I was an associate teacher for a fifth grade ELA and writing class for a year before being promoted to lead, and to put it bluntly — my first year of teaching was rough.
I'll never forget the day when my lead teacher left the classroom with a group of students to get them prizes for acing their practice exam. That left me with twenty-something students who, by the time she'd left the classroom with the group, were already playing on their tablets, switching seats, standing up and "going to the bathroom" because they'd managed to get past me while I was putting out small fires.
By the end of the year, I had built genuine relationships with some of the toughest students and remixed tedious lesson plans so students looked forward to my instruction. I learned how to establish my authority through trial and error, and used the resources around me to lift me in the ranks. Now, I'm here to help you do the same.
What is student teaching like?
Student teaching is often the last step toward earning your teaching certification. As a student teacher, you'll be placed in a classroom a few days a week to support and observe a lead teacher of the grade you wish to pursue. These teaching practicums are often complementary of courses that ask you to reflect on your teaching experience or help you prepare lessons to be used in the classrooms.
Throughout the experience, you'll also be expected to know and obey the school's rules and policies, set an example of good conduct and behavior for the students, maintain professional relationships across the school and be receptive to constructive criticism.
Below are five survival tips for students teachers completing their practicums, and trust me — it's better you learn these now than in your first full-time year of teaching. Take it from someone who's been there!
5 survival tips for student teachers.
1. Observe other teachers and classrooms.
It's important to absorb what you can through observation. Observe your cooperating teacher, and take notes on everything you see. Notice the techniques the teacher uses to lead effective lessons — how they ask questions, who they call on, when and how often they initiate turn-and-talks.
Pay attention to the body language in the classroom. Do they write on the board, under a projector, on chart paper or a combination of the three? Are students seated in a circle, on the rug or in orderly rows? What effect do these positions have on student engagement and the overall lesson?
And pay attention to the systems in place, too. How is the teacher calling students to the rug? What is the teacher's system for bathroom and water breaks? Are students allowed to popcorn talk or must they raise their hands?
Last — but certainly not least — observe how the teacher runs the lesson. Are they lecturing or facilitating the conversation? Do they read aloud or do students? And notice when they're asking questions and the kinds of questions they're asking so you can discuss with them later. The more you know before you get in front of the classer, the tighter a ship you'll run because you'll be able to speak with conviction and authority (leaving some wiggle room for your nerves, if you need).
2. Ask questions. Lots of them!
Once you've gathered your notes after an observation, find a time to meet to go over your notes. Use this meeting to clarify your notes and to pick their brain about their choices (so you know how to properly implement them when it's your turn).
You can also ask about their experience when they first started teaching. I struggled tremendously in my first year, and when I would share my experiences with other teachers, almost all of them would share the same sentiment. Be open to the support they can lend you outside of formal teaching techniques and strategies.
Other teachers and staff may also be able to offer insight into the school culture like what school spirit traditions they have, what clubs and committees they offer to students and how holidays are handled at the site. Every school is different, as they usually aim to serve their unique students and environment, so get familiar with the new space you're in so you can lean into the parts that resonate with you.
3. Ask for feedback.
Nobody's first year is perfect, so it's an excellent time to ask for constructive criticism. Your cooperating teacher is a huge resource for you at this delicate time, so take full advantage of your relationship with them. Start by asking them if you could lead a small lesson, like a read aloud or a review. Then, find some downtime to discuss their feedback and brainstorm ways to improve your teaching based on their critique.
When I was a teacher, I would also record myself teaching lessons. I know... that sounds embarrassing — and it was! But watching myself teach helped me notice things I hadn't when I was in the front of the room like what my body language was communicating, which students weren't paying an ounce of attention, whether I should've used a chart paper versus the smart board, etc. It's a simple measure to help you clean up your teaching, and all you need to do is place your laptop on a back table and press record.
You may also be able to observe other teachers if you ask. Pop into a few other classrooms (of the same grade) and later, find a few who's teaching style you really admired and ask if they can come in and observe you, too. You can either find some time to chat as you did with your cooperating teacher, or ask for a simple email with their feedback.
4. Fake it until you make it.
Our appearance speaks on our behalf just as our words and actions do, so the more authority you seem like you have, the more authority students might associate with you — and you want to take that chance.
How you dress, how you prepare for lessons and how you communicate to students are all central to establishing your authority within the classroom. Even if the school has a lax dress code, opt to dress in business casual clothes to start.
Put yourself in a student's shoes for a minute: would you be more willing to listen to the new teacher who strides into class with jeans and sneakers? Or, the teacher who struts in with a blazer and flat shoe? Probably the latter, right? Simply because they look the part — and that's just the first step.
The second step is to be intellectually prepared because it complements this effort and is at the core of the work you'll do. The least you can do (while you learn to manage behavior and practice your teaching) is to get familiar with the material. Know the lessons you'll be teaching (or supporting) inside and out so you can jump in with questions or insight as the lead teacher's teaching. You also want to be ready to work with students individually or in small group's if asked, with as little support from your cooperating teacher as possible.
Along with dressing the part and being intellectually prepared, speaking with conviction is another necessary component of establishing your authority with students. Leaders at my school site used to tell me all the time, "If you sell it, they will buy it," meaning if you speak with conviction and believe what you say, your students will be more likely to listen. This mantra anchored me as a teacher because it encouraged me to speak confidently and drive the classroom ship with less waver.
5. Build relationships with students and parents.
It's just as important to establish your investment in students as it is to establish your authority — and you can do that by building genuine relationships with students and parents. Ask your lead teacher if there's a group of students who could use extra support when they're leading a lesson. You can offer to pull that group to a back table or the hallway and guide the same lesson in a smaller setting, targeting each student in the areas they need the most support.
Or, you could set goals with them in the morning — whether it be academic or behavioral — and have students write their goals on a sticky note and place them on the corner of their desk as a reminder. Throughout the day, you can check in on them to see how far they've come in reaching their goals. And if you want to bring it up a notch, incentivize the students with simple prizes such as a hand-picked independent reading book from you or a bookmark for reaching their goal by the end of the week.
Your relationship with parents matter, too. While you should let parents know when their child is doing poorly, you should also let them know when their child is performing well. Look for highlights throughout the day like a child's really good idea, a child's exemplar behavior or an act of kindness you can share with parents during dismissal. When parents know you have their best interest at heart, they'll be more willing to cooperate with you in teaching their child.