I was a very successful student teacher, but a complete failure as a first-year teacher. How could a great student teacher become a horrible first-year teacher? Part of the problem was the success itself, which my mentor teacher created for me. In this excerpt from my first book, All the Ways I Screwed Up My First Year of Teaching, you’ll learn several ways that successful student teaching can actually harm your teaching career.
I gaze out over the sea of little faces shining up at me as I read aloud from a book about insects. All is peaceful and calm. Moments earlier, the office called to cancel an assembly, and I needed to quickly adjust. No problem for me, amazing student teacher I am! I can handle anything. I’m actually probably more like a “real” teacher than a student teacher. True, my cooperating teacher is in the room, but she’s not doing anything except smiling at me from time to time.
As a Student Teacher, Parents Loved Me
A parent of one of the more wiggly students walks into the room. The master teacher greets her, and invites her into the hallway for a little chat. Later, when the students are working on another project, she introduces us. I invite the parent to participate in class, and show her the box of volunteer work. Soon she is busy cutting out materials. I’m such a great teacher! Even the parents love me!
My Student Teacher Self Could Handle the Toughest Students
One of the students in “my” class is a runner. At six years old, he’s a refugee from a horrible situation in the Middle East, and he freaks out and runs out of the room any time he gets a chance. My master teacher attends meetings after school about him all the time. Other teachers in the staff room tell me they can’t figure out how I can handle it. I lower my eyes modestly. “It’s not really that bad,” I say.
Problem-Solving Was Easy When I Was a Student Teacher
One day I forget to plan a lesson, because I took a college exam the previous day. I don’t worry about it too much. I go to the cupboard of ready-to-go filler activities and pick one. No problem! Most people would be overwhelmed, going to college full-time, working part time, and student teaching. Not me! I have it handled!
My First-Year Teaching Disaster
Fast forward to halfway through my first year of teaching in Hawaii. The parents are upset with me, no one volunteers in my room, the students are far from angelic, and my desk is a huge volcano of paper, spewing student work and lesson plans everywhere.
At first, I blame the school community. The principal isn’t supportive, the schedule is impossible, I don’t have enough plan time, I don’t have enough materials, and on and on. Later I blame the community at large. The people here don’t provide enough discipline for their kids at home, so they don’t know how to act at school. The people are prejudiced against me because I’m a “foreigner” from the Mainland. The people are too lazy to help out in the classroom.
The support provided for me during student teaching was invisible to me until years later.
None of this is true. The truth is, I wasn’t nearly as experienced a teacher as I thought I was, and I made a lot of mistakes an experienced teacher would know how to avoid. The support provided for me during student teaching was invisible to me until years later.
Watching An Expert Doesn’t Make You An Expert
Before I took over her class, my master teacher set up discipline expectations for the students and taught them how she expected them to behave. She arranged the classroom to support the students in their learning, and she established the curriculum long before she gave me the insect unit to teach. True, I watched her, and she graciously explained what she was doing, but watching a demonstration is not the same as making it happen.
Think of a professional basketball player, dribbling between his legs, floating effortlessly to the hoop past three defenders, and making a slam-dunk. He can tell you all about his training program. He can even break down the moves for you and explain it all step by step. That doesn’t mean you can duplicate his results when he hands you the basketball.
Fool-Proofing for the Student Teacher
If the master teacher is any good, she isn’t going to let you fail, either. When you make a mistake, she’ll help you fix it, both for your sake and for the sake of her students. It’s like a parent teaching a little kid to swim. The kid might think he’s swimming on his own, but no one’s going to let him drown.
In the same way, my master teacher headed off many problems for me before they even developed. When she was in the back of the room smiling at me, she was working to create those filler activities for the closet. She was developing intervention strategies for the refugee kid, setting up the volunteer area, tactfully explaining my presence to the wiggly student’s parent, and finding insect books for the class library.
I’m glad I had a positive student teaching experience. I wouldn’t change anything about it, because it created in me the vision of myself as a successful teacher, a vision I clung to during the tough times. But I do wish I could somehow wave a magic wand in front of my New Teacher Self before she started teaching on her own, and reveal to her how much support her master teacher provided. I think it would have changed her attitude, and helped her to avoid many of the other mistakes she made her first year.
You may already realize your master teacher created the environment that helped you succeed as a student teacher. If so, you may be interested in getting up to speed on classroom management, and I have just the thing for you. How about a free weekly classroom management hint, and access to a resource library of dozens of resources for educators? Just click here and enter your email to get started.