By: Conor Pierson
It’s that time of year again when education students across the country start the most intense semester of their college careers; yes, I am talking about student teaching. With this semester come many questions: Will I be good enough? Will my cooperating teacher like me? Will my kids like me? Did I make a mistake choosing teaching as a profession? Those are just a few of the many questions every student teacher asks themselves; I know I certainly did.
Before I go into my experience and my advice, you can do this, if you made it 3 years as an education major you are meant to be a teacher. We all have our doubts, but you’ll make it through. Everyone has their own student teaching experience and there is no cookie cutter way to approach the experience. You will all have struggles and successes different from each other. I’m not one for clichés (who am I kidding, I really am!) but, make it your own this semester. So, here are a few tips for your student teaching experience that should help you get through the most unique and intense semester you’ll ever have.
- Don’t be afraid to try new lessons: If you have a fun new game you want to try with your kids, or a new thematic science project, try it! Obviously talk to your cooperating teacher first, but don’t be afraid to try a new lesson in math, reading, or writing. Lessons fall flat, sometimes they just don’t work, and that’s not necessarily cause for concern. Just go back to the drawing board and change a few things to make a lesson better. Every teacher has had to redo a lesson and the great thing about teaching is that you can also try something new or try something different. Teaching isn’t a science; it’s an art. This semester is all about learning – learning what works and what doesn’t work in terms of lesson plans is an invaluable experience.
- Don’t be afraid to be different from your cooperating teacher. You inevitably will find you do some things similar to your cooperating teacher due to your day-to-day proximity and it’s also their classroom to begin with, so it’s natural to assimilate somewhat. But you’re not your cooperating teacher; so don’t be afraid to be yourself.
- GET TO KNOW YOUR KIDS! This is my most important piece of advice since I think it’s something we forget. In your first couple of weeks you may not be starting to teach the whole class so use that time to learn about your students. What do they like to do? Who are their friends in the class? Do they have older or younger siblings? Anything you learn about your students can be used to help you teach them more effectively, relating material to their actual lives. Plus, it is one of the great parts of teaching to get to know your students dreams and hopes. Being someone they can talk to is a great resource for them and will make you and your students feel more comfortable in the classroom.
- Establish a routine during the semester. Yes, you had a routine last semester; that will not work this year. You’ll be exhausted after every school day. It’s natural since it’s your first true time in a classroom day in and day out. I would find myself falling asleep at 8 o’clock, not because I wanted to but because it just happened. Don’t think you can do your usual Wednesday or Thursday night party at your college. Going to bed at 1 or 2AM and then going to school the next morning will not work. You’ll be tired, but just plan ahead. Make sure you eat, (you think I wouldn’t have to say this, but you’ll be surprised) do your lesson plans, and sleep. If you do those three things you will be golden!
- Eat lunch away from the teachers lounge as much as possible. This is only if the teachers lounge is filled with talk of frustration with students. Those teachers’ lounges are toxic and will not affect your student teaching experience positively. You always want to have an optimistic view of students and being in an environment where all that is being talked about is frustration you won’t have that optimism for long. My teachers’ lounge was different; it had teachers talking about their families and their community, talking about their children and grandchildren. Those teachers’ lounges breed a positive attitude because it’s truly a break from the classroom and it’s refreshing. So see what your teachers lounge is like and decide for yourself if it’s worth eating there. If not, the classroom is a great place to eat and do lesson plans quietly. You’ll be doing that regardless of your feelings of the teachers’ lounge sometimes.
- Be open and honest about what you are having trouble with. This was the hardest thing for me to do during my student teaching. We all want to be the perfect teacher as soon as we are in the classroom, but truth be told, there is no perfect teacher. It’s constant work to become a great teacher and even great teachers aren’t perfect. They will be the first to admit that. Teaching is just as much about growing as it is about teaching. Be honest about your struggles. I had trouble doing whole class lessons in the beginning. I couldn’t reach everyone, and I wouldn’t ask the most effective questions. I would ask for help from my professors and from my cooperative teacher, and they were more than helpful. I’m still learning and growing and so are you. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help!
- Everyone has a different relationship with his or her cooperating teacher. Some student teachers are on a first name basis and will be their cooperating teacher’s best friend. Others see their relationship as professional and act accordingly. Most of the time your relationship will be closer to professional but don’t worry if you aren’t connecting with your cooperative teacher or you think that they don’t like you. I texted my cooperative teacher regularly but others talked on the phone and face timed regularly. I didn’t want the face time relationship so it didn’t happen. Whatever relationship you have with your cooperative teacher, make it work for you and only you.
- Be overly helpful to begin, it will help you in the long run. This is really helpful in the next week or two while you don’t have full control of the classroom. Do anything and everything you can do in the classroom to ease the cooperating teacher’s workload. Copy the worksheets, return some library books, organize a shelf . . . literally anything you do to make your cooperating teacher’s day easier will be great for your relationship. When you start teaching a full day, your cooperating teacher will help you like you helped him or her those first few weeks. This is also great so you get to know the building you’re in and get to know other teachers and professionals in the building. That’s how you can get more acquainted with the school and feel like you’re a part of the community.
- Speaking of community, get to know the community you are teaching in. Some teaching programs, like mine, do this well. The first week they made us go out into the community we were teaching in and had us gauge the local residents on how they like their school system, what they think the biggest problems are in their community and what they really love about the place they live. I student taught in central Pennsylvania. What was most important to my community was sports, or more specifically Penn State football, so I decided to get more into college football to connect with the community. I also taught in a lower socioeconomic status (SES) area, so I learned about the many fundraising and charitable actions the community offered. You’ll be surprised what you find, and it’ll help you immensely. Go out in your school’s town and explore!
- Don’t diagnose your kids. This is extremely important. I know you’ve taken multiple psychology courses during your college years but that does not give you license to diagnose students. It does not give you license to treat students differently because you perceive a disability or exceptionality. If you see something that you think is strange ask your cooperative teacher about it. They’ll know what’s going on, and if they don’t then there are proper steps that need to be taken in order to help the student. Help your students as much as you can, but do not assume a disability or exceptionality unless you are told a student has one.
- Last, but certainly not least, don’t compare your student teaching experiences to others. Some have amazing life changing experiences and others have the semester from hell. You’ll have a one of a kind experience that won’t ever be duplicated. So cherish the good times you have and don’t think your student teaching experience is lesser than your classmates who are having the time of their lives. Try to make the most of this semester and you will almost certainly be happy with the results.
Conor is currently attending Columbia’s Teachers College to be certified in teaching children with Intellectual Disabilities and Autism 1st-6th. He was diagnosed with Dyslexia in 1st grade and his goal is to become an advocate for students with special needs just like his school and family were for him.