Teaching Oddness #4: Student Teachers

Student teaching is definitely an oddness, but it’s an oddness with an old history. In the early days of public education, prospective teachers were given a smattering of content in a “normal school”, and then sent out under the tutelage of a more senior teacher to learn the ropes. Then, as now, the actual mechanics of a student teaching experience had a ridiculously broad implementation range, from getting a few weeks learning how to take attendance to a legitimate practicum with an experienced teacher giving advice and feedback.

Here’s what anyone can tell you about student teaching, the stuff that’s so obvious even the hacks at NCTQ can figure out: Cooperating, or mentoring, teachers are hard to find. Undergraduate ed school programs, in particular, are desperate for any warm bodies to shepherd teachers through the practicum.

My own (excellent) ed school provided an entire 12 months of student teaching, first in a summer school program and then a full school year in a classroom. We all had total responsibility for at least one class for a semester. This school had a relatively small program, turning out fewer than a hundred teachers a year. And their search for cooperating teachers was….intense. Generally, the priority was for teachers committed to group work and complex instruction, progressive teachers. But even with the school’s considerable prestige, finding sufficient cooperating teachers by September often meant unseemly begging and attitudes common to businessmen in bars at 2 am.

And that’s a well-regarded ed school. At online schools, the students themselves are required to find cooperating teachers. My current cooperating teacher gig began because I got an email, funneled through the district and the department chair, asking for a teacher with more than three years math teaching experience. Why this district? Because that’s where my student teacher lives. Why my school? Because it’s Title I. They were pleased to learn I was squishy and went to a great ed school, but there were no other takers.

(BTW, I’ve mentioned the need for “warm bodies” before, in other contexts. Quality control expectations of public education shrivel away in the blazing inferno of the billion suns generated by “we are legally required to have a warm body present for X activity”. Grasp this fact, and much becomes clear.)

Researchers don’t often bother with student teaching; this Goldhaber work on student teaching vs. employment locations is interesting, but doesn’t give any insight into the practice. Much of what I find is qualitative research on student teacher experience (everyone I know says their student teacher experience was the most important part of their training). But no one has really written meaningfully on the challenges I found with my first student teacher.

Arthur is my age, which means he’s a second-career teacher starting seven years in age later than I did. He’s retired early, financially comfortable (he takes me out to lunch in his Mercedes!), and relatively unconcerned about getting a full-time job, although he’d certainly like to. He’s Chinese, but a long-time immigrant, having moved here in the 70s. His language is a bit tough to follow sometimes, which I have issues with, but he’s dedicated to working with at-risk kids.

Arthur has largely taken over my geometry class. I was initially happy to turn over the job to Arthur and just watch from afar. My job is to be as disconnected from the classroom as possible, consulting with him on curriculum and objectives before and after, but to let him operate independently, sinking or swimming without interference, in the main. I did this well at first. Then I realized that the impact of having a student teacher was going to be an issue in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

In one sense, my geometry class is tailor-made for him: relatively small, just 21 kids, 8 speds, 1 ELL (Chinese). In another sense it’s a tough class for any student teacher. The ability distribution isn’t a normal curve, but rather clumped: (1) too bright for the class, (2) ready for the class and motivated, (3) ready for the class and unmotivated, (4) unmotivated to the point that readiness is irrelevant. A histogram shows groups 1 & 2 combined is n=8, group 3 also n=8, and group 4 is n=5. Much better to have a bigger group 2 to balance out group 3 and drown out group 4. This is why I like big classes. This small class is an extraordinary management challenge.

And so, I find myself wondering constantly about when or where to jump in or pile on. Not obviously, not in the “stepping in because Arthur can’t cope” manner, so that the kids would notice. But this would be a hard class for anyone to teach. What to do when he doesn’t wrap it up in a way that will hit it home, get the kids to see what they’ve been doing, give them a mental link to access the next day? What to do when I can see the kids aren’t attending, that he’s explaining too much? Meanwhile, both Arthur and I can both see that a couple of the unmotivated are just itching for a chance to cause trouble, say that they’d be doing great if it wasn’t for the dumb new student teacher.

Which brings up another issue, one that I’m also quite conscious of: how do parents feel about their kids being subjected to a trainee? Then I think about TFA trainees, who don’t have an experienced teacher in the room, and I feel better. Back at ed school I knew cases of parental complaints about a classmate taking over that led to….difficulties. From the parent’s point of view, the training teacher as damaging their child’s learning experience. From everyone else’s point of view, the student was using the newbie teacher as a scapegoat, and that was indeed usually the case. But my school doesn’t often train student teachers, and I don’t want to have that complaint aired.

And then, there’s the problem of my curriculum. Specifically, much of it is in my head. I’m not an easy teacher to learn from; my skills lie in explanation and seemingly random curriculum development. I can’t give Arthur a textbook and tell him to check out chapter 6 to pick some lessons to run. He can’t anticipate what I’m going to do; half the time I’ve just decided it the night before.

As he’s taken over more of the planning, we’ve found a routine. I’ve told him what topics I want him to cover. He researches and develops a lesson. I offer suggestions and changes. Mostly, EXPLAIN LESS. Either give them foolproof tasks to do, or do it together with explicit instructions. But no lecture, here’s a worksheet, go. Not just because I don’t like it, but because (and he sees this readily) the class can’t handle it and sits around doing nothing.

In addition to curriculum development, he’s getting a solid course in teaching delivery. My own advice to him often sounds like stage direction: “Work the room. Own it. Make your presence bigger.” and he has really done well in that regard, becoming more expansive and performance-oriented, while not distorting his natural style. I just closed up a lesson for him a couple days ago, and he said he’d finally started to grasp what I meant about punching the finish, closing with a big picture, not a repeated explanation. So there’s that.

Since I’m not a planner, to put it mildly, I sought out a new teacher I’d previously mentored (the second one in that essay), and asked what he did to plan. His method struck me as very sensible, so I sent Arthur to him for some consultation. This was a resounding success, so now Arthur has another resource.

Do other teachers have this problem? Or do they hand over curriculum, either pre-developed or in textbook form, and just let the student teacher prepare in advance? Maybe I should just tell Arthur teach from the book. But he doesn’t want to, and his ed school is actually quite happy that he’s working with a curriculum developer. Besides, Arthur does pretty well. He’s made improvements to my switch and stay game that were so sensible I instantly adopted them. He picks good model problems.

Anyway. I leave the room at times when I see things are going well to give him full authority. Other times, as mentioned, I “close up” for the lesson, to illustrate key issues or transition to the next day’s work, with him turning it over to me. I film him other times, which forces me to shut up.

These issues are never really discussed, and maybe they don’t have to be. Why should parents be alarmed at having a student teacher, when they might have a TFA candidate with no training, or a bad first year? For the most part, I subdue my classroom control freak tendencies, and Arthur runs the room. I’ll keep getting better at it. And he sez that he’s learning a lot, so there’s that.

Another really, really important thing for student teachers to understand about their apprenticeship: student teaching has an incredibly wide range of acceptable outcomes, provided the cooperating teacher doesn’t complain or in some way declare the student teacher unacceptable. If the CT rejects the student teacher, it’s game over. Even if the CT is a jerk. Even if the CT is wrong. Even if the ed school agrees that the CT is a total jerk entirely in the wrong.

Timing is everything in student teaching. An approved stint has to happen in that semester, in that quarter, in that pre-determined time period. If it doesn’t happen then, consider the impact the equivalent of the damage a Mack truck does to a bunny rabbit. The student teacher has to pay for another quarter, has to find another teacher, and oh, by the way, usually has to delay graduation. There’s really no equivalent in anything other than maybe med school with no appeals system. Student teaching is required–ironic, in a world where schools pay a premium to hire TFA.

Student teaching is one of the few genuine apprenticeships left in the modern workforce. Even before unpaid internships got a bad name, we all know they weren’t really about learning the job. But even the worst student teaching gig with an obnoxious cooperating teacher and unwilling students gives the candidates some small sense of the job. Without question, some gigs are better than others. But life twas ever thus.

My advice to teaching candidates is keep your head down, don’t complain, recognize your near complete powerlessness and if you sense any weirdness early on, do your best to find someone else before you’ve lost too much time. Because most cooperating teachers, like me, can’t imagine rejecting a student teacher for anything other than outright cruelty. We know it’s a rite of passage. We want to help.

Yes, it is an oddness.

Why would I approve a student teacher in almost case? I remember my own (excellent) cooperating teacher saying that the really important thing was that the kids loved me and thinking yeah, fine, but so what? And now here I am, watching a fifty-something Chinese immigrant pay a metric ton of money for the right to get up every morning, put in 4 hours a day at an unpaid practicum, and explain geometry to generally uninterested and unmotivated adolescents and you have to know what I’m thinking, right? I’ve actually said this, to others: “Arthur’s doing okay, making progress, but the really important thing is that the kids like him.” Now that I’m a teacher, watching someone learn the job, the empathy and connection needed for this job stand out starkly.

Most everything else, you’ll learn. Or quit, leaving little damage behind.

About educationrealist

18 responses to “Teaching Oddness #4: Student Teachers

  • Senghendrake

    I’m a student teacher right now. I think one of the worst things is having to teach subjects you know are BS (make-work projects for sociology majors) and/or hit curriculum targets which are essentially Marxist talking points. It’s hard to take the thing seriously while thinking that most of the kids would be better off just ignoring me. One outright said to me “this [topic] is irrelevant, what does [barely related tangent shoved in for talking-point value] even have to do with [primary subject matter]?” I hemmed and hawwed (he was right but obviously I couldn’t say so) until the teacher came over and gave him a tongue-lashing. She made it clear that he was a problem child, but the dude was probably a few ticks smarter than her.

    You seem to have gotten lucky, because my ed programme was worse than useless. Utter reeking garbage- I didn’t learn one thing, other than the number of genders (300+ by the last count) and how to critique pop culture for problematic issues. The candidates themselves are the blandest, most utterly interchangeable drones I’ve ever seen assembled into one place, but I think this is a feature rather than a bug (see below).

    We were told to make unit/lesson plans “any old way”, so when I arrived at the practicum with very minimalistic lesson plans I ended up having to basically redo everything and thus made my name mud in the eyes of my ultraüberorganised CT. I’m as likely as your going to get to fail through sheer apathy, and honestly, I don’t even care at this point. Google searching and slapping things into a .ppt file isn’t a very intellectually stimulating activity, especially when required to dumb it down even further for the lowest common denominator.

    I’m only there because I need a job, and so many non-classroom environments require a dead tree with a B.ed stamped on it for gate-keeping purposes.

    • educationrealist

      You know, it’s funny but I deleted a paragraph that talked about this. Namely, one reason cooperating teachers are so hard to find for ES is that ed majors often are just getting a simple degree and are not really interested in being teachers. I teach high school; few people become high school teachers unless they actually want to teach high school.

      • Senghendrake

        I’m actually in the high school stream. I would consider classroom teaching at a private school (which was where I received my HS education) but I wouldn’t touch public with a ten foot pole after what I’ve experienced.

      • educationrealist

        You’re getting a high school ed credential and never wanted to teach? Well, it must be different in place where they spell program “programme”.

      • Senghendrake

        Well, like I said, I would consider doing it (I was more enthusiastic at the beginning than I am now), but by the end of the first year I’m banking on private tutoring. The whole thing is such as fustercluck.

        There’s no significant difference here between ES and HS other than subject specialisation, in terms of teacher ed.

      • educationrealist

        Well, anyone who can’t figure out a way to make the experience better probably shouldn’t be a teacher. It’s a tough job for those who can’t do it.

      • Senghendrake

        There’s not much I can do short of running the teacher education programmes myself and basically burning the whole thing down first. I’ve skimmed through your blog, and many of the general problems you have identified have been firmly inculcated in the newer generations of teachers.

        I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but any attempt to reform the local public school system is a fools errand, which is why I’m private or bust at this point. Even there, they are beginning to require gate-keeping degrees, the absence of which used to mitigate the damage from schemes hatched deep within teachers’ ed faculty offices.

        I’m in Canada by the way.

      • educationrealist

        I’m sorry you’re feeling frustrated. I love it, and just don’t find these problems dealbreakers.

  • Chester Draws

    Do other teachers have this problem?

    Hell yes. I teach in a way that I have developed over the years in response to both my experiences and from research findings on how people learn. It is the opposite of “we’re teaching X topic today”, because I start with what we did the last lesson, teach what we are learning, then move on to some inter-related topic to finish. Explaining how it works is more than a student teacher can generally muster, and asking them to do the same would be impossible. Not because they can’t teach the stuff, but because they can’t make the quick and seamless links..

    The issue is that the more idiosyncratic you are as a teacher, the harder it is for your student teachers to step in. They can’t replace you and the kids notice. The bigger your personality (in the classroom) the smaller theirs will be in comparison.

    But that’s the way it is. My University has a good education department, and I went in as well prepared as one could hope. The second practicum was a disaster or epic proportions (not me in the classroom so much, but in the selection of schools and CTs). I held my nerve and made it to the diploma. And have been teaching ever since.

    And Senghendrade — you don’t have to “reform the local public school system” to make a difference. You just have to teach well. Crusading teachers are focusing on the wrong thing.

    • educationrealist


      “They can’t replace you and the kids notice. The bigger your personality (in the classroom) the smaller theirs will be in comparison.”

      Yes. What speaks well of my student teacher is that they’re trusting him and learning even if he’s not their first choice.

  • Mr. Dietz

    I love the last part of this post.

    “The really important thing is that the kids like him…the empathy and connection needed for this job stand out starkly.”

    However, I find that I function best at a small school. My largest class in the past six years has been 24 total students, and I have had classes as small as 2. What I have found over time is that a lot of the apathy displayed by the unmotivated can be overcome by genuine empathy and compassion.

    But so much of what I do in the classroom is contingent upon the environment in which I work. I need my small school with small classes, I would drown in a larger class. However that doesn’t make me a bad teacher, it just means that I have adapted to what works best for my environment. Which leads me too…

    “Do other teachers have this problem?”

    Any decent teacher would. Teachers that are so interchangeable are burnt out or walking the path to become admin or PD developers preaching the Gospel of Best Practices.

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, I think my student teacher will do well in smaller classes, too. Me, I love the drama and balance beam act of the big class.

      You know, I really think a lot of teachers just do the book. But I think most of them aren’t taking on student teachers.

  • surfer

    What do you think of Herb Gross?

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