George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

The Advantages of Working With Student Teachers

A 20-year veteran shares how opening his classroom to student teachers prompts him to keep reinvigorating his practice.

July 7, 2021
AP Photo/Norwich Bulletin, Aaron Flaum

My most recent student teacher took copious notes and asked me dozens of tough questions: How do you make assessments fair when your students have varying literacy skills? How important is fun to the classroom experience? How do you create literacy lessons that work both in person and for remote students? How do you create a classroom library that reflects diversity and works for different reading levels?

Answering some of them was honestly a bit of a struggle because they forced me to take a closer look at what I was teaching and why I was teaching it. I’m a 20-year teaching veteran, but I still had to slow down and think deeply about the decisions I make in the classroom—including about how my teaching philosophy aligns with my instructional practices.

That contemplation helped me see that I was in the habit of falling back on tried and true teaching methods and comfortable curriculum material in order to support acceptable, grade-level learning—to the point where I was a bit too relaxed. Last year’s lesson plan had become good enough.

Thanks to her, I was reminded that my journey to perfect my teaching should never end—and of the value of opening my heart, mind, and classroom to student teachers to begin with.

Tips for Working With a Student Teacher

Resisting my own resistance: When an email inevitably shows up in my inbox at the end of each school year asking if I’m interested in hosting a practicum or student teacher in September, my cursor inevitably races across the screen and hovers over the gray trash can. One click and no one would be the wiser. I’m not forced to host or expected to. I don’t even have to respond.

There are, after all, many awkward-but-predictable moments when you’re a mentor teacher. The clumsy first meeting. The painful first debriefing, followed by the “It’ll get better” pep talk. The “I just realized you’re old enough to be my dad!” comment. The first stress cry.

But I’ve learned to resist that initial impulse to scurry away because I’ve let myself lean in to the benefits of having a student teacher. I see now that I must embrace teaching candidates with the same vigilance and care I show my own students, and that the precious moments I share with novice educators don’t just help them—every new teacher I work with offers opportunities for me to grow professionally. So when my cursor hovers over the trash can, I tell myself, “Not so fast.”

Reflection: Student teachers prompt me to more deliberately analyze the elements of quality instruction. Helping a new teacher build and deliver lessons from the ground up forces communication about fundamental teaching skills such as voice, delivery, pacing, and transitions—and paves the way for a clearer articulation of my own teaching philosophies, specifically around the importance of low-stakes literacy activities, like reading conversation journals, taking time for students to read and write in class each day, and ungraded reading and writing assignments.

Staying current: As we age, we tend to lose track of what is hip or en vogue. But over and over again, student teachers, just like my middle school students, keep me up to date on any number of things that build rapport, from the Netflix series they can’t get enough of to the most influential young adult YouTubers to the newest YA fan fiction sites. My student teachers always introduce me to something new that is relevant to building connections with my students.

Stretching beyond my comfort zone: We grow when we’re willing to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Taking a teaching candidate forces me to see new perspectives and different approaches to our curriculum, so I see the familiar in a new light. When one of my recent student teachers revealed her passion for painting, I encouraged her to incorporate the visual arts into her lessons. As a result, she could share her hobby with her students (often an engaging practice), and I wound up with new ideas about how to weave visual art into my instruction, broadening my future reading and lesson design.

Newfound enthusiasm: A pre-service teacher often brings excitement to the classroom, and their energy is so contagious that I move forward with renewed vigor and motivation. A new face and voice in the room foster more engagement and enthusiasm among students, so I encourage my pre-service teachers to use me for pranks, as a guinea pig, and for friendly competition during small group time. This rapport results in laughter and more energy.

More teachers means more attention: With another (mostly) trained body in the classroom, I have the bandwidth to experiment more with small groups, breakout rooms, tandem teaching, and other strategies that keep kids active and engaged. Also, an additional teacher makes me more readily available for individual conferences or hallway pep talks at a moment’s notice.

Growing the teaching field: I recognize that ultimately, part of my job lies in fostering committed new teachers who accept the challenges of the profession. When I host student teachers, I’m cultivating educators who will go out into the world and make our world a better place in which to live and learn—and who will model the same values for their students. 

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