Rants, Raves, Teacher

Top Ten Tips for Student Teachers

EHougan_COVER_fnl_outlineMany (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 to 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, 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 teacher’s 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 map 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.

Rants, Raves, Teacher

Ensuring Good to Great-Teaching 21st century kids in a 21st century world

Quick: what’s the first rule of Fight Club? Remember the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt where he takes his shirt off a lot and fights other buff guys in basements and parking lots? (OK, stop thinking about that now. Focus. Back to me.) So, the first rule of Fight Club?  You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.

Being part of the teacher’s union is sort of like being part of Fight Club (minus the hot guys with their shirts off – that may happen in some places but sadly, never where I’ve worked).  As a teacher, I do my job and I don’t talk about what my union is doing, at least not in a non-positive, super-supportive way. Now don’t get me wrong. I appreciate everything my union has done for me. God knows, if I had to teach and negotiate my own contract, I would have left long ago. They allow me to do my job; however, just as there are things I could do better as a teacher, I think there are things my union could do better as well.

Across North America we are seeing teacher unions decimated by their government leaders and demonized in the court of public opinion. In order to balance budgets and leave no child behind, governments have slowly but surely worked to take power and control away from the unions and put it into the hands of administrators. In response, many unions have retaliated by threatening to strike, only to have that option legislated away. When they use the only other means available to them, their actual work with children, they find themselves attacked by parents and the press. Teachers are only in the profession for the money, the benefits and the summers off! It seems like teachers and their unions just can’t win.

So, where do we go from here?

While researching teacher unions in the 21st century, I came across an interview with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.  Ms. Weingarten, whose union represents more than 1.5 million teachers across the United States, was a key speaker at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. Her presentation Can Teacher Unions be Partners in Reforming Schools in the 21st century? focused on what teacher unions need to do better in this ever-changing world.

She admitted that unions, hers in particular, haven’t always put quality teaching at the forefront.

“We…were wrong. Not that we meant to be wrong but our job initially was about fairness, not about quality. Our goal was to make sure teachers and our other members were treated fairly. Our job has to be about quality as well. Due process has to be about fairness, not about job security for life. Not about being used as an excuse for managers not to manage or a cloak for incompetence.”

She said it’s not enough for some teachers to be great.

“What we have to do is ensure good to great for all teachers.”

In response to questions posed by Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Ms. Weingarten touched on a variety of subjects, including the controversial “bar exam for teachers”, but her focus always went back to making teachers accountable.

“We need to have real evaluation systems that can assess whether teachers are doing their jobs. And if they’re not, you help them. If they’re not, they shouldn’t be teachers.”

“What we have seen is that schools that work…have collaborative environments where there’s a real thoughtful process for how you recruit, support, retain and yes, dismiss, teachers.”

So, how do we make certain that our children are getting the teachers they deserve?

First, she said, we need to ensure that teachers have the tools and conditions they need in order to teach properly.

“You can’t give new teachers a rigorous kind of methodology to teach and then basically say, ‘You’re on your own.’ It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teachers.”

Then, she said, teachers need to ask themselves: Did I teach the material? And most importantly: Did the students learn it? This is where standardized testing has a role to play. Sometimes a teacher can present a lesson and feel that it was the best lesson she has ever taught, only to discover that the majority of students didn’t really understand.

Ms. Weingarten was quick to point out that while standardized tests serve a purpose, they should not become the end goal.

“You have to look at the data to see if kids get it,” she told the audience. “You have to have enough data so that people concentrate on it, but when it becomes predominant then education becomes about testing and not about teaching and frankly the current generation of tests have no connection with what we have to teach kids right now. [They] are about the memorization of facts as opposed to about how kids critically think.”

If the jobs of tomorrow require critical thinking and creativity, why are we still teaching kids to memorize facts and then regurgitate them on a series of standardized tests? According to Ms.Weingarten, this focus on testing is one of the most serious problems facing education today.

Teachers need to be trained to teach critically, she said. New teachers need to be able to walk into a classroom feeling prepared, as opposed to the ‘sink or swim’ model we have now. Half of all teachers in the United   States leave teaching within the first three to five years, she pointed out.

“Love is important. You have to love kids to be a school teacher. You have to know your content. And you have to have a pedagogical bag of tricks so that you can differentiate instruction.”

This ability to offer differentiated teaching is what makes teachers great, she said.

“It’s how we go to our toolkit and understand that Walter is different than Randi, that Celia is different than Michael. [It’s] how we actually engage with kids to try to create that seminal moment of learning.”

At the end of her presentation, she went back to her initial question: can teacher unions be a part of educational reform in the 21st century?

“If we actually want to help all kids, the union needs to be a partner in this,” she said. “At the end of the day, if we don’t start focusing on…how we are solution-driven, how we problem solve, how we ensure that all kids get what they need in the public space instead of this constant polarization, education is not going to get better.”

And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To continue to improve education so that it meets the needs of all children? Having unions and governments, parents and teachers, all at each other’s throats does nothing to help students. We need to work together to figure out how best to teach 21st century kids in the 21st century.

So, I’m doing it. I’m breaking Rules #1 and #2 and I’m talking about my union (albeit anonymously and with loads of trepidation). I am grateful for everything they do but I want to make sure the voices of students are heard above all else. In the long run, I think it’s the best thing for me, as a teacher and a parent, and for our planet as a whole.


Presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, June 30, 2012 – “Can Teacher Unions be Partners in reforming schools in the 21st century?” Link to complete video of presentation: http://www.aspenideas.org/session/can-teacher-unions-be-partners-reforming-schools-21st-century