On Student Teaching: Fixing Student Teaching

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

Part I On Student Teaching: When It’s Broken

Part II On Student Teaching: When It Works

Truthfully, I know very little about the nuts and bolts of the student teaching process. I am unfamiliar with how mentor teachers are vetted (if they are at all) and how they are paired with student teachers. I am not the administrator of a teaching program at a college. I am a public school teacher, a former student. I am only aware of my own experiences and the anecdotal experiences of my peers.

I hope to one day be asked to take on a student teacher, fully understanding that some teacher candidates are a complete mess. In doing so, I hope to be able to provide a positive experience to a burgeoning young professional.

I had two diametrically opposed experiences while student teaching at the secondary level. My high school placement was authoritarian and terrible. My middle school placement aligned more closely with my own developing management style.

The first step to fixing student teaching is matching students with veteran teachers that match their sensibilities. By the time a teacher candidate is in their final semester at university, they know their approximate management style. They might not have all of the tools they need to effectively manage a classroom, but they know whether they will be a dictator or a democrat. There are four primary styles of classroom management: authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and permissive.

The authoritative style communicates clear expectations for student behavior and productivity. Students know what behaviors and norms are acceptable, and students know that violating those standards will uniformly result in a negative consequence. Students buy into the authoritative teacher because they view that teacher as an expert. Those clear expectations and academic expertise are tempered by warm and personal relationships with individual students.

The authoritarian style is generally restrictive. Academics and learning typically take a back seat to strict behavioral guidelines. The teacher is an expert in their field and is seen as knowledgeable by the students, but the teacher is perceived as lacking understanding. Personal relationships with students are not cultivated. This management style is most effective in classrooms composed of difficult students.

Indulgent teachers put learning above classroom structure. The teacher is an expert in their field, but students are not held to rigid academic or behavioral standards of any kind. The teacher simply allows the students to pursue their own learning goals through any means. Students learn, but their learning is sometimes hampered by a hectic classroom environment.

Permissive teachers are babysitters and not teachers. Students learn no self restraint, are never corrected, and rarely taught.

I knew well before student teaching that my management style was authoritative. Most teacher training programs require various field experiences well ahead of the final semester. Teacher candidates have the opportunity to observe classroom teachers and even lead lessons as a guest teacher or co-teacher. These experiences are generally coupled with classes targeting classroom management, ecology, and pedagogical theory. The field experiences are designed to allow students to sample various teaching and management styles. But during the final semester, teacher candidates don’t even so much as fill out a survey concerning their teaching style before they are paired with a veteran teacher.

To me, at least one simple solution would be to construct a questionnaire that student teachers can take before they are matched to a cooperating teacher. I was only asked which locations I would be interested in working. I would have gladly traveled to a different school to avoid the worst portions of my student teaching experience. I find it hard to believe that there can be no feasible method to properly match personality traits between candidate and mentor. I would never have paired myself with an authoritarian teacher. Of course this method would be flawed because it would rely on both candidate and mentor answering the survey honestly, but any information would have been more than I had. Even a short biography of the mentor teacher would have been helpful and revealing. Managing interpersonal relationships start with knowing a person’s background, and flying blind into such an intimate and personal relationship is dangerous for a teacher candidate.

And that danger is because of the one sidedness of the relationship. The mentor teacher has all of the power, and the teacher candidate has none. I was completely in their hands, whether they be benevolent or malevolent. I had no recourse to escape from an unfavorable situation. I was completely stuck, and though my university advisors and liaisons were sympathetic, even they had little power to help me. I could have taken a different placement, but that would have delayed my graduation. Everyone knew that the placement was untenable, and everyone’s hands were tied. But they were tied artificially by university and certification constructs. These constructs can indeed be changed, if not by the university, then by the accrediting body.

The teacher candidate should be given some form of organizational power. At the very least they should be allowed to review their mentor teachers and possibly prevent them from driving away others. I realize that there’s not much benefit for veteran teachers to take on a student, and so there’s not much leverage, but leverage could be created. Universities could offer waivers for continuing education or graduate courses to cooperating teachers, or the universities could hire cooperating teachers in a graduate assistantship. Cooperating teachers could collect research on various aspects of the teacher training programs and be paid a small stipend. The stipend and the tuition waivers could be tied to an evaluation by the student teacher. At least then, the student teacher would have some power and leverage, and the cooperating teacher would have some incentive to participate fully.

The arguments against this type of incentive structure are that being a cooperating teacher should be seen as an altruistic professional development opportunity that gives back to the community of teachers. This argument is a cop out. I have no doubt that being a cooperating teacher is a lot of extra work, and that work should be rewarded with something more than professional development that may or may not even be applicable toward recertification. Teachers are still people, and if a cooperating teacher’s stipend or reward is so little that they aren’t encouraged to actually fulfill their duties, then what is the true value of the services rendered?

Communication of expectations were also entirely nonexistent. My cooperating teachers didn’t seem to know what requirements I had to fulfill or which assignments I had to submit for my practicum. I had no knowledge of what my cooperating teachers were doing behind the scenes. To me, it looked like I was teaching the class while they sat and watched. I didn’t realize that my performance was being formally assessed until the end of my first placement. My introduction to the practicum rubric was when it was being wielded against me as a weapon. My cooperating teacher thought I was lazy and poorly rested, but she didn’t know I was staying up all night lesson planning and writing reflections to fulfill my university requirements. I had no indication  that my cooperating teachers had reports of their own to submit. All of that information should have been made available to both parties in the beginning.

It should have also been clear that a student teacher is not yet a professional teacher. Teachers hone their craft over years. Good teachers never stop adapting and refining their technique. Why then would one of my cooperating teachers assume that I would emerge from university fully formed? I appreciated the camaraderie that comes with being perceived as a peer, but I was woefully undeserving of that perception. I watched these professional teachers work the room with near effortlessness, and I did not feel like I’d ever be able to do the same.

But I’ve realized through time and distance that the overall situation was not ideal, but it was nonetheless beneficial. Even through the worst parts of the practicum, I learned valuable lessons about working in education. My criticism and calls for improvement are only because I believe the institutions of public education and teacher training to be worthwhile in the first place. Through my good and bad experiences student teaching, I discovered that the key to surviving as a teacher is stubborn persistence and quiet perseverance.

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