Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

How Mentoring a Student-Teacher Got Me Through the Five-Year Itch

By Sydney Chaffee — October 22, 2013 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One January afternoon, I sat at the back of my own classroom trying to be invisible while my student-teacher, Mollie, led a vocabulary lesson. “Sydney,” a student whispered. “Can I go to the bathroom?” (Students call teachers by their first names at our school; it’s a way we try to build a culture of shared power and respect.)

“Ask Mollie,” I replied quietly. “She’s in charge.”

“But I don’t want to interrupt,” she said. I smiled. My student-teacher had, despite quite a bit of boundary-testing from students, nurtured and maintained an orderly classroom where students came to learn.

Six weeks earlier, when Mollie took over my 9th grade humanities class, she’d stood shakily at the front of the classroom, apologetic about asking students to learn. She fretted over discipline and forgot to take attendance. She reminded me of me when I first started out.

The previous August, facing the looming specter of my fifth year as a full-time teacher, I’d been worried. A lot of teachers fall victim to burnout at the five-year mark, shuffling around spouting cynical adages at idealistic first-year teachers before abandoning the field. Four years at my school had convinced me that I wanted to keep teaching, but I felt burnout creeping in. I worked every weekend and felt tired all the time. I cried during meetings with my principal. I convinced myself I was the worst teacher alive, doing irreparable damage to young brains. I needed a break before teaching broke me.

I decided that mentoring a student-teacher was a great plan for taking the pressure off. “I’m going to be able to relax!” I explained to my mom. “And I’ll have another set of hands in the classroom.”

“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “It’ll make you busier.”

I shrugged off her warning, imagining myself calm, happy, and wise.

Needless to say, I’ve realized that having a student-teacher is a lot of work, but it’s a refreshing and different kind of work. Working with Mollie helped me hold a mirror up to my own growth and gave me energy to keep getting better at my job.

Reflective Practice

At the beginning of the year, Mollie and I set up a weekly schedule: one meeting where I set the agenda and one where she did. Mollie’s meeting agendas were fraught with panic: piles of grading, kids’ confusion, her own fatigue.

I didn’t want my meetings to focus on what was going wrong, so instead I used them to ask Mollie to reflect more broadly on her practice. “Whose teaching style do you admire?” I asked. “What are your goals as an educator?” I pushed her to acknowledge small successes and analyze how other teachers tackled the issues she faced. These conversations told me how Mollie saw herself when she wasn’t mid-crisis. They helped her acknowledge what she was learning, how she was growing, and where she’d like to go.

Hearing Mollie’s reflections made me reflect on my own growth. Five years before Mollie walked into my classroom, I’d struggled with behavior management, too. Student actions sent me into emotional tailspins. At the time, my own mentor had showed me that their choices were usually not about me at all. “What’s really going on with that kid?” she’d ask. “What is he trying to get from you, and why does he need that?” These conversations were revolutionary for me. I worked to remain emotionally detached from behavioral problems. This is not about me became my mantra.

Now, Mollie struggled to maintain control of an unruly classroom and asked me, “Why are they doing this? I just want to teach them!”

“Remember,” I said, “this is not about you.” We had a long talk about students’ motives and techniques for addressing their behavior. It was as if I were sitting across from my younger self, reassuring her: You can do this. Reflection time is hard to carve out of a full teaching schedule. It’s also an invaluable tool for gaining perspective. Our talks forced Mollie to think about more than her failures and to see teaching as an ongoing learning process, and they showed me how far I’d come.

Learning by Mentoring

But that year wasn’t all about congratulating myself on how much I’d learned. While Mollie battled through her first year, I, too, had to learn new skills. As student-teacher, Mollie was also my special education inclusion associate, charged with ensuring that we met the needs of students with individualized education plans. She pulled students out for one-on-one reviews, helped me think through differentiated lessons, and reported students’ progress on IEP goals back to parents each trimester. When Mollie took charge of the class, we switched jobs. Now, as the inclusion associate, I saw what creating an inclusive classroom entailed. I recorded audiobooks, modified assignments, and untangled misconceptions. I had more time to work closely with individual students, and was then able to design more effective interventions. Not being the primary disciplinarian helped me see that certain disruptive students were just overwhelmed by the material.

As the inclusion associate, I also spent a lot of time unsure of Mollie’s expectations for me. Having not thought about what role she wanted me to play, she often told me to “just jump in whenever kids need help.” I stood in the back of the room feeling useless and frustrated. But then it clicked: Mollie had learned this from me. I’d taken my inclusion associates for granted, letting them languish in the back of the classroom, devaluing their particular expertise. I’d failed to thoughtfully write them into my plans. In the process, I had denied myself a valuable co-teacher.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Ultimately, that is the greatest lesson I learned during my year with Mollie: Mentor teacher and student-teacher should learn and teach together. Yes, the official paperwork said that I was to guide her through the perilous world of teaching: I would “teach her how to teach.” Aside from that being a ridiculously tall order for one person (and one year), it’s one-sided. Mollie taught me so much. She is now an accomplished teacher in her own classroom, and I am working with my third student-teacher in as many years.

The lessons I learned working with Mollie have made me a more effective mentor teacher. I now begin each year by working through a sample lesson plan with my student-teacher, discussing our respective roles at each point in the lesson. For the first few weeks, I ask my student-teacher to annotate a copy of the lesson plan with reminders about what he or she should do during each activity. We think through different accommodations that will help students access the material, modify reading assignments together to make our thought processes explicit to one another, observe each other teach, and debrief on what we see.

Having had time to evaluate my own practice, I now strive to make my classroom a site of learning, growth, and reflection—not just for my students, and not just for my student-teacher, but for myself as well. My mom was right. Having a student-teacher is a lot of work. But it is good work, and it energizes me. It reminds me of the excitement and optimism that led me into teaching, and, now that I’ve passed that five-year mark, it keeps pushing me toward new milestones.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
How Does Educator Well-Being Impact Social-Emotional Awareness in Schools?
Explore how adult well-being is key to promoting healthy social-emotional behaviors for students. Get strategies to reduce teacher stress.
Content provided by International Baccalaureate
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Opinion Short On Substitute Teachers? Here's Something States Can Do
Student teachers can make good substitutes, but the rules often don't allow them to step in, write two researchers.
Dan Goldhaber & Sydney Payne
4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a new employee fitting into the workplace puzzle
Sergey Tarasov/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words 'I'm Afraid to Return to the Classroom': A Gay Teacher of the Year Speaks Out
Willie Carver, Jr., the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, is questioning his future as a teacher given recent anti-LGBTQ legislative efforts.
8 min read
Montgomery County teacher and Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, in downtown Mt. Sterling, Ky., on May 11, 2022.
Willie Carver is the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and teaches high school English and French in the Montgomery County, Ky., public schools.
Arden Barnes for Education Week
Teaching Profession Teacher Morale Is at a Low Point. Here's Where Some Are Finding Hope
It’s been a hard few years for teachers. These are the moments with students that are keeping them going.
8 min read
Conceptual Illustration of figure wallpapering blue sky over a dark night
francescoch/iStock via Getty
Teaching Profession Nation's Top Teachers Bask in White House Spotlight
The national and state teachers of the year were honored by the president and first lady in a White House ceremony.
4 min read
First lady Jill Biden hugs 2022 National Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell as President Joe Biden applauds during the 2022 National and State Teachers of the Year event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
First lady Jill Biden hugs 2022 National Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell as President Joe Biden applauds during the 2022 National and State Teachers of the Year event in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday.
Susan Walsh/AP