Monday, November 16, 2009


“To teach is to learn twice.” - Joseph Joubert, Pensées, 1842

On my substitute teaching travels, I’ve come across classrooms with student teachers, which brings me back to my own student teaching experiences in the ninth and tenth-grades in New York. I was nervous for about a week, though I’m not sure why since I’d run recitations in college. The first day that I took charge of a class, I could hear my voice tremble while my hands shook the pages of notes that my eyes were glued to for the entire class. At least the students were copying notes from an overhead, and (hopefully) not paying any attention to me. But as I hit my stride, I relied less on notes, lesson plans came easily, and I garnered authority. I also didn’t mind if any visitors visited the classroom, with the exception of planned observations, which are always stressful.

The first student teacher I observed was in a fourth-grade classroom. I worked with her just for the morning, while the other two teachers attended a workshop. Besides having some problems using the smart board during math, she did fine. She was only missing an iota of confidence, which is common with new teachers. In the classroom there was one particularly problematic student, who had a chart to keep track of whether she was being respectful and doing her work. While I tried to spend extra time with this child, the student teacher was in charge of putting check marks on her chart. At some point, the teacher confided in me that she wished that there was more discussion with the child about why she got the checks, in order to better help her self-monitor her behavior. “You should suggest that to the teachers,” I encouraged.

Perhaps it was my age when I student taught, along with some college teaching experience under my belt, but I wasn’t intimidated by the teaching staff. I became a regular in the Social Studies teachers’ room as if I were faculty, contributing to the coffee fund and periodically providing breakfast. But I also asked advice and even had a couple of teachers use lessons plans I’d come up with, which was a big ego boost. Upon the recommendation of my professor, I observed nearly every teacher, taking notes about various teaching styles, some of which I incorporated into my own repertoire. One of my favorites was from the Law teacher, who would use specific students as embodiments of people from history, which always got laughs, but more importantly, got all the students paying attention. I’ve found that trick as the best way to explain Bacon’s Rebellion. A complicated disagreement that foreshadowed some of the issues following the Seven Year’s War (and that led to the American Revolution) was brought to life for fifth-graders. The fact that I was treated by and treated the teaching staff as near-equals, enhanced my student teaching experience.

The last time I worked with a student teacher was in a second-grade classroom. That was great because my daughter is also in second-grade, and they were doing identical work to her class, making me feel like I was peering through a window to view my daughter’s day. In Math, the students were reading the same picture book, Two of Everything that mirrored their learning about doubling numbers. In Science, they were also studying soil. I happened to be there on a day that the student teacher was running the Science lab while being observed by her professor. I felt for her, recalling that I’d been so nervous before observations that I didn’t sleep well the night before and couldn’t eat that day until the ordeal was over. I also figured that running a lab with seven-year-olds probably never went as smoothly as a teacher wished, so it wouldn’t be the best time for an observation. I, along with a volunteer, helped her set up the tables in advance, and then we passed out papers for the students to record their observations and walked around during the lesson for support. I think the student teacher did fine, though she could work on making sure the children froze to listen to instructions. She seemed relieved when it was over, and went through "What I Could’ve Done Differently" that all teachers do when a lesson is under a microscope or doesn’t go as planned.

Late yesterday afternoon, I got a call to teach Art at the high school. When I arrived at the office, I was told that the room would have a student teacher. When I found the room, the student teacher said I could spend my time reading a book. It gave me fond memories of my own student teaching days, when I wouldn’t let the substitute do anything either. Student teachers technically aren’t allowed to run classes by themselves, so subs have to be summoned.

The Art class was actually called “Digital Studio”, and it’s an elective, so the students (mostly) wanted to be there. It’s amazing seeing the pictures that students can make from computer programs, utilizing their talent and imagination. It was light years away from what computers could do when I was a student (I'm aging myself). I recall taking a computer class where we learned about DOS commands, booting a computer, and formatting a disk. Each task we did required multiple steps. Then, if anything required printing on the perforated paper, as each line printed, the printer would slowly screech, “zeeee, zeeee, zeeee,” so printing papers took forever.

The student teacher, though youthful in appearance, worked for a few years before going back to school. When a student gave him a hard time as he introduced a lesson, he waited to speak with her privately after all the students were working. He even handled the student-who-skipped-out-of-class-with-a-stolen-rubber-chicken-bathroom-pass situation well (Yes, you read that right). If I didn’t know he was a student teacher, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell.

This was a good day for my to sit back because I had a seafood feast last night, which left me with a stomachache. Since bedtime, I’d taken two Imodium pills and two Pepto-Bismol chewable tablets, which left my tongue brown (Why does it do that?!). That’s disgusting, so the less talking I had to do, the better. Besides, I felt wobbly on the bike ride commute, so the less I taxed myself the quicker I hoped to recover. I periodically skirted the room, offering help and making sure students didn't slack. But for the most part, I let the student teacher run the class. It was nice to sit back and observe again.

“To be a teacher in the right sense, is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.” Soren Kierkegaard


  1. Self assertion/confidence, when pertinent is always an asset; isn't it?
    It's great how, with experience qualified people find their rhythm and their pace, whatever they're doing. I suspect that most people who don't go through a getting used to my new job period are either over qualified or excellent actors. : j

  2. @ Alesa, there are places you can have a classroom without teaching experience. I think that's crazy for the students and the teacher. It takes time to find voice, style, and confidence. All jobs have a breaking in period. For teachers, I think it's three years before it truly becomes second nature.