Many (many, many) years ago, I did my student teaching at my old high school with my old high school English teacher. I was even placed in the same room where I passed notes to my friends and tried not fall asleep during first period. On the first day of my internship, my advisor/former teacher gave me a few tips and then retired to the staff room, leaving me on my own to teach a room full of teenagers. It was a baptism by fire and I made plenty of mistakes. I wouldn’t recommend it, but luckily it worked out OK in the end. I had a wonderful student teaching experience that made me determined to pursue a teaching career.
Many years later, the tables turned and I was the (semi) experienced teacher assigned my very first student teacher. I was excited to get her because I had a challenging class that year. I thought two adults in the room would be better than one. Unfortunately, it was not a good experience. My student teacher was overwhelmed with part-time work and family responsibilities and was argumentative about anything that required work on her part. Looking back on it, there are lots of things I could have done differently. Here are some of the things I wish I had said.
10. I have no doubt that you had a great education but you don’t know everything just yet. Listen to other teachers, talk to them about what you’re doing, take advice gracefully. You don’t have to do everything that is suggested to you, but do understand that experience does count for something.
9. Learn everyone’s name, not just your students (although you should know theirs as soon as possible). Talk to the ladies in the cafeteria and the man who cleans your classroom. Make a point to check in with the principal and vice-principal when you have some free time and see how you can help. This will go a long way towards getting you some work as a substitute teacher once you graduate.
8. Treat everyone with equal respect, no matter how old or young they are. I have taught students from 5-50+ and I generally don’t change the way I deal with them. Of course, you use different words depending on their age and understanding, but children deserve to be treated with the same respect as adults. For godsake, never use baby-talk. You aren’t their grandmother, you’re their teacher. I don’t care how cute little Suzy looks in her new dress, she’s not a baby being passed around at a baby shower. She needs you to treat her like a learner, not a doll.
7. Be prepared! In fact, be over prepared. I can’t stress this enough. The quickest way to lose the attention of your class is to be scrambling around trying to find your notes or to upload something on to the overhead projector. The minute they see that you’re weak, you’ve lost them and it’s really hard to get them back.
6. Understand that your students will all be working at different levels of ability. Make sure you read and understand their individual adaptations and program plans. Take special care to spend time with the special needs students in your room who have their own teachers aide. Some of your sweetest experiences may be with these kids; don’t miss out on that opportunity. Remember: you are responsible for ALL the students in your class.
5. Be prepared to be flexible. There may be an assembly or a fire drill that causes you not to get something covered that you were hoping to get done. Or you may think you are going to get through a math concept in one day only to discover it’s going to take a lot longer than that. Remember: you’re teaching to the children in front of you, not the lesson plan on your desk. It’s a guide but the children are your compass. They will tell you what needs more or less attention. Watch them carefully.
4. Get to know your students. Talk to them. Ask your cooperating teacher if you can head up a current events conversation a few times a week. See who plays sports and who plays an instrument. Find out who got a new cat and whose grandmother just died. Even if you’re not on duty, go outside at recess and see what your students are up to. Take a walk through the cafeteria at lunchtime and see who is eating alone and who is stealing treats from someone else’s lunch. Some kids are very different in social situations than they are in a classroom. It helps to know them when you are trying to teach them.
3. Spend some time getting to know the specialists in your school. Talk to the resource teachers, learning centre specialists, school psychologist and speech therapists. It’s important that teachers work as part of a team. Some kids require a whole village of support in order to be successful. You might also find that you are interested in pursuing a career outside of teaching but still within the school system. Teaching doesn’t have to be a 30-year-career. There are lots of opportunities out there.
2. Cooperate with your cooperating teacher. There is nothing worse for a cooperating teacher than having a difficult student teacher. It’s like having an extra student. Yes, we know you don’t get paid. And yes, we understand you may have a part-time job or a family or a dog that needs to be walked. But you’ve taken on this responsibility and you need to take it seriously.
1. Finally, take some time to reflect on whether or not you actually like what you’re doing. You may discover that it’s not what you expected. Perhaps this ISN’T how you want to spend the next 20-30 years of your life. And that’s OK. Finish your degree and look for something else. It’s better than spending your life doing something you don’t enjoy. But if you do LOVE it, grit your teeth and work your butt off for free. Someday, karma will reward you.