My Student Teaching Experience
by Michelle Neal
Okay it's over. As I sit here sorting through the conflicting emotions of sadness and relief, I have one last pertinent question. Where is my "I survived" packet and does it come with a T-shirt and a weekend pass to a mental institution? Teaching as a career?? What was I thinking??
I certainly have a newfound respect for teachers. I am in awe of their numerous abilities. I thought, as a mother of three, that I was experienced enough to handle the needs of the masses (fourth graders) and was well qualified to educate their young and impressionable minds. After all, hadn't I just finished four years of schooling designed to prepare me for the real world of teaching? Let's just say all of the myths I had regarding teaching were dispelled in my first few days in the classroom. I was not in Kansas anymore.
Watching my cooperating teacher maneuver her day in the classroom was like watching a sophisticated dance that had been well choreographed and many times rehearsed. While writing lessons on the board, she simultaneously stopped the note passing, desk pushing, and other not-on-task-behaviors with a single glance. She asked and answered student questions, voiced comments to interruptions from the intercom and door greeters, and maintained an energetic and enthusiastic appearance in the face of adversity.mainly my two eyes boring a whole in her back observing and taking notes on everything she did and said. Can you say Amazing! But wait there's more! She also had to remember to collect lunch money on Mondays, which resource class was held on which day of the week, when and where all staff meetings were being held, any parent conferences she might have scheduled and for what time, turn in book orders, pass out soccer club/cheerleading notices, answer Johnny's mothers letter as to why he was flunking reading, send Suzy's homework to the office because she would be out for the week, turn in grades for report cards, check science projects for completeness, answer to SOL criteria, check homework, remember to send home signed papers on Wednesdays, etc. And, lest my audience forget, she did this over the course of teaching five different subjects EVERY DAY!
Get the Picture?
I want to be just like her when I grow up!
Fortunately, for me, when it was my turn at the chalkboard, I just had to focus on remembering my lesson plans and not falling down.
In the beginning, when I was still living in fantasyland, I had an imaginary picture painted in the back of my mind. My lessons would be so inspiring and wonderful that the children would fall at my feet when the bell rang asking me to stay and teach them more. I agonized over each little detail in every lesson. Would this problem be too hard for one student and not challenging enough for another? Would the activity be as exciting to the class in reality as it was to me on paper? What if they just didn't get it? How could I keep 26 students motivated for an hour?!? I planned lessons by the week, as I had been taught, and each one, I thought, was better than the one before. How could the students help but be motivated and ready for class each day, coming in complete with supplies and homework and neatly sitting with hands folded on their desks awaiting my words of wisdom. (Oh the laughter that must have commenced in the teacher's lounge when I wasn't there!) Let's just say that when Reality hits, it hits hard and leaves bruises.
Homework? What is that? We had homework? I forgot my book. I didn't have a pencil at home. My mother made me go to piano lessons/baseball practice, etc. Tommy pay attention. Josh please turn to the page we are on. Tiarra quit visiting with your neighbor. Darren keep your hands and feet to yourself. Can I get any clearer? Suddenly, I was faced with the dawning knowledge that what goes on in the real world of teaching is far different and more complicated than what is taught in the hallowed classes of the University. Those beautiful lesson plans that I had spent hours on were modified on the spot or thrown out entirely without even a wave goodbye. I found myself pacing the lessons to the student's abilities instead of pacing the students to the lessons I had created. I learned that not every student would understand every concept and through the frustration of that, I learned not to take it as a sign of failure on my part as the teacher. Sometimes you just have to push on through the material and hope that for those who don't understand, it will be covered again at a later date. Most importantly, I found that teaching involved not only the ability to recognize the strengths and limitations of each student but also the patience and commitment to help the students recognize those features in themselves.
I remember thinking that the class would flow on a more even keel if the students liked me. I was not going to be a stiff disciplinarian but a gentle, easy-going teacher that didn't mind a little ruckus now and then. I came complete with treats and treasures.anything that would make them want to open up and learn from me. In the beginning, I made the near fatal mistake of treating them like friends. It took me awhile to catch my error, but thankfully, under my supervisor's tutelage, I did. Instead of the "Good Morning Mrs. Neal" that we had started out with, they began referring to me as "YO buddy" and "Whazzup". I inadvertently encouraged this behavior as I used terms like Guys and cool beans instead of boys and girls/students and super or good job. It became obvious that I had to separate how I spoke to my own children and their friends at home and how I spoke to the children at school. So, I adapted my language and began to speak the more professional "teachereese". The change was instantaneous. The proverbial light bulb exploded over my head as I realized that what the children needed and what their parents expected, was a role model who could provide not only the proper educational instruction but also instruction in the mannerisms entailed in demonstrating day to day respect. They had enough friends. What they needed was someone dependable and consistent whom they could trust and love at the same time. After all, how does one handle it when a "friend" sends you to the office for misbehavior or gives you a failing grade on an exam? I was told to start out rough and tough in my own classroom. The rationale being that you can always ease up on the rules once your students know you mean business but you can't go from a being a softie to being a General overnight and expect to see positive results. Specifically outlining routines, rules, and behaviors from the beginning and explaining and sticking to the consequences puts the students in control of their own behavior and provides a well structured class management system that they can depend on and adapt too. Makes complicated sense to me.
Some say college doesn't prepare you for the real world of teaching, providing as an example their student teaching experience. In response, I would like to offer this perspective: College provides you with the training to teach the subjects while student teaching provides you with the training to teach in the classroom. By the time you are ready to embark on your teaching career, you are well versed in the latest literature and catch phrases and can cite appropriate studies and techniques with ease. You know how to remediate learning difficulties because steps and strategies have been drilled into your head on a semesterly basis. You have learned how to create lesson plans and bulletin boards and you have learned what all of those lovely abbreviations stand for (MIMD, ED, LD, OT, etc.). In short, you could, in a sleep state, provide a rationale for your teaching philosophy as well as design and describe how you would instruct a class lecture on square roots. Forget student teaching you are ready for a JOB. So you enter into the classroom and say hello to the students and the cooperating teacher and sit back on your laurels to observe. She doesn't teach like you have been taught to do. She has time constraints, interruptions, SOL's and Principals to answer too. She often skips over material and you can see with your trained eye that some students are going to fail because of her "inability to teach effectively" to all of the students. TSK, TSK. That will never happen in my classroom, you hear yourself thinking. You make notes about staying after school to help little Sarah catch up on her math/reading. You jot down all sorts of hands on learning activities that you intend to incorporate in your lessons (like you have been taught), you make notes on things she says and does that are effective/ineffective, etc., and basically wait for your turn. It comes sooner than expected. Only then do you begin to understand that you don't have all the time in the world to teach a lesson either. Gosh, those time constraints affect you too. Sam's mom wants to know why you assign so much homework. She is taking the matter to the principal.(remember to pencil in a meeting with him that will take away from your instructional time). That really neat experiment on batteries and bulbs, let's put that into the lesson plan for Thursday.Oh, we don't have the necessary supplies and not enough money in the budget to purchase them.guess we will have to skip that lesson, sigh.Lecture again. Oh and sorry Sarah, I can't possibly stay after class today because I just have to get to the grocery store, pick the kids up from soccer practice and get the dog to the vet before this evening's parent conferences begin. Maybe tomorrow. I think the saying goes.Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged.
Surely by now you can see that student teaching is more than just another CLASS designed to prepare you for the real thing. It is as essential as the Materials and Methods courses that you have taken and is as important as the basic lower division requirements. We have all been taught how ineffective lecture is and how important hands-on learning is. I can hear my professor now.Students create their own meaning and learning when hands-on instruction is provided.Well hello, what do you think student teaching is supposed to do? Through hands-on learning, it dispels all of the idealistic values and presumptuous viewpoints that you have built your imaginary teaching career around. It is intended to instruct you in the finer points of finessing the angry parent, dealing with the administration, instructing the difficult child, preparing report cards, practicing classroom management techniques, preparing real-world lesson plans, learning to work as a team with fellow teachers, recognizing that Johnny lives in a car, Suzy doesn't have lunch money again, and Lisa has bruises where she shouldn't. In short, it is to humble you towards the profession you are about to enter. I would suggest you start taking vitamins.
I would not change or alter my experience for anything. The bumps and bruises that I acquired as a part of my learning experience were invaluable tools that provided insight and enhanced my own personal growth and professional development. I hope that in the future, I will bestow as much patience and kindness in teaching my students as my cooperating teacher used to teach me.