Ten Tips for Mentoring a Student Teacher
By Howard Pitler
I remember the first time I was asked if I would be willing to have a student teacher. I was in my third year of teaching and was just starting to feel like I had a clue about teaching myself, but I saw it as an honor that my university was willing to trust me to fulfill the role of cooperating teacher. Also, the couple of hundred dollars from the stipend was very welcome for a two-teacher income family. Looking back, I was totally unprepared, both by my experience and by the university, to know what to do as a cooperating teacher. I relied on the experience I had just a few years earlier and tried to model after the cooperating teacher I had—sort of the way some teachers teach today.
If you are in the same boat I was in back then, I have a few tips that I hope will be useful.
- Sit down over a cup of coffee and talk about expectations, both yours and your student teachers’. Let them know you are going to be taking the lead early in the process and expect them to observe, take notes, and, most important, ask questions daily.
- Teaching is a full-time position. I told my student teachers I expected them to be in the building when I was—no showing up 5 minutes before the bell. My job involved some nights and weekends, and that meant my student teachers’ did as well.
- Go over building procedures and be sure to introduce your student teachers to your fellow teachers. Treat them as colleagues and expect them to act like colleagues. Be clear on your dress expectations. I always wore a tie to class except on special days. I expected my student teachers to dress in at least business casual. That was my expectation, not the school’s. Remember the adage “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”
- Don’t just tell your student teachers about planning and grading, make them a part of the process. Develop your lesson plans together so they can see your thought process. Sit with them during planning time and grade papers together. Make it clear they should ask as many questions as possible about both processes.
- Ease student teachers into teaching. Start them off with small bits of a lesson, maybe a review or the anticipatory set. Build to having them teach a segment of a lesson and eventually a full lesson. Next, piece together lessons and eventually have them conduct a full unit—planning, delivery, grading, and all. Like with students, scaffold and use gradual release of responsibility.
- Debrief, debrief, debrief. When student teachers are in front of the class, you have to be in the room taking notes. Having student teachers does not mean you get extended planning time. Ask why they did something or reacted in a certain way. This isn’t a “gotcha” moment but rather a time to help them engage in reflection. It is only when we truly reflect on our practice that we grow. You will find that you will also grow as a teacher as you help your student teachers reflect.
- Keep a cooperative journal. Ask student teachers to reflect on their teaching in writing. Read their reflections and provide written responses the next day. I remember my first attempt at leading the high school band in a warm-up activity. I thought it had gone very well and said so in my journal. What I got back from my cooperating teacher was yes, the activity was very well executed, but did I realize I had warmed up the band in the key of F major and the piece that immediately followed was in F minor? Oops and yikes! A learning experience had just occurred (by the way I never did that again, ever).
- Provide clear and useful feedback. Be sure to let student teachers know when they do a great job or show improvement on something you were working on together. Provide actionable feedback on things that need improvement, but don’t overwhelm. Yes, there may be 10 things they need to improve on, but providing that list up front might be daunting. Just like providing feedback to your students, let them know what they did well, what needs some work, and what one thing they need to focus on next.
- It is likely your student teachers will be ill experienced in dealing with discipline issues. Be sure to review your classroom management plan, classroom norms, and discipline philosophy. I was trained in logical consequences, so I made sure my student teachers knew and understood that philosophy. As they watch you at the beginning of the semester, make sure they note any misbehaviors and how you handled them. Talk about why you did what you did and what, if anything, you might have done differently. As they begin teaching, let them know you are there but they are in control. You aren’t going to step in unless it absolutely necessary. The first time the cooperating teacher steps in to deal with discipline, the student teacher has lost credibility in the eyes of some students.
- Let them see that you truly care about your students. My mantra has always been this: “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Relationships are important and get trickier in high school, where the student teacher is only a few years older than the seniors. Make sure there is a clear line of professionalism in the relationships between the students and teachers.
Taking on a student teacher is hard work. The meager stipend won’t come close to minimum wage for the extra hours involved. However, if teaching is a true profession, it is our obligation to invest that time in the next generation of teachers and help them become just the kind of teachers we would want for our children, grandchildren, or any children we personally care about.
Howard Pitler is a dynamic facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach with a proven record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his website.