels that it’s been a positive experience for student teachers, their cooperating teachers and, most importantly, for our school’s students.

Response From Pia Lindquist Wong

Pia Lindquist Wong, Ph.D., is a Professor in and Chair of the Department of Teaching Credentials at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS). She is the chair of the newly formed Teaching Credentials Department in her college. From 2000 until 2008, she was the Project Director for the Equity Network, an urban school reform and teacher preparation partnership. Her key publications include Prioritizing urban children, their teachers, and schools through professional development schools (2009, co-edited with Ronald Glass) and Education and Democracy: Paulo Freire, Education Reform and Social Movements (1998 co-authored with Maria Pilar O’Cadiz and Carlos Alberto Torres):

Mentoring a student teacher isn’t for every teacher, but in order to ensure that future generations of novice teachers get off to the best start possible, those of us in teacher education programs hope that the best and brightest experienced teachers take an interest in serving as a mentor teacher at some point in their careers. Based on my 17 years in teacher education, I have observed that there are some key actions and processes that a mentor teacher and a student teacher should enact so that this often delicate but frequently very productive relationship can flourish.

First, the mentor teacher should refrain from viewing the student teacher as either a volunteer or someone to whom the reins of the classroom are handed immediately. The student teacher should be viewed as a future colleague, whose skills are still developing. And through that lens, the mentor teacher should envision the teaching profession at its most ideal and try to induct the student teacher into that vision of the profession.

Second, the mentor teacher should attempt to re-create the best parts of his/her teacher preparation process, but not the worst - even if it is the worst parts that stand out in their memories. Many times mentor teachers recall powerful elements of their own teacher preparation program but because of their negative impact, not their positive impact. The idea that student teachers should learn by failing or “sinking or swimming” or by just “winging it” sends the wrong message to novice teachers. It perpetuates a myth that good teachers have “charisma” and “presence” and operate on instinct rather than the real stuff that makes an effective teacher - forming relationships with students, creating-recreating-and-refining learning activities that engage students in rigorous and critical thinking, and supporting students in myriad ways as they develop into thinking, feeling, and responsible young adults and future citizens.

Third, the mentor teacher should be prepared to make his/her own thinking, processing, decision-making, and reflections transparent. Teachers make hundred of decisions and adjustments every day; many of them are consequential and significant. A good mentor teacher will reveal that decision-making process to his/her student teacher in clear and concrete terms, and in so doing, the student teacher will start to learn all of the ways that an effective teacher is making micro and macro adjustments, paying attention to details while moving the students towards larger learning goals, and, above all, responding to and anticipating students and their cues and signals.

Of course, this relationship requires much of the student teacher too. S/he must exercise patience, open-mindedness, curiosity, and humility. A classroom is a supremely dynamic environment. The student teacher must enter that space as an ethnographer, seeking to understand the norms, roles, processes and values of that classroom. And then, s/he must work with the mentor teacher to figure out how to become a productive part of that environment.

Approaching student teaching in this way requires a major shift in perspective for most student teachers - from a focus on their performance (usually, “can I just make it through the lesson with no disasters”) to a focus on how their instructional decisions are creating the best possible learning environment for their students. Most novice teachers struggle to make this shift, because they are so concerned about their own mastery of the basics of effective instruction. But the quicker they can start focusing on the actual students in their classroom and their needs, the more effective they will be in all aspects of their teaching, from planning to selection of activities and strategies to tools for evaluating student growth and learning. Making this shift is not only beneficial for their own development, but it is the ultimate way to “give back” to the mentor teacher - by adding value to the learning of his/her students.

In our teacher preparation program, we are implementing the seven strategies of co-teaching as a framework for structuring a student teacher-mentor teacher that supports the learning of all those involved - students (who benefit from two knowledgeable adults working purposefully in a classroom where the teacher to student ratio is lower) and the novice and experienced teachers, who can more deliberately learn from each other and from collaborating together to provide their students with the best possible learning experiences and environments. The co-teaching framework is one that is highly likely to the support mentor teacher and the student teacher in reaching the outcomes detailed here.

Implementing a system that truly supports effective mentor/student teacher relationships - such as a co-teaching model - requires a spirit of collaboration and a commitment to common goals from the institutions that make up the K-16 system. While our program has an extensive history with elementary professional development schools, we have had less success with high school partnerships.

More recently we have been entered into a fruitful collaboration with Luther Burbank High School that seems to have great potential. A few key features are worth mentioning here - highly engaged site leadership that is willing to invest considerable time and expertise in the candidates, committed mentor teachers who are both effective and innovative educators, special screening of candidates to ensure a good “fit” with the Burbank culture and values, and adjustments to components of the teacher preparation program so that communication and university support are more streamlined and responsive to Burbank’s programs and practices. There was considerable investment initially in building a relationship of trust and mutual respect between the program and site leadership. This investment has paid off in dividends as our candidates have an exceptional experience in a high school that serves some of Sacramento’s most disenfranchised communities and our high school partners experience the benefits (and, yes, some of the challenges) of motivated, energetic, and hard-working novice teachers. We are excited about the prospects of this partnership!

Responses From Readers

Dr. Marvin Marshall:

The profession has long used a sink or swim philosophy and will continue to do so because of the very nature of education courses. Teachers of classroom management (more accurately referred to as “discipline”) at colleges and universities are between a rock and a hard spot. They want to expose students to different approaches of working with behavior concerns, so prospective teachers are exposed to various approaches. But if you ask new teachers, “Do you feel confident of having an approach to handle disruptive behavior and simultaneously have keeping good relations with students?” the answer will universally be “No.” Teaching is the only profession that does not teach its practitioners how to enter the profession with confidence.

Math Guy:

I spent a year subbing in an inner-city school district before entering the credential program at a state university. I learned far more from the former than I did from the latter. Of course, had I not been a sub first, I probably would have found the credential program more informative.


For supervisors: Help them find their own voice-- do not try to teach them to be mini-you’s.

For student teachers: Be prepared for the work to be harder and more time-consuming than you thought it would be. Expect that it will challenge everything-- not just the stuff you were taught in college teacher classes, but your way of being in the world. As I end up telling every student teacher I ever have-- if you don’t cry at least once during student teaching, you don’t understand the situation.

Paul Romani:

For both, I would say to set higher expectations. The basic standard of teaching programs and the level of training provided simply isn’t good enough (I know of several supervisors that are very despondent about the quality of student teachers sent to them).

Student teachers need to learn more sophisticated methods of teaching, be pushed to reach higher levels of education (i.e. masters degrees), and diversify their range of skills and knowledge.

The better prepared teachers are, the better they’ll cope in the classroom. What is more, the better ‘students’ these student-teachers are, the better teachers they’ll become.

Supervisors should do their best to be role models and mentors. This means being equally determined life-long learners.


My master teacher “eased " me into the teaching situation. She encouraged me to observe her teaching, to take notes, to discuss what she did and why she did it. This observation period allowed me to get a “sense” for the students and the classroom environment. She also gave me an opportunity to look through her files and archives of lessons and to duplicate or copy the ones I wanted.

I did small lessons at first, then bigger and more lessons, until I eventually was teaching the entire day’s lessons. By the time I transitioned to “full day teacher status” I felt comfortable and confident.

20 in the Trenches:

Here are some tips for Student Teachers based on my 20 years of experience as a Middle School/High School teacher.
These tips are directed at the Middle School/High School crowd:

#1. Overplan: If the class runs for 40 minutes, plan for 80 minutes. There’s nothing worse than zipping through your lesson and realizing you have nothing to do for the last 15 minutes of class. [Technology note: use a countdown timer app to help you manage your time.]

#2. Hook ‘em in the first minute: Think very carefully about how your lesson starts. Just like any good story/movie or play, you need to reel in your audience at the very beginning. Once you have them engaged, you can move forward. If the beginning is a dud, it’s much harder to draw students in later. It can be as simple as having the students immediately working on a practice problem as soon as they walk in the door. Immediate engagement is the key.

#3. Always greet your students at the door: Standing at the door is a good way to get a read on individual student’s mood *before* they come into the room. A lot of problems can be headed off or minimized if you can check in with the student privately before class starts. It also helps you notice if the general student population seem excited or bothered about something. If nothing else, the extra pair of eyes in the hallway lets students know they are being observed which is sometimes enough to help students keep themselves in check.

Responses on Twitter:

Several readers sent their responses via Twitter. I’ve collected them below:

Thanks to Ted, Pia and to many readers for their contributions!

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