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How to Mentor a Student Teacher

Kim Haynes

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of TeachHUB Magazine.

Who helped you become the teacher you are today? For many teachers, the mentor who supervised their student teaching played a major role in their development.

Before You Mentor a Student Teacher

Think about expectations – the training program’ s, the student teacher’s, and your own. Student teachers have a list of tasks to accomplish, including designing lesson plans and teaching the class. Make sure you know what those tasks are. When you meet your student teacher, ask about her personal goals for the experience. You may not be able to grant all her wishes, but if you know she’s eager to try using the interactive whiteboard, maybe you can arrange for her to try it out. Finally, what are your own expectations? A student teacher isn’t there to be your personal assistant, and she won’t do all your teaching for you. Talk to colleagues who have mentored teachers to get an idea of what to expect.

Be Ready to be a Model

Here’s what it means to be a model: You don’t need to be a perfect teacher, but you need to be open to discussing how and why you do things. Are you willing to explain why you handled that discipline issue a certain way or how you knew to jettison your original lesson plan in favor of a “teachable moment?” Being a model also means letting your student teacher know when you’ve made a mistake. All teachers are still learning and getting better (hopefully), and it’s great for a student teacher to hear an experienced colleague say, “That probably wasn’t the best way to handle this situation. It would have been better if I had …”

Once You’ve Got Your Student Teacher

Publicly treat them as a colleague – the student teacher isn’t a full-fledged colleague – yet. But next year, he might be. So especially in front of students, parents, other faculty members and administrators, treat your student teacher with respect. Don’t call him a “helper” to your students; he’s another teacher. When your student teacher makes a mistake, correct him in private. How would you feel if a colleague walked in on one of your lessons and told you – in front of your students – that you’re doing it wrong? What effect would that have on the kids’ willingness to listen to you? Don’t do that to your student teacher.

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Involve them in the life of the school – if you restrict your student teacher’s experience to planning and teaching a few lessons, how prepared is she for life as a teacher? Answer: not very. Make an effort to include your student teacher in conferences, IEP meetings, faculty meetings, extracurricular activities and so on. She needs to see the fun stuff and the challenges that you deal with outside the classroom. Only then will she have a true picture of the life of a teacher.

Give Feedback – arrange private conversations with your student teacher to provide feedback on lesson plans, observed lessons, and more. Make an effort to be positive. Like the students in your classroom, student teachers need to know what they’re doing right as well as what they’re doing wrong. Give constructive feedback and ask questions. Don’t make assumptions about what your student teacher knows or why he taught things a certain way. Encourage “dumb” questions. If possible, share some of your own early teacher mistakes to reassure him that we all survive those awkward classroom moments.

Help with classroom management – many student teachers have no idea what it’s like to handle a real classroom with kids texting each other, losing their papers, or sleeping in the corner. Be supportive. Be sympathetic if this year’s “problem child” is driving your student teacher nuts. Share techniques you like to use and listen to any ideas the student teacher might have.

Encourage them to build up their resources – when she finally has her first “real” teaching job, your student teacher may be too overwhelmed to think about neat bulletin board designs or great interactive resources. This is the time to build up her collection of resource materials. Share websites, books, or other materials that you like. Suggest that she ask questions of your colleagues, take photos of bulletin board displays (with permission), or make friends with your librarian or technology staff to learn about the additional resources they can recommend. She’ll thank you later.

If Your Student Teacher is Really Bad … or Really Good

What if your student teacher just isn’t working out? Don’t leap to that conclusion too quickly: He may not realize what he’s doing wrong. For example, some student teachers want to be “friends” with the students and may not realize the discipline problem that creates. With coaching from you, he may recognize the problem and adjust. Document any ongoing issues and give clear feedback to the student teacher. Allow time for him to address the situation. If it still isn’t resolved, contact the student’s supervisor at their training program. Of course, a serious problem needs to be addressed with the supervisor immediately.

If you’re lucky enough to get a really good student teacher, take advantage of it! Learn from her work – she brings a different perspective to the content and might have ideas you would never have thought of. Consider team-teaching a unit on something you’re both excited about, or ask permission to continue to use her lesson plans in your classroom after she’s left.

Keep in mind that a mentor teacher is often a very valuable source of letters of recommendation. Make notes throughout the student teacher’s time with you so you have specific details to refer to in these letters.

Mentoring a student teacher is a great way to give back to the profession. It also provides you with an opportunity to reflect on your own teaching practice. Like many things in the field of education, it is time-consuming - but immensely rewarding.