Building Community Through Student Teaching

As many of us pre-service teachers head back to school over the next few weeks, heading back into the classroom is also on the agenda. For some pre-service teachers it will be their first practicum or field placement; others will find themselves in their full semester of student teaching. Many posts that discuss student teaching focus on the individual, and the aim here is to take the conversation a little larger. No matter where you are in your journey to becoming a teacher, here are a few tips and ideas to take with you into all practicums, field work, and student teaching:

Know, and respect, the community that you’ll be working with.

First and foremost, it is crucial to know about the community that you’ll be working in. Walking into a new building and a new classroom can be scary, but doing your research ahead of time is one way to ease these concerns. Researching the community you’re going to be spending time in is crucial to making it a meaningful experience for not only you, but the students, teachers, and parents in the community as well. Take the time to do a quick search of the community and/or school district to find any of the following: town history; school mission statements, both historical and current, to see how the district has evolved; census data; information on the politics and political affiliations of the town. Also, don’t hesitate to search on the school district’s website and see what you can find. Often times you can see messages from teachers or school administrators, average class sizes, community work that the schools and students are doing, and information about course offerings. On the district website you are also likely to find at least some information about the curriculum that can give you a heads-up before discussing with your cooperating teacher lesson ideas; what might fit within the curriculum and what might challenge and go beyond the curriculum.

One of the greatest resources that exists is the Civil Rights Data Collection. Through their website, you can do both a district-level and school-level search to get information on student demographics, the percentages of both Students with Disabilities classified as IEP only and 504 only, and the percentages of students classified as Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and Free and Reduced-Price Lunch (FRPL). You can likely also find the district enrollment compared to the gifted and talented enrollment and the algebra 1 enrollment to see what demographics are enrolled in certain programs. This is often a very telling portion of the data collection and may reveal troubling practices within a district that need to be addressed. Additionally, there are resources on staff and finance, data on pathways to college and career readiness, data on college and career readiness, and data on discipline, restraints/seclusion, harassment/bullying, also broken down into detailed subcategories. Taking an evening to look through and research this information is crucial to a successful student teaching experience, whether you are in the school one day a week or five days a week. If your whole class is in one school during a shorter practicum or field experience, you can even encourage your professor to offer class time for you and your fellow pre-service teachers to analyze this information in groups and then have a larger class discussion.

Respect the community within the classroom.

Building community within a classroom can be one of the most difficult jobs for the teacher. It’s also one of the most important. Teacher should want to see all of their students flourish in a nurturing and supportive environment that respects each of their voices, cultures, ideas, and ways of expression. This is a twofold process: both respecting the students within the community and the community within the classroom.

First, pre-service teachers have to be aware of the community within a classroom. If you, like me, will be entering into a new classroom over the next month, it is important to acknowledge that for the students and the teacher, the school year is already halfway over. This means that they have likely built some form of a community in their classroom as well as established norms and procedures for how the classroom is run. To best respect the work that has already been done, there are a few options for pre-service teachers. The first, and most common, is to spend the first day or two observing the classroom and seeing how the students and the teachers work together within the classroom. This is a great hands on way to learn the routines that have been established, especially at the elementary level. Another option, one less likely used but just as valuable, is to email your cooperating teacher ahead of time and ask for a brief, simple summary of the way the classroom is run. This can also give you a hint into the their teaching philosophy: do they run the classroom themselves, or are they working to empower their students to make educational decisions for themselves? Of course, just one brief email won’t tell you everything about a person’s classroom philosophy (have you ever tried writing a philosophy of teaching statement? Then you know how hard it can be to communicate…) so note what they say and use that as a jumping off point for an in-person discussion with the teacher about their vision, theories, and practices in the classroom.

Second, pre-service teachers, and all teachers for that matter, have to have a good foundational understanding of the students in the class. This means actively engaging in and working toward cultural competency. The National Education Association defines cultural competency as “the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, understanding certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching and culturally responsive teaching.” There are endless resources for developing cultural competency. As the NEA notes, this is not something that is learned in one workshop or training; rather, it is a commitment to lifelong learning by growing personally, researching both theories and practices, and engaging other educators in practices at both the school and policy level to better the learning environment for students. Teaching Tolerance has pages and pages of research, articles, webinars, and resources on cultural competency. EduColor, both as an organization and its individual members, have written articles and books, offer a page of resources, and host monthly Twitter chats on topics that can all be related back to cultural competency. Once again, take advantage of the resources available both online and through your colleges of education.

See your relationship with your cooperating teacher as a reciprocal relationship in which you teach each other new ideas and practices for teaching.

To many, the ideal cooperating teacher relationship is one with a teacher who has experience both inside and outside of the classroom around education, someone who works to blend theory and practice whenever possible, and someone who grounds their philosophy of teaching in social justice work that elevates student voice. The time spent with your cooperating teacher is supposed to be a learning experience, and in the best cases they may even become a mentor of sorts over the semester (or even beyond!). In other cases, there may be a disconnect with your cooperating teacher; this could be a situation where you simply don’t meld with them, or it may be because of more serious differences such as being told “don’t go into teaching.” It is understandable that some veteran teachers feel this way after so many years in an oppressive, top-down system that doesn’t value the voices or experiences of teachers. Whichever type of relationship you have (and hopefully a more positive one, especially with cooperating teachers who agree to take on a student teacher), remember that you as well bring something to the table. As the Young Teachers Collective notes in our about section, this new generation of teachers are the ones who experienced many of the oppressive reforms. It is best summarized by this paragraph:

The voices of young and future teachers are largely ignored in the education movement. We are often dismissed because we are viewed as not having the experience to truly understand the issues facing public education. However, there is no doubt that our voices are valuable and even necessary in this struggle. We are in the unique position of simultaneously facing issues affecting both students and teachers. At the same time, this position presents different challenges that students and experienced teachers are not aware of. Young and future teachers are the only ones who can really speak to these challenges, which is why it is so important that we speak out and have our voices amplified.

Because of this, we offer a different perspective on education issues. These perspectives are valuable and deserve to be recognized, heard, and respected. While we have much to learn from veteran teachers, like our cooperating teachers, we also offer new ideas and experiences that they can use in their classrooms. Seeing the relationship between pre-service teacher and cooperating teacher as a reciprocal one in which each party can teach one another new ideas and perspectives will only strengthen the knowledge shared during the time together and therefore the time each spends in the classroom beyond the practicum, field experience, or student teaching semester.

The practicums, field experiences, and student teaching semesters are what we all look forward to in our teacher education programs. For many of us, there is nothing more special or meaningful than getting to implement all that we are learning in our college classes in the K-12 classroom, and of course, working with students. This is far from an inclusive list, but it covers a few of the big ideas when preparing to work in the classroom.

Mel Katz is a student at The College of New Jersey enrolled in the Integrated Bachelor’s and Master of Arts in Teaching in Urban Elementary Education program, with a double major in Women’s and Gender Studies. She is also a Coordinating Committee Member of the Young Teachers Collective. 920624_450215781854777_4221478373503946507_o

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