George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Collaboration

Blurring The Lines Between Teachers and Students: Student Assistant Teaching

June 30, 2016 Updated June 29, 2016

Senioritis is a common affliction at most high schools; the precipitous decline in 12th graders’ academic motivation seems unavoidable when they’re only a few measly credits short of graduation and the weight of their future plans is looming. At Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, the Student Assistant Teaching program has become a cornerstone in keeping 12th graders engaged as leaders in their school community.

The Student Assistant Teaching program is not original to SLA; we stole the idea many years ago and encourage others to steal it, too. It is highly replicable in a variety of school environments.

Here’s how it works: seniors who have met their graduation requirements choose to become Senior Assistant Teachers (SATs). They match with teachers who offer 9th or 10th grade courses during a free period in the seniors’ schedules. Taking on the role of a full-time teaching assistant, they work together with their cooperating teacher to determine their roles throughout the year. It looks different in different classrooms; depending on everyone’s comfort levels, SATs can be found helping with grading, developing lessons, facilitating activities, and serving in many ways as an added resource for the students in that course.

At SLA we roster the SAT course into all periods of the day on the master schedule. Two teachers oversee the program to check in with SATs and cooperating teachers, trouble-shoot any complications, and facilitate course meetings. SATs are expected to attend the course with which they are paired every time it meets, as well as attend monthly SAT meetings, post into the course’s discussion forums, and participate in collaborative workshopping sessions. Cooperating teachers are expected to meet with their SATs regularly, provide feedback, and help navigate meaningful participation and engagement.

Seniors take their roles as SATs seriously, far beyond the basic expectations of the course requirements for their own transcripts. Many begin by grading quizzes and smaller assignments, and by the end of the year have fully stepped into their roles; they can be seen leading discussions, planning activities, and teaching lessons. Their experience in being on the other side of the classroom equation is unique and transformative; SATs find themselves invested in the success of younger students and passing on the culture of the school in powerful ways. They blur the lines between mentor and peer in ways that teachers cannot, and often become the person in the room whom students seek to ask questions, get help, or collaborate.

I helped facilitate a conversation about our SATing program with several seniors at this year’s EduCon conference, where students shared their experiences and helped attendees brainstorm ways they might implement a similar program in their schools. The benefits of the program became evident in the stories the SATs told. Nashay talked about how he abandoned his plans, his friends, and his own responsibilities to focus on preparing the students in the Debate class for one of their tougher assignments. Naomi spoke of her role in helping students in Geometry transition between a long-term substitute and the teacher who returned from maternity leave. Anna revealed the importance of her role in group politics in a BioChem class, where she was privy to the dynamics of the collaboration in ways the teacher was not. All of these experiences challenged seniors to step up as leaders in the school community, to deepen their investment as learners, and to serve as role models to younger students.

Our program started small, with only about 15 students in its first year, and has since become ubiquitous to our school. Almost every teacher at SLA works with SATs in their classes. The benefits are tremendous when students step into teaching roles; at the same time, things can get complicated when the line between student and teacher is blurred. It is up to us as a staff to regularly revisit our best practices, to check in with students individually and the SATs as a group, to create professional development that helps enrich the experience for all students, and to continually improve our approach.

In August our seniors will receive their course schedules; many of them have eagerly awaited their SAT placement since freshman year, when they first experienced the value of older students in their classes to help them navigate their learning and grow into our school culture. A program like this would function in any number of educational settings, and has the potential to profoundly impact the community as a whole. How would you want to make it work in your school?

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Teacher Collaboration
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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