Facilitating Agency and Reflection for Student Teachers
Editor’s Note: When thinking of what it takes to “Educate the New Educator,” one of the things that often comes to mind is student teachers and the experiences they have. Student teachers are at a pivotal point in their process of becoming a professional educator. One of the most important facilitators of that process is their cooperating teacher. In this interview, veteran co-op Jerald Shelato discusses his experiences with guiding his student teachers through their development as professionals. -CM
1. What do you believe the role of a cooperating teacher should be in the process of a student teacher’s professional growth?
The term “facilitator” comes to mind. Whenever possible and as much as possible, a cooperating teacher should allow a student teacher to DO in order to learn. In my opinion, this assertion isn’t any different than one that states that young student musicians should be engaged in making music as a primary mode of learning. Student teachers may be walking around in bigger bodies and may operate at a much higher level of musical sophistication than young students, but ultimately, they need to be the primary agents of their own learning through engagement in teaching activities. Therefore the cooperating teacher needs to provide opportunities for the student teacher to teach.
2. What do you need to know about an individual before you can take them on as a student teacher?
I want to know whether or not an individual has taken the responsibility of being prepared to do a job seriously. Because I teach band, I place much weight on the need for a student teacher to have developed a certain level of performing and teaching ability on secondary instruments during their pre-student teaching coursework. I almost always ask, “What is your best secondary instrument, and which one do you consider to be a weakness?” I want to know the actual answers to these questions, but I also want to gauge whether a person is self-aware enough to be able to provide such answers.
I also ask interviewees about their previous teaching and leadership experiences. I don’t do this to weed out people who haven’t had certain experiences – in some instances and for some individuals, such opportunities simply may not have been available– but I do want to get a sense of whether the interviewee has sought out and made the most of opportunities that have been available. I suppose you could say that I do hold suspect any interviewee who has intentionally chosen to put off any kind of teaching or quasi-teaching activity until the student teaching experience.
Finally, I do examine their academic transcripts prior to interviews, and I definitely ask them about any grades that I consider to be major concerns. Through all this, my primary responsibility remains the learning and well-being of my own students, and I do not wish to expose them to individuals whom I feel will be unlikely to be prepared for daily lessons.
3. What do you do to prepare your student teachers to become a part of your learning community? What do you do to help them with this before they officially begin?
The bulk of my communication with a student teacher before they officially begin happens (a) during the interview, and (b) during the call that I make a week ahead of the start of the term to remind them when and where to report. Sometime during these communications I tell them the basics about what their experience will be like, and I tell them to review as much as they can on their weakest secondary instrument(s). Once they begin, I encourage them to attend local/regional/national music education conferences (Midwest, IMEA, etc.). I also hound them daily about the job search process, offering as much insight as I can into how to read and what to look for in job postings.
4. What do you feel that your past student teachers have been most unprepared for? What have they needed the most help with?
I have found most of my student teachers to be quite pedagogically sound, as I have been fortunate to work with many talented and well-prepared individuals who have come from high quality undergraduate programs. Several of my student teachers have found the first few times in front of real kids to be quite unnerving, though. It might be the energy in a room full of middle school or high school kids, or it might just be the shock of working with an ensemble that isn’t nearly as musically sophisticated as the ones they’ve recently performed in as undergraduates, but many of my student teachers end up looking quite frazzled and/or tired after their first few lessons or days in the classroom. This can be due to lessons that didn’t end up as planned, or due to actual tiredness. For the former, I generally try to get the student teacher to reflect on the lesson(s) and come up with plans that include improvement on what happened, along with the reassurance that it really does get easier the more you do it.
5. What are your top priorities when helping a student teacher “hone their craft?”
As is the case for school age kids, it’s important to make some diagnostic decisions about the student teacher early in the term. First, I want the student teacher to be able to seem confident and comfortable in addressing kids. One of the biggest ironies of teaching is the feeling of terror that a bunch of little kids are capable of giving a grown-up. I try to send home the idea that you should always talk to kids as though you consider them to be intelligent people. Nobody of any age enjoys feeling as though they are assumed to be unintelligent, gullible, or otherwise unworthy of courteous consideration. I don’t expect a student teacher to grovel in front of kids or to try to “butter them up,” but even just a little bit of basic, decent respect from one person to another goes a long way.
Second, I always try to get student teachers to have a sense of how much preparation is enough preparation in order to help them become careful planners. On those occasions when a student teacher finishes a lesson that clearly did not go well, I try to get him/her to reflect on (a) what it was he/she wanted to accomplish, and (b) whether his/her preparation for the lesson was sufficient to facilitate it. This might sound simplistic, but a poorly executed lesson can often be traced back to insufficient preparation, whether it be insufficient score study, insufficiently prepared materials, or an inaccurate sense of the pacing necessary to keep a class on track.
6. How do you set goals for your student teachers?
I try to keep the student teacher “in the loop” as an active member of an instructional team. As such, I set the student teacher’s goals in respect to what’s going on in my own classes throughout the semester. I constantly think out loud around him/her; an example of something I said to a recent student teacher is (paraphrased): “OK, next week, we need to be doing an eighth-quarter-eighth syncopation lesson with the sixth graders. Come up with an instructional activity lesson for Tuesday, something for Wednesday that we can assess – maybe a worksheet – and then be ready to come up with a follow-up/reteaching activity for the kids who still need help on Friday. I want to see you teach, assess, and use what you get as formative data.” I then resort to my standard practice of asking him/her how things went, about how he/she is using data to assess learning, etc.
7. What areas do you usually see the most growth in over time?
The two areas where I generally see the most growth are (a) the student teacher’s ability to comfortably and appropriately speak to classrooms full of kids, and (b) the student teacher’s ability to work through a lesson smoothly, flowing easily from one activity to another without hesitating or stopping too long to plan the next action or spoken sentence. Another area where I typically see significant growth is in student teachers’ secondary instrument skills.
8. What are your views on giving student teacher’s “podium time?” How should that be approached?
I think that a student teacher should begin doing things with the entire class, even if only warm-up and technical exercises at first, as soon as possible after spending time getting familiar with the normal happenings in the class, and after spending some time working with individuals and small groups in pedagogical settings. I try to get the student teacher conducting at least one piece of music with each ensemble per concert, and I generally allow him/her a significant amount of total “takeover” time with at least one of the ensembles (including selection of music and all planning) during the course of the semester.
9. What administrative elements of teaching music do you expose your student teachers to? How much do you allow them to do themselves?
I expose them to as much as I feel I can afford to. Sometimes there are things that I just have to do myself, but for the most part, I keep them involved throughout. The stereotypical student teaching activity is time spent at the photocopier; there is a fair amount of this, to be sure, but I also try to give the student teacher opportunities to be the person responsible for “making things go.” I am more than willing to give a student teacher access to a database and to say something akin to “For contest, we need bus roll lists and envelopes with field trip permission forms alphabetized for each grade level. Have these by Wednesday, and show me what you have when you’re done.” The key here is letting them do things by themselves, checking their work once they’re done, giving positive feedback for thorough and accurate work, and helping them understand what could potentially go wrong if such an administrative task were done incorrectly in some way.
10. What should co-ops keep in mind when helping in the transition from student to teacher? What have you seen your student teachers struggle with the most in this area?
Student teachers are, for the most part, finishing with a part of their lives in which they have become accustomed to receiving constant feedback for more or less strictly regimented academic activities. The open-thinking, do-it-for-yourself activity that is planning for instruction can make for a tough transition. It’s important to help the student teacher by starting with more specific instructions and tasks and then branching out gradually into more open-ended goals and tasks.
11. What do you do when you see that your student teacher is struggling with the general challenges they are facing?
I am at my most forward with suggestions and/or directives when I determine that real, recurring struggles are becoming manifest and that the student teacher either is not discerning that there is a problem or is at a loss for how to improve the situation. In other words, this is where I am most likely to say something like, “The kids are falling asleep. You need to keep the pace of instruction moving along at a much faster rate than you’re doing right now if you’re going to be effective.” If the student teacher is struggling in the use of a certain skill, I work specifically with him/her on developing that skill. If it a student teacher were repeatedly experiencing frustration with many things that he/she were having difficulty identifying, and if repeated discussions and attempts at improvement bore no fruit, I might find it necessary to have “the talk” with him/her (e.g., “Do you really see yourself doing this in the future?”). Fortunately, this hasn’t yet happened with any of my student teachers.
12. What is the best thing that a cooperating teacher can do to facilitate the growth of the student teacher?
Ultimately, the cooperating teacher needs to prepare the student teacher for that day when he/she starts the new job and finds him/herself working alone without the cooperating teacher present. It’s important for the cooperating teacher to do a lot of reflecting, too, as years of experience tend to erase the memory of the toughest parts of being a new teacher. The first year of teaching can be a year of extreme challenge and downright loneliness without the benefit of the safety net offered by the cooperating teacher, and a new teacher needs as much practical experience to draw upon as possible in order to make it successfully to year two. Those things that were difficult or challenging in a cooperating teacher’s first couple of years of teaching may have become “old hat” by the time he/she starts taking on student teachers, and it’s important for the cooperating teacher to temper all instruction with a healthy dose of memory about how things were early in his/her career.
Finally, I find it important to say that the cooperating teacher should consider a student teacher’s assignment as far more than a convenient help for running one’s own program. It is imperative that the cooperating teacher remembers that the student teacher is involved in an internship program and that he/she is there to hone skills and gain knowledge, and not just to do work for the cooperating teacher. I try to remember that a new teacher who has spent time as my student teacher will be a reflection of the job that I’ve done as a cooperating teacher, and after all, my influence on the profession will extend far beyond my own classroom.
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