Your first classroom experiences
Every education program includes a period of time for real-world application of what you are learning in the classroom. This student-teaching period (or practicum) is one of the best parts of getting an education degree. Most non-teaching degree programs don't include any time at all in a practical work environment, so student-teaching is a great bonus.
I personally think that college students should spend much more time in the classroom, but the time that is allowed (which varies by program) can really help launch you quickly into your first year of successful teaching if approached correctly.
As with most things in life, it comes down to your attitude. I see many, many pre-service teachers who regard their practicum as another university class to get through so they can check it off on their path toward graduation (yes, I’m reading what you post on social media!).
Well, let me tell you: the path to being an awesome teacher begins during your practicum. During this time you will learn critical skills regarding interacting with both children and other teachers – but only if you make that your primary goal.
Are you ready to step foot into your first elementary school for your practicum? Let’s get started!
I put this item first – even before the steps to effective learning – because it is critically important. School staff members will apply a tentative label to you the first time they glance in your direction; they are only human, and this is what humans do. But you know what? So will the students.
Remember, to young children, you are not a college student – you are an adult authority figure who is nearly at the same level in their minds as their teacher. Don't do anything that will diminish this. And that begins with your appearance, which really means the clothes and makeup you choose to wear.
Second, before you walk into the school building, turn the volume off on your cell phone and put it in your bag. I have seen student-teachers checking their phones and texting in the back of the classroom as if they were sitting in a lecture hall. I don't think I need to tell you why this is a really bad idea that is not well received by classroom teachers.
Third, it's time to be on your best behavior. Sort of like being a member of the wedding party at your sister's big day. You are not the center of attention, but you're pretty close to it and you have to smile and be gracious and keep up appearances for the entire length of the event.
This will be good practice for staying “in character” for six hours a day in front of your students when you take over your initial classroom.
Building your own program
No matter what program your university has laid out for you to complete, I highly suggest that you establish your own agenda as well. If this dovetails with your college course expectations, great. The main point here is to not miss any opportunities for learning and growth. Here are the three basic steps to success.
In short: be a sponge.
There is no detail that is too small for you to notice. It will be easy to notice the big things, such as student behavior episodes or the main points presented on the interactive whiteboard during the lesson. But the real value is often in the details.
I encourage you to imagine that you are a “classroom anthropologist” who is carefully observing for patterns in a small, closed society… and the patterns that are often of greatest importance are taking place around the edges.
What I mean is, don't be distracted by what's going on at center stage to the point where you miss what's going on just outside the spotlight. For example:
- During the presentation of a lesson, what are the kids on the fringes doing?
- If children are asked to partner up and discuss, what's going on in the groups that seem to be unfocused or unresponsive?
- What little classroom routines can you observe that are occurring even without teacher direction?
- Why do some kids transition quickly between subjects and others do not?
Be observant of every detail in the classroom, and keep a particular lookout for those children who are not naturally engaging with adults and easy to interact with. These are the kids who you will need to become an expert at engaging when you go full time, so you need to understand how and why they are on the periphery rather than in the middle of the action.
They are not necessarily hard to teach, but they can be hard to reach and your observations will pay dividends in the future if you understand them at a deeper level.
Don't skip this step. Get a composition notebook or a spiral-bound notebook and keep a journal. It'll have to be handwritten (you can’t be typing in the back of the classroom), but you will want to capture your thoughts and insights about what you are seeing.
Plus, having something handy to write on will allow you to capture questions to be answered later… and questions are the key to rapid learning.
There are two types of questions to be asked. First, questions that you ask of yourself as you observe. For example:
“Why is this happening?”
Asking this type of question will help you get to the root cause of classroom behavior issues, learning engagement problems or social interactions between the children. It will also help you understand how an effective classroom teacher is achieving a certain result.
When you ask yourself “how” and “why” you begin to notice nuances such as tone of voice, silence, or even more subtle things such as meaningful looks and other nonverbal communication.
The second type of questions are those that you ask the teacher you are observing. In general, they will take the form of:
“Why did you do it this way?”
I can't emphasize the importance of this enough; in a few seconds, you can get the distilled knowledge of years of teaching – but only if you ask. An experienced classroom teacher may have learned something so long ago that she now does it naturally… she’ll only think to reveal the reasoning behind it if you ask.
Now let's talk next about the types of teachers you may encounter when you start spending time at school.
Video tips: responding to tough student questions
A realistic look at mentors
Here's a good question: why does a classroom teacher want to work with a college student? I mean, what's in it for them? This, of course, relates very closely to another question::
“What kind of mentor teacher will you get?”
I believe very strongly in providing total honesty to the people who read and follow Classroom Caboodle. I'm all about your success, and that means I must reveal to you a secret. Here it is: Not all people are the same.
Earthshaking, right? Not really, of course, but the point is that building up false expectations about who or what your mentor teacher will be can lead to some disappointment. As much as we would like to think that every teacher can be a perfect mentor for us during our developmental period, it simply cannot be true.
Hosting an untested college student can be a major undertaking and (once you begin your take-over-the-classroom phase) a very big classroom disruption. Since you are such an unknown quantity from the teacher's perspective, why are any of them willing to risk it?
Why classroom teachers are willing to take on student-teachers
- A teacher may want to give back to the profession and inspire a new generation who can positively influence children. Congratulations! You won the mentor-teacher lottery!
- A teacher may want to have another set of hands in a difficult room, such as a combination room with two grade levels. This means lots of work for you, but the chance for some really great – if challenging – on-the-job training.
- A teacher may want long lunches and frequent out-of-classroom breaks during the day. Yes, these teachers exist and you know it's true because you had some of them when you were in elementary school. For their trouble in mentoring you, they can look forward to a month or more of doing virtually nothing and still getting paid. Their level of abandonment of their student-teacher will vary.
This is all to say that I encourage you to go in without preconceived notions. Look for the positive and be ready to handle the negative… all the while knowing that even if your practicum does not fit the image you have in your mind, you will still learn a whole lot from your first time in the classroom.
Student teaching: your very first “interview”
How do successful job-hunters act during teacher interviews? Well, let's see…
- They dress professionally
- They are interested in everything going on at their target school
- They showcase their commitment to educating children
- They ask intelligent questions
Hmmm… that sounds an awful lot like the things a successful student-teacher on her practicum does!
More than one student-teacher has found a position in this way. Principles are like any bosses; they would rather go with a known quantity if they have the choice. If you are that known quantity (known for your excellence, that is) then you may have an edge in an interview.
Even if you aren't seeking a job in your practicum district, you’d be surprised at who knows who in the education world; many back-channel discussions take place between educators during hiring season. Also, you really do need great letters of recommendation, not only from your mentor-teacher but from the principal at the school.
And even if those two arguments don't convince you, then believe me, you can obtain a heck of a lot of experiences during your student-teaching time that will allow you to discuss excellent real-world examples when you're answering questions during interviews.
In short, the wise student-teacher will treat her practicum with all the seriousness of a teacher interview.
Getting sick, staying well
Health may be the last thing on your mind when you begin your student-teaching, but please give these concerns your full attention. Schools are miniature melting pots that draw in all kinds of germs, then provide ideal incubating conditions: crowded classrooms, packed coat closets and the active germ-spreading habits of children.
I spent the first several years of teaching being constantly sick until I built up an immunity to every possible germ combination. My story is not unique among new teachers.
When you combine this with the additional stress of going to college and teaching at the same time (plus a few of those late nights you might be indulging in) you have a perfect scenario for getting really sick. At a minimum, expect a few sniffles, but please do everything in your power to cut your risks:
- Lots and lots of hand washing
- Hand sanitizer in between hand washing
- Being cautious of horizontal surfaces!
Stay healthy, stay happy. And finally…
Social media and your paparazzi
The time to lock down your social media profiles is before you head into your practicum experience. Kids are inquisitive and they will search you out online, just like rabid fans. Their parents may go fishing for information as well once they learn your name.
Make certain any social media account that has your real name and/or picture can only be viewed by those to whom you grant permission. If you have accounts where this is not an option, then be certain that your user name and image cannot be traced easily to you.
Like it or not, you are becoming a role model for children.
It is quite likely that there are things in your online ramblings that are quite relevant to your college experience and yet highly inappropriate for impressionable young children. You know exactly what I mean – again, I have read a fair number of your social media posts!
And just to be clear: it is not OK to interact with your elementary students online. That has so many red flags that is not even worth considering.