As I write this, it is the first week of January, which means back-to-school for teachers and students to begin the second half of their academic years. By now teachers and students have developed relationships that create safe and caring environments for learning. They tested each other and learned limits. They gained the respect of one another and are committed to the work before them. Enter the student teacher – a new face and a new personality – who is most likely nervous, but excited about the adventure before her. She has worked hard to complete her pre-student teaching requirements. She has written lessons and behavior plans. She has read IEPs and 504s. She has observed several classrooms and interviewed teachers and administrators. She has taken courses that examine many aspects of teaching. She is as prepared as she can be, but facing a group of young people whom she has never met can be daunting.
Getting to know her students will be her first priority, and even though she has learned how important relationships are, it will not be easy. Students sometimes see the student teacher as an intruder, someone who is going to upset the familiar cadence of the class, someone who is going to usurp their beloved teacher’s position. They eye the student teacher suspiciously. They want to know who she is and why she is here. They want to know why she wants to be a teacher. The student teacher is terrified. Twenty or so pairs of steely, inquiring eyes can unnerve even the most stoic of people.
Cooperating teachers can mediate this terrifying and awkward situation and help the student teacher and her students transition to this new classroom dynamic, or they can exacerbate the terror and awkwardness. The thoughtful cooperating teacher will introduce the student teacher to the students, hopefully long before she begins, so students are excited to meet her and excited to have her in their classroom. But sometimes, the student teacher simply shows up without knowledge of the students or protocols for the classroom and school. As a university professor who places and observes students in their student teaching practicums, I have seen a range of student teacher experiences in their first days of their practicums.
One amazing cooperating teacher had her students write notes to the student teacher weeks before the practicum began. The cooperating teacher sent these notes to the student teacher in a care package along with a copy of the school’s teacher handbook and student handbook, tissues, cough drops, and hand sanitizer. When this student teacher reported for her first day, the students greeted her by name welcoming her to the class. They had created a workspace for her complete with pens, paper, and all the necessary desktop accessories. There was even a rose in a vase to welcome her. This student teacher felt entirely welcome and was able to integrate into the everyday schedule of the classroom easily. Learning student names was much easier because of the personal notes she had received and, the handbooks prepared her for the nuts and bolts of how this particular school operated and when she got that first inevitable cold, she was well equipped to take care of herself.
Compare this to another cooperating teacher who forgot her student teacher would be arriving the first week in January, despite many emails from my office. The student teacher reported to the school office and was left waiting there for most of the first academic period until the cooperating teacher could meet him. His first days were spent sitting in the back of the room in a cramped middle school sized desk, mostly ignored by the cooperating teacher and students, and most definitely uncomfortable. It wasn’t until the second week that the students realized he was a student teacher and would be preparing lessons for them. Needless to say, this particular student teacher had a rocky beginning and struggled to connect to the students.
These two examples are extremes of a continuum of the first days of student teachers. In the middle of these extremes are the well-meaning cooperating teachers who are eager to immerse the student teacher in actual teaching. But, it may be best to slow down a bit and let the student teacher get acclimated. Better yet, as demonstrated by the first example here, acclimate the student teacher before he arrives in your classroom. Or, set aside some time in the first days to help students and the student teacher build a relationship.
Being a cooperating teacher means much more than showing a student teacher the instructional ropes. It also means paving the way for the student teacher to enter a welcoming classroom and assisting the student teacher is forging solid relationships with her students.
Cindy Dean, Ed.D.: Cindy is an Associate Professor of Education and the Coordinator of Teacher Education at the University of Maine at Augusta. Previously she was a high school English teacher, literacy specialist and writing center director. She places and supervises student teachers across Maine and delights in seeing them find their place in the teaching profession.