Ten Tips for Student Teachers

About this time every year I start to see another round of posts from soon-to-be teachers looking for advice as they get ready to start their student teacher placements. My own student teaching was quite a few years ago, but I’ve had the opportunity to experience it from a variety of perspectives through the years and would like to use this week’s post to offer, in no particular order, some tips for success.

  1. Find out the dress code ahead of time and abide by it.

The official dress code is likely to be something very helpful (read “helpful” in a sarcastic tone) such as, “business casual.” This is your first opportunity to ask a question. Ask your cooperating teacher what he/she wears and would suggest, then do your best to follow their suggestions, or exceed them. You may observe other teachers dressed more casually than what your CT has suggested to you, ignore it and follow your CT’s advice. You don’t know the situation of those teachers and aren’t working under them, what they do falls under the category of, “not my business, not my problem.” (Or, to put it more colorfully, “Not my monkeys, not my circus.”–a good adage to remember and apply to other teacher’s classrooms.) If you are struggling to afford professional clothing, try going to a Salvation Army or Good Will in or near an area that is more affluent. Most of these stores are stocked by local donations, but the prices remain largely the same. You’ll find many more articles of professional clothing, and generally higher quality pieces, than in stores located in more modest neighborhoods.

2. Remember: you’re the teacher now.

You are not there to be the students’ friend, parent, counselor, or anything else. You are there for two purposes: to help teach the students and to learn yourself. It is not your job to be liked (though it will probably happen) or to make them happy (though this will likely happen as well), it is your job to keep them safe and help them learn. This is especially important to remember if you are an early-twenty-something student teacher in a high school. Due to the small age difference, it will be more difficult for students (and possibly you) to remember that you are not peers, and maintaining a professional relationship will require more diligence on your part. Just keep reminding yourself (and possibly them): they have friends, they have parents/guardians, the school has counselors…what they need is a teacher and that is what I am.

3. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”

When I first started teaching I thought I had to have all the answers. Now, 20+ years later, I know that I don’t have all, or even most, of the answers and never will–I don’t even know the questions half the time! There is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know something. What is important is being able to discern what questions/curiosities need to be answered and how to go about doing so. Being able to admit you don’t know something is a sign of strength, not weakness, and being willing to learn is imperative for a teacher. As my former professor used to say, “The day you stop learning is the day you stop teaching…or at least it should be!” The first step to learning something is admitting you don’t already know it, so go ahead and say it.

4. Not every action/choice needs to be explained or defended.

If I had a dollar for every time a student asked me why I made the choice I did, gave the answer I gave, or assigned the thing I assigned, I’d be a very rich woman. Do I explain to students why we are doing something? Yes, fairly often I do. Do I explain everything, every time I’m asked? No, absolutely not. As much as possible I involve students in their own learning, providing them with choices, listening to suggestions, allowing requests, and explaining the reasons behind different activities; that’s just good teaching practice. But I don’t always say yes to requests, I sometimes require the same project/assignment of every student, and I do ultimately direct our learning along a prescribed pathway. At the end of the day, you are the teacher, the expert, and you make the decisions.

5. Try new (or old, as the case may be) things.

No doubt you have been exposed to various teaching techniques, materials, lesson plans, etc. in the course of your studies. You may even have grown quite familiar and comfortable with some of them. That’s great! Student teaching is a time to experiment and learn. Your CT will have had years of experience and likely his/her own way of doing things, quite possibly ways that are new and unfamiliar to you. Watch, learn, and try it yourself. You may like it, you may not, but much like Sam-I-Am from Green Eggs and Ham, you won’t know for sure until you do. Hear about a new idea or have a brainstorm while in the shower? Great! Talk it over with your CT and give it a whirl. If it works, wonderful! If not, your CT will be there to back you up and help figure out why.

6. Visit other classes.

Any chance you have to visit another classroom, grab it! Ask your CT to help you find time and set up opportunities (you might even use a multi-day break to visit a different school-*gasp*). Every teacher is unique and no two classrooms are the same. Observe as many teachers as possible (teaching the same lesson/skill, if possible), look at what’s on walls and shelves, dig into file cabinets (with permission, of course), and peek at lesson plans (again, with permission). Start building your digital resources bank! Scan lesson plans, worksheets, and other documents. Take photos of bulletin boards, activities, and physical materials you like. Side note: try to contain the urge to buy now; it’s difficult, but if you’re anything like me, and every other veteran teacher I know, you’ll ultimately waste a lot of money (see my advice for new teachers and buying materials in this post) buying things you won’t need or use. If you can’t contain the urge, or are gifted with materials (don’t be surprised if it happens, especially if there’s a retiring teacher in the building), start with a good topical organization system now and stick to it.

7. Ask why–a lot!

After you’ve observed, ask why. Why did he/she teach the lesson that way? Why did he/she choose a particular resource? Why did he/she place the desks in this manner? Ask about the thinking behind everything you see and hear. Sometimes the explanation will be exactly what you expected/thought, other times you’ll be utterly shocked. Watching someone do something enough will allow you to imitate him/her, but when you understand the thinking/reasoning behind the observable actions, then you can generalize and apply for yourself. Is anyone else hearing the whispers of Bloom?

8. Keep a reflection journal.

I have no doubt your supervising professor will have you writing all manner of papers and completing mountains of paperwork to document your student teaching experience. A reflection journal is just for you though. Don’t worry about style, form, or even political correctness, just get your thoughts down. What did you see that you liked? What did you see that you didn’t like? What questions do you have? What answers did you discover? What happened that day/week that was good? What happened that wasn’t so good? What are you proud of doing/saying? What do you regret doing/saying? Besides being good for your mental health, it’s this journal that will prove the most helpful to you in the future, because this will be the true reflection of your learning and growth process. It’s also good to get in the habit now of reflecting on your teaching, examining it, and analyzing it so you can continue to improve long after there’s a professor pointing to a due date in a syllabus to motivate you.

9. Remember, your a guest, don’t undermine your CT.

I have no doubt you are brimming with ideas and excited to start stretching your teaching muscles. I also have no doubt your CT is looking forward to hearing your thoughts and getting exposed to some new techniques. Please remember though, while your CT will be welcoming and want you to feel at home, the classroom you’ll be working in is his/hers, not yours. He/she has already been there doing the hard work, building relationships, and establishing routines. He/she will remain there doing the hard work, strengthening relationships, and maintaining routines. It is also your CT who will ultimately be held accountable for anything and everything that does or does not happen in that room. So share your thoughts, ask questions, and do your job, but respect you CT’s position/authority, and don’t forget to be a good guest.

10. Be yourself.

As I’ve already said, every teacher is unique–and that includes you! You are coming to the end of a rigorous academic program and are no doubt excited about your future as a teacher. I’m sure you have worked hard and will continue to do so. I’m also sure you’ve seen some good (and not so good) teachers along the way. While it is always important to learn from those who have gone before (both their successes and mistakes) it is not good to try and follow in their footsteps to the point you become them. Be yourself, find your own style, and let all of the wonderful things that make you you shine!

Happy teaching, everyone!