6 Ways to Make the Most of Student Teaching

student teaching

I received an email from a reader who is anxious about her upcoming student teaching experience and wanted to know if I could share some advice. After throwing some ideas around with a much younger teacher (that hurts to type) and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve come up with some ideas. Please add your own in the comments so that aspiring teachers may benefit.

To make the most of student teaching, do as Stephen Covey commands:

Keep the main thing the main thing.

The main thing is getting a full-time teaching job next year. Yes, you also want to develop skills, collect ideas, network, and connect with students, but none of that stuff matters much if you don’t get your own classroom. Keep your eye on the prize. You are about to start a long interview process.

To that end, and before you get a placement, fight for the grade level you want. Your college will tell you it doesn’t matter. What else are they supposed to say? They have limited placement opportunities, so not everybody can get what they want. But we know how squeaky wheels work. So squeak. Your student teaching will be going on your resume. If you want to teach third grade, administrators are going to favor candidates with third grade experience over those who have only taught fifth graders. It’s not disqualifying if you student teach in a grade other than the one for which you’re applying, but in a close competition with another candidate, it may disadvantage you. Try to get the grade you want to teach for your student teaching.

Now, here’s one thing you do not need to worry much about: how good you are at teaching. You’re new. You’re young. You aren’t supposed to be that good. I’m old and still screw up all the time. I have disastrous days. Don’t freak out if your lesson flops or your classroom management sucks the first time you get up there in front of students.

My school doesn’t invite student teachers, but my wife, a fifth grade teacher, has had five of them. Her criticisms have never centered around her student teachers’ abilities. It was their attitudes that made the difference.

To start, do these things:

  • Be on time – Better yet, be early. At least 30 minutes.
  • Look professional – If you wear it to a bar, don’t wear it to work.
  • Don’t complain – There will be plenty to complain about, but no one likes a cynical 22-year-old. Save the complaints for your roommate.
  • Get better – You can stink, but your stinking should get moderately less offensive.
  • Be competent – Know the basics. If you’re teaching how to compare fractions, you must understand how to compare fractions. Watch a video or two if you’ve forgotten.
  • Enjoy kids – Parts of the job – the ones dealing with adults, mostly – are tedious, annoying, and infuriating. The kids make it worth it. If you don’t enjoy them, go find something else to do. Seriously.
  • Do the work – If your cooperating teacher asks you to give her your lesson plan the Friday before you’re going to teach your lesson, then give her your lesson plan the Friday before you teach your lesson. This sounds obvious, but my wife’s number one complaint about her student teachers was that they weren’t prepared and would expect her to bail them out. This pissed her off. Don’t piss off the teacher who’s sharing her classroom with you.

If you can’t handle those seven things, then the rest of this list won’t mean much. You probably won’t get past the interview stage, and if you do, you’ll wish you hadn’t. You simply won’t last long if the basic stuff is overwhelming.

All that said, and assuming you’re pursuing the right profession, here are 6 Ways to Make the Best of Student Teaching:

Get along with people

I hate calling it “networking” because that sounds icky and manipulative. But look, you’ll want to use these people as references on your resume. And even if you don’t, they know people who can help you. I got an interview with a high-demand district because the counselor at the school where I student taught knew an administrator over there.

The easiest way to make friends who will one day want to help you out is to show appreciation. Teachers get so little of it, you’ll stand out and be remembered. I have a former student who, every Teacher Appreciation Week, writes a thoughtful letter of appreciation to all her former teachers. There’s no ulterior motive; it’s a genuine expression of gratitude. I can guarantee that when the time comes, she’ll be able to name her district because there are many teachers, who know many other educators, who will recommend her.

Start something new

Every person who looks at your future resume will want to see something, anything, beyond what was required. Lots of people can fulfill requirements; special people do more. What’s most impressive (and I’ve sat on a number of interview committees) is initiative that benefits students. We know how busy the student teaching year is, so anyone who gets something novel off the ground is someone we want to hire. It can be simple. Start an after-school reading club for struggling readers. If you’ve got a talent, start a club for that. Chess, Quilting, Coding. Anything looks good. If you can do something with technology, either outside of school or embedded in your lessons, that’s even better. Old people are fascinated by technology, and they’re the ones doing the hiring. Volunteering to share your school’s good news on Facebook might be a simple way to impress.

Do the grunt work

Make the copies, get the coffee, write out the ridiculously detailed lesson plans your university requires even though no teacher has the time, inclination, or need to ever write them. We’ve all done it. It’s part of the initiation process. And, truthfully, it prepares you for the real world. There’s plenty of grunt work in education. I still make my own copies and plunge the classroom toilet.

Shut up

Yes, you learned some stuff in your teacher preparation courses. You read new research and were challenged on the old ways of doing things. This is what colleges do. Academia is great at questioning well-worn practices. But those TAs and profs sometimes don’t have much experience in the real world. My student teaching year, I read something about how we shouldn’t require students to raise their hands before talking. The article made a lot of high-minded, seemingly good points. I asked my master teacher if I could try it. She looked doubtful, but said go ahead. It didn’t go well. There are usually good reasons why schools and teachers do things the way they do. They might not be ideal, but sometimes the alternatives that sound so good in a college classroom cause more problems than they’re worth. Listen more than you talk.

Ask questions

Ask lots of questions. This is one of the only times in your career that you will have the opportunity to spend large amounts of time observing professional teachers. Make the most of it, it won’t come again. The teachers will do things you won’t understand. I guarantee they will have reasons for those choices. Ask about them. Benefit from their hard-won lessons earned through years of experience.

Keep an ideas file

Try to get into lots of different classrooms so you’re exposed to an array of teaching techniques, management strategies, organizational methods, and tricks of the trade. Write down everything that looks even remotely interesting. When you’re preparing for your first classroom, there will be a ton of decisions you will have to make. Having ideas in a file will give you a place to start. And if that fails, there’s always Pinterest.

Good luck. Enjoy it! You’re about to learn twenty times more about teaching than you have in all your years sitting in a classroom. Make the most of it!

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Hey, Teacher Habits readers! How about leaving your own awesome ideas in the comments so that young people can position themselves to land that first job? Thanks.

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Coming Next:  Administrators’ Advice for Landing Your First Teaching Job

Teachers, Stop Saying You Work During the Summer

summer work
I know, I know. Some of you actually work. Some of you really do plan lessons, attend conferences, renovate your classrooms, teach summer school, or even work a part-time job. Some of you do all of the above.

But most of you don’t.

I’ve been teaching seventeen years now. I know a LOT of teachers. Most of my friends are teachers. Hardly any of them work much in the summer. One teaches summer school for three days a week for about six weeks. Most of us do some planning for next year (“vaguely thinking about” would be more accurate). We might read a teaching book or two this summer (might I recommend Happy Teacher?). Almost all of us will, at some point before the year starts, head into our classrooms a few times to get everything in order. But most of us aren’t doing much work. Don’t believe me? Check out the Facebook pages of the teachers you know.

So can we please stop pretending? Can we stop lying?

Stop Being Defensive

I was on Facebook earlier today when I came across a video a friend had shared. You’ve probably seen it or one like it. It was about how teachers get no respect and how there’s a shortage in teacher prep programs. It listed some of the reasons teachers feel disrespected.

The first comment under the video trotted out the very tired, “Teachers have three months off” argument. Evidently, the commenter missed the part about teachers quitting and young people avoiding the profession. That would seem to argue that those three months off aren’t the incentive people think they are. The commenter was beset, of course, by teachers claiming, as they always do, that no, actually, we work those three months!  That’s not a vacation! We take classes and plan lessons and work other jobs because of our shitty pay. Reading them, you would think that most teachers are busting their asses all summer. We aren’t. I sure as hell am not.

And I won’t apologize to anyone for that.

Teachers Don’t Waste Time

I work hard during the school year. I work harder than a lot of people. I may not work the same number of hours as someone in another profession, but the hours I do work are not wasted. I’ve never participated in a Cyber Monday. I’m there the Monday after the Super Bowl, without a hangover, doing the same job I do every day. A 2014 survey from Salary.com found that 89% of workers admitted to wasting time at work. 31% waste 30 minutes a day. Another 31% waste an hour. 16% waste TWO HOURS each day. How are they wasting time? Well, Bitly found that traffic on Twitter peaks between 9 am and 3 pm, Monday through Thursday, and that Facebook spikes between 1 pm and 3 pm midweek. Those are curious times, aren’t they? It’s almost like people in cubicles are not really working that much. Usage drops off at 4 pm, when all those hard working business people go home.

Teachers don’t get to waste time. We don’t have the luxury of buying crap online while students are watching our every move. We can’t check Facebook six times a day to see how many people liked our cat photo from last night. We’re not getting into Twitter arguments at 2 pm. In fact, if you’re a teacher who tweets you know that educator chats always occur at night. #edchat runs from 7-8 pm on Tuesdays. #edtechchat from 8-9 pm on Mondays. #tlap is scheduled at Monday at 9 pm. When do Twitter chats for marketing professionals take place? #ContentChat is Monday at 3 pm. #BufferChat is at noon on Wednesdays. #BizHeroes is at 2 pm on Tuesdays. Must be nice to have tweeting considered “work.” If teachers waste time at school, it simply means we have more work to take home. Other professionals might work more hours than teachers, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing more work.

Stop Apologizing

Teachers, let’s just be honest: Summer vacation is perk. No one else apologizes for their work perks. Why should we?

I’ll start feeling bad for enjoying my three months off when business people start feeling bad about their hour-long leisurely lunches at restaurants (that some write off as business expenses), their corporate junkets to Aspen, free tickets to sporting events, paid air travel and hotel stays that allow them to see the country on their company’s dime, high salaries, the ability to take a week off in October to vacation during non-peak times, workdays that permit (even encourage) dicking off on social media, paid water cooler conversations about last night’s episode of “The Bachelor,” and lots of other perks I don’t get as a teacher.

But since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, I’ll just enjoy my three months off.

Every glorious, sun-filled, relaxing day of it.

The Best Way to Thank Your Child’s Teacher

best thank teacher

School is out for the year in most places. Teachers are sleeping in. Parents have arranged for child care. Students are spinning fidgets or playing video games or getting in my way at the zoo (I don’t really know what students do with their free time anymore. I used to watch Matlock in the summer). Many teachers received gifts from the parents of their students during that last week of school. I saw them on Facebook, and I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t greatly appreciate them. In a world where genuine appreciation is as rare as political bipartisanship, even a token thank you stands out.

Gift cards, coffee mugs, thematic baskets, chocolate, and thank you cards are all great, but there is one way parents can thank their children’s teachers that beats them all. Few teachers receive this gift, even though it costs nothing, takes only a few minutes to put together, has lasting positive effects, and you can do it at any point of the school year, even now, when it’s over.

What is this wonderful, simple gift?

An email to the teacher’s principal.

Teachers Get Evaluated

Many parents may not be aware that teachers are evaluated yearly now. This is a relatively new thing, at least in practice. While there have always been teacher evaluation systems, the old ones were mostly formalities. The principal would let the teacher know he was coming, the teacher would teach, the principal would fill out a quick form that usually lacked teeth, and they’d all go on their merry ways.

Then, for lots of mostly bad reasons, politicians decided teachers were the main cause of society’s failures. They decided to weed out the bad ones. To do that, they needed some kind of system to identify the bad ones. They wanted to use test scores because test scores produce numbers and people like numbers. They seem objective. But then the forces of good convinced them that including principal observations should be part of the system, too.

So what does all this have to do with writing an email to the principal?

Principals Are Human

The system described above is meant to be objective, but it isn’t. Humans are involved. Humans have values and prejudices and feelings and all kinds of other humany things that make evaluating others objectively impossible. Two principals watching the same lesson will judge that lesson differently. Two principals will measure the value of teachers in their buildings differently.

In practice, the system actually works like this:

– A principal likes some teachers more than other teachers.
– The principal brings these biases with him when he observes teachers.
– Charitable view: Although he tells himself he’s being fair, his preference for one teacher over another shows through in his ratings.
– Less charitable view: The principal decides beforehand which teachers are going to get lower scores and then, no matter what he observes, he rates teachers accordingly. In other words, he says to himself, “Well, if the district is going to lay people off this year, I better make sure they lay off the teachers I’d rather not have in my building. One way to do that is to rate them poorly on observations.”

Humans Can Be Influenced

It is human nature to complain about things that annoy us and keep quiet when we’re satisfied. That means that if principals hear anything of the teachers in their buildings, it’s likely negative. The feedback principals receive about teachers either confirms or challenges their opinions.

Fortunately, positive feedback works the same way. Most principals are unaware of much of what happens. They can’t be everywhere all the time. They may not know anything about how well a teacher communicates with parents, or how a teacher inspired Timmy to read more at home, or the way a teacher makes learning fun. A principal might not notice the rapport a teacher has with her students. But if he receives three emails from parents praising the relationships their children have with their teacher, he’ll start to.

All of us are influenced by the opinions of others. It’s what makes hit songs, bestsellers, and blockbusters. It’s why one restaurant thrives while others close. It’s why I don’t admit to people that I don’t care for Monty Python, Wes Anderson movies, or Meryl Streep. When you hear from lots of people about how great something is, you start to think you’re the weird one. You keep those opinions to yourself. You question them. You look for evidence you’re wrong.

That’s why satisfied parents should email their child’s teacher’s principal. The more a principal hears good things about his teachers, the more likely it is he’ll start to believe them or at least question his own beliefs.

Don’t Just Tell the Teacher

Most years, I get a card from a parent thanking me. Often, the card will say something like, “Ivy really enjoys having you for her teacher. She didn’t like school before, but she’s excited to come this year.”

I love getting these cards. But I’d also love my principal to hear that, too.

Principals who hear good things about teachers will be less likely to evaluate those teachers poorly or considering moving them to different buildings or positions within their districts. Pissing off parents who have proven they’re willing to write emails to school administrators is one thing most principals will be very reluctant to do.

So if you think your child’s teacher did a good job this year, write an email to the principal saying so. It’s fast, easy, free, and will help the teacher more than anything you can get at a store.

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Feel like reading more? Try these:

10 Things Parents Just Don’t Understand About Teachers

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

 

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Proof Your Teacher Evaluation is Meaningless

meaningless
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It’s bad enough that part of teachers’ evaluations are based on student growth. This growth, usually based on just a few poorly designed assessments and for which students are not personally held accountable, can be affected by a number of factors completely outside the control of the teacher, such as student attendance, motivation, technical issues, and whether or not a kid remembered his glasses or whether or not mom remembered his medication on the critical day.

But even more egregious is that a large percentage of a teacher’s evaluation comes from administrator observations.

A principal is given a huge checklist of “best practices,” and is supposed to assess the teacher in real-time on each of them. They might do this a couple of times each year. Of the more than 1,000 hours that teachers do their jobs in a year, their evaluation may rest on just 80 minutes of observed teaching. In other words, a teacher’s entire year is judged on about one-tenth of one percent of her efforts.

That’s not the worst of it. Because in the case of observations, it’s not what districts are doing that proves teacher evaluations are meaningless. It’s what districts are not doing.

What Districts Won’t and Never Will Do

See if you can imagine your district doing the following:

On a day in May, say a week or two before you are to receive your end-of-year evaluation, the entire staff is invited to a one-hour professional development session. The topic is “Why Your Teacher Evaluation is Credible.” You all gather inside the high school auditorium. A huge screen is hung over the stage. In the front row sits every administrator the district employs.

The Superintendent walks to the microphone and says, “Valued educators, we know that many teachers feel stress over their evaluations. Today, we are going to alleviate some of that stress. We want you to know that the tool we use to evaluate you produces consistent results, no matter who uses it.

To prove it to you, we are all going to watch a 40-minute video of a lesson. In this case, you’ll be seeing a sixth grade social studies class. Each administrator will complete an observation–just like they do for all of you–while they watch the video. When the lesson ends, I will collect each principal’s observation and I will show them to you. That way, you will see that no matter who uses the tool it produces very similar results. You’ll know that your teacher evaluation is a true reflection of your abilities as an educator, and not the subjective result of an unproven process that encourages you to employ different strategies based solely on the whims and preferences of the person who happens to be your supervisor this year.”

At which point the video starts and the principals start tapping things on their iPads.

The fact that none of the above happens in any district I know of (and never will) tells teachers everything they need to know about the objectivity of the observations they’re forced to endure and are asked to believe in.

If you have a system that relies on the opinions and values of the individuals doing the scoring then you have a system that can’t be trusted.

Treat Teachers Like Gymnasts

Gymnastics recognizes this. Gymnastics, like teaching, is more art than science. Two people watching the same routine can honestly disagree about which was better. That’s why gymnasts are scored by multiple judges who have deep knowledge of the sport and receive rigorous training on how to evaluate routines. They’re given strict guidelines and add points for required elements and difficulty, while deducting for execution and artistry.*

And still they don’t agree. That’s why the high and low scores are thrown out and the rest are averaged. FIG recognizes that relying on the judgment of one person ruins the credibility of their sport. No viewer would trust the results of a gymnastics competition that was judged by a single person. The gymnasts wouldn’t trust those results, either.

Neither should teachers. It says something that we care more about getting it right for gymnasts than for teachers. It says something that school districts will never allow its teachers to see how subjective their administrators’ observations truly are. It says something that American teachers’ jobs are in the hands of one judge, who bases his or her evaluation on one-tenth of one percent of a teachers’ working hours.

One judge.

Better hope it’s not the Russian.**

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* I simplified Olympic gymnastics’ scoring for ease of reading.

** I’ve got nothing against Russians, except that they cheat in the Olympics.

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I wrote more about teacher evaluations here:

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

 

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Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

evaluation

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Evaluations are in. All of your good intentions, hard work, and personal sacrifice have been boiled down to a number and a label. Are you “highly effective” or “innovating,” or merely “developing,” like you’re an insect in its larval stage instead of a professional educator?

Whatever your label or your number, you shouldn’t take too much pride or allow yourself to feel any disappointment or shame over it. Your evaluation is meaningless.

My district uses Marzano and everything is entered into iObservation. The last step in the evaluation process is for me, the teacher, to go in and “acknowledge” my scores. Why this is necessary is a bit of a mystery, since I am in no way allowed to question or challenge my final score. The state of Michigan gives districts total power when it comes to teacher evaluations. No due process. No appeals. No presumption of effectiveness. It’s all very democratic, and obviously designed to help teachers get better (he said sarcastically).

Once I acknowledged my rating, I was then provided the opportunity to leave a comment. I guess this is iObservation’s way of throwing teachers a bone. We may not be allowed to tell our principal, “Actually, the stupid learning goal was on the board. You just didn’t see it,” but we can sound off in the comments section. As a reminder, that’s the section nobody reads.

Nevertheless, it was my only chance to offer any thoughts, so here’s what I wrote:

I continue to find the evaluations arbitrary, based on questionable data, and demoralizing to the profession. That 75% of any teacher’s evaluation is in the hands of a single individual should be cause for concern. That that individual, however well-meaning and effective he or she might be, bases most of his or her evaluation on a small sample size of a teacher’s instruction is also concerning. It’s a flawed model, operating inside of a flawed system, foisted upon professional educators who were given little opportunity to provide input to the flawed legislators who pushed for more accountability based on the flawed belief that American schools, and therefore the people who work inside of them, are failing. The whole thing is nonsense, and I therefore put no stock in the above numbers, whether they be high, low, or somewhere in between. It’s a shame that principals have to waste so much time on it.

To add to the above and to put everything in list form, here is why your evaluation is meaningless and therefore not worth hanging your head or puffing your chest over.

Your evaluation is likely composed of two parts: administrator observations and student growth data. Both have major problems.

Student Growth

  • The student growth portion of your evaluation is likely based on cruddy assessments. Mine was based on screeners, which were never intended for teacher evaluations.
  • Students are not held accountable for their performance on the cruddy assessments, which makes you wonder how much they really care about them, which makes you wonder how hard they try on them. (I’ll give you a hint: two of my students were done with the 30-question reading test in 10 minutes.)
  • In my district,  growth scores are harmed by students who start the year with already high numbers. They have the least room for improvement, and that lack of growth lowers teachers’ ratings.
  • The whole thing sets up terrible incentives, which I try my best to ignore. Teachers in my district joke about getting students to bomb the fall screener to show more growth. You could actively lobby for the lowest students to be on your class roster to have a better chance of showing growth. There’s no doubt that some teach to the screeners, so kids get the idea that reading is really about saying words super fast. The list goes on.
  • Those students who missed more than 20 days of school? Doesn’t matter. It’s somehow your fault they didn’t learn as much as they should have.

Observations

  • Most of the evaluation is based on principal observations. I had two.  If we only needed two songs to evaluate a band, Tesla would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Observations are only as good as the people making them.  They’re meaningless if principals across buildings and districts evaluate their teachers in different ways, which they do.
  • Observations are only reliable if we assume that principals can shelve their personal biases when observing a teacher and rely only on their training (assuming they received any).
  • Evaluations lose their meaning when those being evaluated are judged against different criteria. The current system assumes districts have at least a somewhat similar approach to evaluating teachers. They don’t.  My wife’s district handles the whole thing differently than my district. An “effective” teacher in one district won’t necessarily be effective in a neighboring district. Some districts make it nearly impossible to be “innovating,” while other districts start teachers out there and only lower them for cause. That makes the system junk.
  • Basing a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation on an administrator’s observations makes the system ripe for abuse. Observations might be an honest appraisal of your skills or they could be the result of office politics or personal grudges. If it’s the latter? Well, there’s always the comments section.

And why only observations and student growth, anyway? I’m a teacher, a service professional. Why don’t parents get a say in this? Why don’t the students?

I don’t mind being evaluated. I just wish my evaluation actually told me something, anything, about how well or poorly I do my job. Until it does, I find it hard to care. You should, too.