On Student Teaching: When it Works

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

Part I On Student Teaching: When It’s Broken

Part III On Student Teaching: Fixing Student Teaching

My second student teaching experience was both educational and pleasurable. By the time I left my high school placement, I was dejected. I equated the classroom with discomfort. I had forgotten that schools could be fun and dynamic.

When I arrived at my middle school placement, I was greeted warmly by the secretary, who was expecting me and knew my name. She had me sign in and directed me through a series of stairs and hallways. I found Kari working behind her desk. She stood, shook my hand, and then pointed me to my workspace. It was right next to hers, and stocked with a computer, printer, and common office equipment.

Once I sat my things down, Kari told me that there was someone who couldn’t wait to see me. She lead me around a corner and asked me to wait outside a nondescript classroom. Kari returned quickly and brought out my middle school English teacher, Joan. I hadn’t seen her in years, and I was elated. We hugged and quickly caught up. Joan and Kari were co-teachers, and they were perfectly suited for each other. Both of them were warm and caring educators. They shared the philosophy that teaching and learning should be fun and productive.

The three of us returned to Kari’s room to talk about the coming weeks. I would take the first week and learn the norms of the school. Kari arranged for me to observe teachers across the disciplines. I would sit in with art, shop, math, and social studies. After my observation period, I would watch Kari teach her lessons in the morning, and then I would teach them in the afternoon. Finally, I would assume full responsibility for all of the classes.

When I left the middle school after that initial meeting, I felt complete peace. Kari’s ideas were interesting and her approach was relaxed. I sensed no resistance to my presence in her classroom. She seemed genuinely excited to have me there, and she had prepared a space for me that was friendly and functional. I had the added bonus of being able to work with Joan, who I already admired. For the first time in months, I felt like I belonged. I breathed a little deeper and stood a little taller the rest of the day.

I observed Kari and Joan making their plans for the day. They had general ideas for units and skills to be covered, but they planned the individual lessons collaboratively each morning. The pressure was low. The priority was dynamic and creative lessons, not absolute perfection. Allowances were made for unforeseen circumstances, and when something unsuspected happened, the mantra was flexibility. When benchmark testing schedules shifted, the rain canceled a field day, or the internet was down, Kari and I would just raise our fists and shout “flexibility.”

Kari and Joan were my partners and my support system throughout my time at middle school. Kari helped me grade papers and offered advice when I was making lesson plans and activities. She steered me toward certain anchor texts that she had success with in the past. She helped me with difficult students, but was never overbearing. Once I took control of the classroom, the students were never confused about who was leading instruction. Kari and I ultimately switched places. She assisted me when she thought I needed help, but once lessons were well underway and it was clear that my lesson would go well, she quietly stepped out.

When Joan and I co-taught, the dynamic was generally the same. I was given the lead and Joan supported me. She would periodically chime in to clarify my directions or offer a helpful analogy, but she was never overbearing or condescending.

Joan also introduced me to read alouds for students with learning or behavioral disorders. The students so enjoyed Joan’s read alouds that they were often used as a reward. I used reading aloud during my first year with my most difficult classes, and it was just as effective. I learned most of the techniques I used to make the reading interesting from Joan.

The teachers that Kari paired me with across disciplines were wonderful. A sixth grade teacher taught me a better way to have students grade their own work. A shop teacher gave me lessons on student-teacher rapport building. An art teacher taught me classroom management, and a history teacher taught me about how to build an interesting lecture. I worked with a librarian who truly loved reading and recommending young adult literature. I observed enough styles to understand that every teacher has strengths and weaknesses, and I understood for the first time that those weaknesses don’t make a teacher inadequate. I learned that what is important is not to eliminate instructional weaknesses, but to minimize them. Some teachers are amazing lecturers and some create a hands-on curriculum. Both instructional styles are valid, and with Kari I was allowed to experiment and find my own style. I wasn’t shoehorned into a style that wasn’t mine.

Kari and Joan supplied valid criticism without being aggressive. They offered far more encouragement than was necessary. They showered with me with more compliments than I deserved. They each rewarded me in my victories, and instead of attacking me in failure, they withdrew their praise. I knew when they were unsatisfied, not because they struck at my ego, but because they spoke to me in concrete terms. Their criticisms were not done from a place of superiority, but from a place of friendship. And I accepted their advice because it was given with the heart of a mentor. That subtle change is what made all the difference. It is because of Kari and Joan (and the community of teachers that they introduced me to) that I finished student teaching with my desire to become an educator intact.

My middle school weeks flew by. I had triumphs and failures throughout, but Kari and Joan always looked out for me.

When my last day came, I shared a wonderful lunch with staff and said my goodbyes to the students. Kari and Joan each gave me parting gifts and words of genuine encouragement. I still have my copy of The Outsiders; I still use my PaperPro stapler, and the clay pot I made while shadowing the art teacher sits on my desk. I keep those trinkets because each is tied to a pedagogical lesson I never want to forget.

The Outsiders reminds me that I’m never too old to find a new favorite book, and that my students should see me as a reader. The stapler reminds me that small kindnesses are infinitely important (I didn’t have any supplies of my own at my high school placement). The pot reminds me that I can mold young minds for a time, but once they are kilned, every fingerprint becomes permanent.

I learned during my high school placement how to be critical of myself and others. I learned that teaching was demanding and sometimes soul-draining. I learned that teachers could be vicious and callous. I learned that the culture of a school could be toxic. I learned that I should forge professional relationships with caution. I learned that competence and years of experience were unrelated.

Kari and Joan reminded me that teaching could be wonderfully messy. Teaching and learning should be fun. A good teacher inspires a student to learn without resentment. An authoritarian may still be an effective teacher, but at the cost of inhibiting further independent learning. It was during my time with Kari and Joan that I developed my teaching style. I experienced what it felt like to have a student’s allegiance. I resolved not to manage my classroom through fear, but through mutual kindness. I committed myself anew to the noble goal of guiding young minds.

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