At Ease in the Classroom: How to Mentor Student-Teachers
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2016 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
You’ve likely been a student-teacher. You’ll likely have a student-teacher too. But you’ve probably never been given training about how to host one well. Here’s some advice.
Susan McQuay had just delivered the best lesson of her first teaching placement. And then she wanted to quit. More than 30 years later, the kindergarten teacher in Waterloo, ON, admits she doesn’t recall every detail about the lesson. It involved playing with balls in the gym. She connected with her students, a Grade 2/3 split class in a low-income Toronto neighbourhood, and they were “eating out of [her] hand.”
She also remembers her associate’s exact feedback: “You should have had stuff out ahead of time.” McQuay didn’t have a key to the equipment room—the associate did, but she was nowhere to be found. In the meantime, McQuay asked the students to play a quiet game while she tracked down the key. It worked, but her associate wasn’t satisfied.
“She expected me to come in all ready to teach,” McQuay says. (Not long after, this associate teacher was banned from working with student-teachers.) “She didn’t recognize her role was to mentor me and help me grow.”
Her associate had nearly done what Marie-Helene Benais, a high school teacher in Toronto, describes as the worst thing an associate can do to a student-teacher: “crush their dreams.”
“It’s a mentorship,” says Jonathan Marck, a graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. “It’s not a test.” Associates should help student-teachers improve, not determine if they’d be good teachers, he says. (His second placement lasted only a week. He left because of an overly negative associate teacher.)
Placements are also course requirements. Student-teachers need to pass them to graduate and become certified. “Everybody knows that I’m going to have to pass or fail [them] at the end of this session,” says Benais, who has had at least one student-teacher every year since she began teaching nearly three decades ago. “So we know there’s a power discrepancy.”
That’s not the only discrepancy. While student-teachers likely receive some preparation before placements begin, associate teachers receive little, if any, formal training about how to be a good mentor.
“The simple answer is: No, our associate teachers get no training for their job,” says Barbara Olmsted, an associate dean at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University in North Bay, ON. “The majority of research suggests associate teachers don’t receive any preparation for this role,” she says. That’s “problematic.”
Schools may provide handbooks detailing a mentor’s responsibilities. Workshops may be offered at teacher conferences, but there’s no guarantee that associate teachers will access these resources. It would be “ideal” to provide classroom teachers with in-depth training, says Wendy Carr, associate dean at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury of money or time.”
Student-teachers are eager, but nervous. Michele Pellis has wanted to teach in elementary classrooms since childhood, but when the University of Alberta student started her first placement, she had doubts. Lesson planning and classroom management were a struggle. The greatest challenge came through “wondering if I’m doing a good job and providing meaningful instruction.” Thankfully, Pellis worked with associates who were encouraging.
Paul Henderson, an elementary school teacher in Oakville, ON, describes his approach to working with one student-teacher this way: “I felt that if he was at ease with me, he would be at ease in the classroom.”
Be prepared and organized. Share timetables and schedules. Give student-teachers school tours. Introduce them to the office and department staff. Show them how to become involved in school activities outside of the classroom. In doing so, they will develop their skills in a new way and learn more about the students. (Some faculties of education require student-teachers to participate in extracurricular activities during their placements.)
Student-teachers also need an appropriate amount of responsibility early in the placement. Photocopying resources, however, or answering students’ questions while they work is not enough. McQuay often invites student teachers to begin their placement by reading students a story. Because it’s not a long activity, students are more likely to stay engaged. This activity also positions the student-teacher as someone who has authority, she says.
Benais changes her approach for each individual; for example, very shy student-teachers will first observe her teaching a lesson. Then, they teach that lesson the same way to another class. Other times, she provides examples of lessons, she, or other student-teachers have used. She then asks the student-teacher to teach the same lesson in their own way. And for “more adventuresome” student-teachers, Benais gives them free reign from the very beginning. “Just as there are all kinds of teachers, there are all kinds of student-teachers too,” she says.
Teachers’ colleges try to ensure students acquire experience in different grade levels, or, for those preparing to be high school teachers, in their main subjects of study. Student-teachers may have developed lesson plans and resources for class assignments, but these may not be related to what they’ll teach in their placement. They may be over-confident in what they can accomplish, or not realize how much material they need to review. They likely don’t realize how long lesson planning takes.
Associate teachers need to share resources. Jeremy Keetch, a high school teacher in Toronto, taught computer science in his first placement. His associate teacher gave him all he needed to teach the lessons, allowing Keetch to focus on the delivery “without the stress of creating” resources.
The most important, and potentially stressful, aspect of a teaching placement is the associate’s feedback. It needs to be regular, thorough, and constructive. One approach asks student teachers how they would rate the success of the lessons while building feedback around the response. Carr suggests focusing evaluations on specific aspects, like moving around the classroom or interacting with students. Take thorough notes. “You’re like a scientist. You’re observing,” she says. “You’re sharing what you’ve observed and then you’re making some suggestions.”
In many ways, mentoring student-teachers requires associate teachers to become students again. While Benais enjoys having student-teachers, she admits it’s a lot of work. It requires her to write out her plans more thoroughly to show how a lesson develops. The “old things that [she] doesn’t have to do anymore” now become necessities.
For the most part, associate teachers welcome the task. It makes them better teachers. Student-teachers also expose them to current research and technology. “When you’ve been teaching as long as I have,” McQuay says, “you can just crawl into a hole and keep doing the same thing.” Student-teachers bring what they’re learning to the associate’s classroom. They may develop resources for the associates to use in the future. They may also help with classroom management by providing a different perspective on students’ behaviour. Students may connect their regular teacher to subjects with which they struggle, but when a new teacher delivers a lesson, that barrier may be removed.
Associate teachers may be as nervous as their student-teachers; both parties are judging the other. Teachers who “aren’t prepared to be observed and possibly to be judged” likely shouldn’t consider having student-teachers, says Benais.
Mistakes happen. It’s important to learn from them. Henderson often tells prospective teachers to be comfortable laughing with a class when their lesson delivery doesn’t go well. “If you get something wrong the first time,” Henderson says, “the good news is that you’re not [only] going to know why something works. You’re also going to know why not as well.”
The same could be said if the entire placement is challenging. After her “horrendous” first experience, McQuay had three more that were positive. It’s since strengthened her resolve to provide the same to other student-teachers.
“What we do is important,” she says. “It’s important to support and help people grow. [Teachers] should do that for each other, but even more for student-teachers.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance journalist in Toronto, ON.