On Student Teaching: When It’s Broken

This is part one is a three part series on student teaching. In this three part series, I will be meditating on my own student teaching experience, when it was productive, when it was broken, and how to fix it. 

This is Part I of a series on student teaching. If you are interested in reading parts II and III, they can be read by clicking the links below.

Part II On Student Teaching: When It Works

Part III On Student Teaching: Fixing Student Teaching

For those of you outside of education, student teaching is when a teacher candidate is paired with a veteran teacher for a portion of the school year. The student teacher is meant to assume all responsibility for the workings of the classroom. They work closely with the veteran teacher, and through the partnership, the student teacher becomes more prepared to run a classroom independently. The student teacher (at the graduate level) pays for six credit hours, and receives no financial benefit for their work. This occurs in the candidate’s final semester. Student teaching is meant to be the final test, and student teaching is completely broken.

On paper student teaching seems like the obvious way to test knowledge, but in practice the positivity of the experience is completely left up to chance. Most teachers have at least one horror story from student teaching.

My student teaching experience was divided into two halves. The first half was nine weeks of High School. I was excited to apply everything I learned at University and to be back in the classroom.

My initial contact with my cooperating teacher was sparse but positive. We agreed on a time and a date to meet in person. I would get my classroom schedule, discuss possible units, and meet everyone who would oversee my internship.

I arrived fifteen minutes early. I parked in front of the building and rang the buzzer. The metallic voice of the school secretary rang out. She asked me to state my name, purpose, and who I was visiting. I provided the information and stood outside, waiting to be admitted. It seemed that no one was expecting me. Eventually I heard the magnetic door lock release, and I walked across the entryway to the front office.

The secretary smiled at me from behind the counter, pushed the sign in sheet toward me, and directed me to the waiting room. After a few minutes I was ushered through a darkened hallway.

My cooperating teacher sat in the front corner of an empty classroom. She didn’t acknowledge me at first, and she never rose from her desk to greet me. I finally got her attention, and she introduced me to my workspace by pointing her finger toward the back of the room. I was disappointed by the folding table, metal folding chair, and complete lack of supplies. I wasn’t even afforded a stapler for my own use. My desk was as far from hers as possible. I would be teaching 9th grade, and I would be helping with AP courses. We discussed possible units and decided (according to university guidelines) that I should spend the first week observing her classroom, adjusting to the students, and learning the school norms.

She hated the idea of transitioning me slowly into managing the class. When she was a student teacher, she took control of the classroom on the first day. She remembered being unprepared and that her first day was a nightmare. She thought that I should be thrown into the deep end the same way. I ultimately convinced her this was a terrible idea.

She’d never had a student teacher before, and I sensed resistance bubbling right below the surface. We sat at her desk and walked through her plan for the coming weeks. My opinion and my comfort didn’t count for much.

Despite my initial misgivings, my first week went well enough. I gradually waded into the fold. I helped students with their assignments. I made copies and handed them out. I worked on a unit for Animal Farm, which I would teach in the coming weeks.

Everything went sideways when I took the lead. My cooperating teacher’s position in the front of the room was a spectre always hanging over me. Any time I made an error, no matter how inconsequential, she was there to correct me. Every time I began to build rapport with the students, I would inevitably make some faux pa, which she publicly and enthusiastically corrected. All of the work I did to have students see me as the classroom expert was undone repeatedly and in an instant. Every time I taught a new concept, the students would look to where she sat behind her desk, studying her face for subtle permission to go along with me.

No behavior was too small to correct. My first memory of this is when she scolded me for using an ampersand on the board, but there were dozens of these incidents. I forgot to hole punch papers before handing them out to students. I wasn’t prepared to answer an unforeseen question. She once stamped her foot and demanded I give a multiple choice test. She wrote scathing emails to me and about me. When I called her on the weekends for guidance, she refused to answer the phone. By the end, she refused to let me use her computer, which meant I had to go to the library to print materials and enter grades. Everything I did and said was critiqued, and just like anyone in that situation, I performed poorly. At least once a day I was reminded of my inadequacy. I was never allowed to take control of the AP classes. I was doomed before I ever began.

I made my advisors and professors at the university aware of the untenable situation. They were sympathetic. They listened to my plight and acknowledged the validity of my concerns. Behind the scenes they did everything they could to help me survive. They gave me stellar reviews during observations and worked to mediate disputes with my cooperating teacher, but they were unable or unwilling to take any action that would remove me from a detrimental and ultimately dangerous situation.

The high school was not a friendly place. No one wanted me there. The students never became mine. The principal was openly hostile. The other teachers seemed to tolerate me, but I always felt them looking at me with varying degrees of scorn and suspicion.

Getting dressed in the morning became a struggle. Packing my bags into the car and turning the ignition sparked a feeling of dread that grew exponentially as I neared the school. Sometimes during my commute, I would grip my steering wheel and scream myself hoarse. Other times I spent my drive imagining all of the ways I could end my life. I began to view every passing big rig and tree as an opportunity for release. During my interactions with others I was stoic, but privately my mental health was deteriorating.

I am not a delicate man. I thrive in difficult situations. I am the person people come to when they need a level head in an emergency. Anyone who knows me knows that I work diligently. I was a model student in graduate school. I worked full time and carried, some semesters, twelve hours of coursework. I have always pushed myself, and I have the transcripts and the career to prove it, but during this time I was driven to an existential crisis. I questioned my value as a human being. I was unsure of whether I wanted to continue living.

The first half of my student teaching experience was, without question, the lowest low point of my life.

When it was time for my final evaluation, my cooperating teacher sat down at my desk to tell me that she was struggling to give me a passing grade. Student teaching is a high stakes evaluation. A failing grade from a cooperating teacher means academic disgrace, and those negative evaluations are never expunged. I had taken huge personal risks to become a teacher. I spent all my savings. I was more than twenty-five thousand dollars in debt. I was out of time and money. I had no other career prospects. I had a young family to support. I was under crippling pressure to do well, and I had no possible alternate course of action. Now, sitting across from me was a woman who was contemplating whether or not to quite literally destroy my life. I was speechless while she walked through the rubrics and told me everywhere I had fallen short. I knew it was pointless to disagree. I was completely in her hands, powerless over my own future. I have never felt smaller or more useless.

In the end, she gave me the lowest possible grade that would allow me to graduate. From the way I thanked her, you would’ve thought she did me some grand favor, but after nine weeks of internship I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher anymore. The joy I felt in the classroom had been extinguished. I no longer viewed schools with appreciation. I no longer saw teachers as the personification of patience and intelligence (a naive view, I’ll admit). I looked on my colleagues with distaste. I looked at myself with disgust. The lessons that I learned were primarily that I could not teach, and that years of public education turned people into narcissistic, disingenuous, paranoid sociopaths. My worldview was warped, and my confidence was broken.

Only now, with enough time and distance, do I attribute my cooperating teacher’s disappointment and subsequent outrage to miscommunicated expectations. She expected me to arrive as a fully developed teacher. She assumed that my training was done. She thought I needed a classroom, not counsel. She was misguided, and this expectation was absurd. Teacher education provides background knowledge; it provides an educational philosophy and the most basic content familiarity. It does not furnish the ability to manage a classroom. It does not impart the hundreds of hard lessons that a teacher must learn through experience. Those are the lessons that can only be learned through classroom experience.

I eventually graduated, and I was not long in landing a job. My first year was full of victories. I received the First Year Teacher of the Year award in my district. I rescued the school yearbook program at my school and returned it to profitability. I implemented a writing workshop to help reluctant writers.

In my second year I launched an online student publication and was asked to share my model at a National Writing Project conference. I’ve never received an unfavorable evaluation as a professional teacher.

By no means have I fooled myself into thinking I’m the best teacher to ever take the podium, but I’m certainly not the worst, and because of student teaching, I came close to not being a teacher at all.

2 thoughts on “On Student Teaching: When It’s Broken

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