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.