A Brick in the Road: 10 Tips for Student Teachers

Oh my gosh you have to meet Brittany Cohen a first year teacher. She has amazing advice for all of you student teachers out there! We immediately bonded over our love for all things Wizard of OZ! Here she is:

10 Tips for Student Teachers

Having a strong spiritual connection to Wizard of Oz, I'd like to compare my student teaching experience to that of Dorothy Gale. Dorothy, a young girl trying to find her purpose "over the rainbow somewhere,” takes a journey where she gets lost, makes a few special friends, faces her fears, and  realizes her full potential. With the click of her heels, she finds her way back home, feeling content and well-adjusted.

Student teaching was not nearly as simple as clicking my heels, but I certainly  made some incredible friends, had mentors that were as strong and powerful as Glinda, and made it out alive; twice. I won't lie, most days getting through student teaching felt like stumbling through the woods while malicious trees pelted me with apples.  However, I had other days where I had plenty of  little munchkins and wonderful characters that helped  me find the courage to keep going.

Eventually, I found  my place as a Special Education teacher and I get to teach the most resilient, funny, brilliant students  in the world. As you approach  this brick in the road that will lead you to your own home as a teacher, I'd like to reach into my little black bag of student teaching experiences, and offer you some tips that might help you along the way.

1. Love Those Little Munchkins, No Matter What

When I began student teaching, I often daydreamed about meeting my students. In my mind, I had the best behaved, most positive little munchkins who loved school and followed every direction. On my first day, I stood in front of them for the first time and realized this was simply a daydream.

My "perfect" students turned out to be talkative and squirmy who would lose focus, get angry at me, and sometimes try to tear me apart limb from limb. By the time I finished my first activity with them, I felt as though my arms were thrown one way and my legs the other. What I realized, was that it was not important to have "perfect" students, but to love them for who they were and help them. Above all else, the most important part of student teaching is showing your students that you love them on a daily basis.

Build a trust with them, get to know what makes their little hearts tick, what gives them the spooks, what helps their little brains grow. Be firm, fair, and show that they can come to you for anything. Chances are, they are dealing with emotions that make them grab their tails and shake with fear. I remember I had a little munchkin who was afraid of bees and would have panic attacks if she saw any at recess. I helped her overcome this fear by teaching her to take deep breaths and remember that she was bigger and stronger than any bee. After this interaction, she felt she could come to me with any other concern she had during the school day, and we built a trust with one another. Build this trust, make these connections, and then everything else will fall into place.

2. Grab Arms With Your Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow

Dorothy was lucky because although she ventured into the land of Oz on her own, she found her crew right away. She had the Scarecrow reminding her that it was okay to not know everything in the world. The Cowardly Lion showing her how to fight through anxiety and find courage within, and The Tin Man encouraging her to never lose heart.

When I was student teaching, I was lucky enough to have my own special crew because I had been assigned to a school in which I worked for several years. While you might be starting at a school where you might not know everyone, keep in mind that each school has their own lovable figures. There are new teachers who feel as though they have straw for brains and would like nothing more than to learn along the way with you; there are teachers and staff who face incredible anxieties, but can offer you tools and hugs to get you through your own, and  most of all, there are teachers and staff who have hearts so big you can hear them  ticking through the hallways. Find those teachers and staff who will fill these roles for you. If you are not sure where to start, start with your grade level team. Get to know them and go to them for anything you need. Get to know everyone from the paraprofessionals to the custodians. Grab arms with those people who will help you face all those lions, tigers, and bears, no matter who they are.

3. Don't Worry, Your Supervisor Is not a Wicked Witch  

I am extremely grateful that my student teaching supervisor was a Glinda-type. She gave me my metaphorical ruby-red slippers, offered kindness, understanding, and constant reassurance. There were plenty of times during my student teaching where I felt as though I was stuck in a twister of emotions and preferred laying crushed under a fallen house, rather than face the classroom every day. During these times, my supervisor reminded me of my potential and passion for teaching. As a new student teacher, you might be feeling a bit intimidated by your supervisor, especially when they come in for observations. However, they can be an extremely valuable resource, so go to them for anything that you need. If you are nervous about an upcoming observation, reach out and ask what you might expect. If you are feeling discouraged by your evaluation score, be honest and ask what you can do to improve. I promise, they will not drop a house on you. In regards to your observations, just remember to engage with your students, have well-planned lessons, and above all, put forth your best effort. I had four observations during my program, but no matter how many you have, you have the power to rock them.  Check out www.sfecich.com/16 for supervisor secret sauce!

4. Grab That Tail, Face Those Spooks, Ask Those Questions

Throughout my whole student teaching experience, I was terrified to ask questions. Every time I wanted to ask a question to my cooperating teacher or anyone else who I felt were greater than Oz, I stumbled through my words and preferred jumping out of a stained-glass window to asking for what I needed.

What I learned though, is that asking questions is not only necessary to grow and learn as a student teacher, but it prevents miscommunications and  small mistakes. So please, face those spooks and ask those questions. Ask how to fill out your teaching log, and find out how to  use a high-tech pencil sharpener, or even, yes, that dreaded SmartBoard. Remember that you are not yet a teacher, but a student teacher, and you are there to learn. No one expects you  to know everything. After all, questions are really only as intimidating as that man behind the curtain.

5. I Think I'll Miss My Cooperating Teachers The Most

One of the best parts of student teaching is being able to learn under a great and powerful cooperating teacher. Cooperating teachers share their resources, students, and years of wisdom with you.  If you are lucky, you might end up hugging your cooperating teacher on the last day of your program like Dorothy and the Scarecrow, saying, "I think I'll miss you the most." However, this kind of relationship does not happen as easily as it happened with Dorothy and the Scarecrow.

Building a strong relationship with your cooperating teacher takes compromise, trust, communication, and  understanding. When you are in a classroom with another human being, trying to wrangle all of the responsibilities that come along with teaching twenty or more little munchkins at once, tension will arise. In these times, the most important thing to do is communicate. Take the time to sit down with each other and discuss what might have gone wrong and ultimately how to fix it. In my own experience with my cooperating teachers, the most productive conversations were those that consisted of vulnerability, honesty on both sides, and clarity of what we both needed to survive the school day. As a student teacher, you might feel the pressure to put on a brave face and  take what is thrown at you, but do not be afraid to be real with yourself as well as your cooperating teacher.

6. No, Your Brain Is Not Made of Straw

Most of my time student teaching, I felt as though my brain was made of straw. I was surrounded by these brilliant veteran teachers who had a wealth of knowledge that I did not think I would ever attain. Eventually, I realized that instead of feeling discouraged about the knowledge I did not have, I should build on the knowledge I had from the get-go. Personally, Social Studies was the content area I felt the least confident.

After a few pretty honest and tough conversations with my cooperating teacher about how crucial it was to know and convey history to our students, I took measures to strengthen this content knowledge. I read through textbooks, watched documentaries, and applied historical events to my own interests. I even studied from the point of view of my students and used a lot of resources intended for them to better understand the subject. Wherever you are as far as content knowledge, remember that you  have a smart brain in there. When you start to get discouraged and sing in an artificial corn field, use your resources, and start studying. 

7. Remember You Have A Heart, Can You Feel It Ticking?

There were plenty of times student teaching where I cried so much that I thought I would need an oil can to keep from rusting over. I would get so discouraged that I would forget why I even wanted to teach in the first place. While I would not wish this feeling on any other student teacher, it is likely this will happen.

In these times, remember what it was that put you on this yellow brick road in the first place. Perhaps what made you love teaching was working with kids and watching them grow, or learning something new every day. Perhaps it was that feeling of a warm pile of copies freshly printed from the copy machine, or the excitement you get over seeing new school supplies at Target. Remember that you have a heart for this, and feel it ticking.

8. You've Always Had The Power, Don't Let Anyone Take It From You

You might even have little munchkins waiting to push you over the edge with all their might. Be confident. Be you. Remember that you've always had the power to teach and teach well.

9. Close Your Eyes, Click Those Heels, And Breathe

Student teaching can be overwhelming, and sometimes makes you feel as though you are racing against an hourglass, with sand quickly depleting. In these moments, pause and just breathe. Go to the bathroom or the teacher's lounge and breathe by yourself; breathe with your cooperating teacher; stand  in front of the classroom and breathe with your students. Chances are, they will all need it too. Click your heels if you have to. The hourglass can wait.

10. Find Your Way Over The Rainbow, And Keep Going

On my last day of student teaching, one of my little munchkins gave me a card and upon reading it, I remembered what made it all worth it. I thought I would be able to walk out of the classroom on my last day without feeling sad, but when I got this card, I knew I had a heart, because, it was breaking. Student teaching was the most thrilling and rigorous experience of my career thus far. However, I made it through with more brains, courage, and heart than when I began. You will make it, too. Just take my little munchkin’s advice and keep going.

I want to give a special thanks to Samantha Fecich for inviting me to write for her blog. Samantha, when I was going through my darkest days as a student teacher, you reached out to me and told me, "you have the heart, brains, and courage to be an educator of excellence." Thank you for those words, and for helping me make it through student teaching. Fellow student teachers out there, take these words and carry them with you on your own journey down the yellow brick road of student teaching! 

My name is Brittany Cohen, and I am a recent graduate of Grand Canyon University with a Masters in Elementary Education. I am currently a Special Education teacher at an alternative school in Germantown for emotionally at-risk youth. I have been teaching for about a half a school year, and I’m about to venture into my first official full year of teaching. I teach the most resilient, funny, knowledgeable students in the world, and absolutely love teaching.

Instagram: imafraidivecaughtpoetry

Website of EduAwesomeness: https://www.portfoliogen.com/brittany-c3edf3bb

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