The importance of the student-teaching experience

My first year teaching was really positive. I knew what I was doing, my students responded well, and I build rapport easily. Because I was a gifted teacher? Probably not. It was because my student-teaching experience was horrible. Allow me to share:

On my first day in my student-teaching placement, I was introduced to the class, allowed an opportunity to share a few things about myself, and observed the lesson. At the end of the day, my cooperating teacher explained that after the current week, I was on my own. My cooperating teacher explained that he had a big musical coming up, and he would be in his office working on it if I needed anything. He remained nearby, but pretty much dropped me into the classroom with little fanfare. I was given the task of teaching a novel I had never read (now one of my favorites), and to create all of the lessons on my own. Guidance was minimal, and what guidance was offered was largely about material, not classroom management.

Within a few weeks, I realized that I was in trouble. Students who had largely given me the benefit of the doubt from the beginning grew tired of my inability to engage them, and began to mutiny. I struggled with increasing dissent and behavior issues, all of which undermined the learning I was trying to spark. I did fine with the material, despite only being a few chapters ahead of the students, but the behavior was increasingly poor. I was told by my cooperating teacher that the kids in this school were just like that, and I just need to slog ahead and survive. I tried.

When I noticed four students blatantly cheating on one of my exams, I confronted them, they admitted cheating, and I gave zeroes on the test. Only then did my cooperating teacher intervene, stating that I had overstepped my boundaries, and had put him into a difficult situation. He reversed the scores and took over the class. I had clearly made a mistake, but I was still unsure what it was. It gave me plenty to reflect upon in the remaining weeks of the experience. In the end the co-teacher let me know he had not done a good job helping me understand the culture of the school, the policies, and my role as a student-teacher. The entire experience left me with many questions about the educational system, my abilities, and my future.

In retrospect I can now see I was set up to fail. I was not in a situation where I was likely to succeed, yet I believe it was a crucial step in my development as a teacher.  I went into my first teaching job with a PLAN, and I remember it well:

  1. Connect with the students
  2. Bring the material to life
  3. Understand the culture of the school

I may not have understood that my failures as a teacher in practice were influenced by the poor cooperating teacher, I still had real goals that were legitimate to teaching and they led me to begin with very specific ideas about how I can begin on the right foot. As it turns out, it was exactly what I needed.

My first year, I made my expectations clear, I invested in spending time getting to know my students, and listening to how they prefer to learn, and we trusted each other. From there, I built lessons that would engage and invite students to learn. The results were excellent.

Although it makes for a horrifying teaching story, I owe a lot to my student-teaching experience. Had my experience been very coddled and spare of challenging situations, I have no doubt that first real year as a teacher would have been disastrous.

Student-teachers need to be allowed real experiences to fail, with just enough safety net to keep from driving the student out of the profession. Cooperating teachers need to release responsibility and control, but aid by helping the student build their own sense of belonging, authority, and ownership. Ideally, the student-teaching experience offers constructive failure and reflection, without dampening the love of teaching.

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