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Advice for the Student Teacher

photography, stress, 14 Nov 2009, Alan Cleaver, Flickr CC
Question 

I am a student teacher in an urban high school. I have three U.S. History courses and a Contemporary U.S. History course (thematic by decades starting in the 1950s). I am stuck between a classroom teacher (CT) who wants me to spoon feed my students and have them copy my notes and my completed graphic organizer and an advisor who wants to fail me for doing so. Do you have any suggestions as to how to please them both?

Answer 

Sound like you are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place!

As a student teacher, your powers and authority are limited, and in many programs, your advisor or university supervisor would be the person most expected to help you navigate difficulties at your field placement. But you seem to be caught in the middle and the stakes are significant given the students in your classroom and your need for good recommendations in your future job search.

Here are some ideas:

Enlist support from your advisor and the program.
Explain to your advisor the two different, and competing, sets of expectations that you are trying to meet. Before doing so, rehearse ways to do so that focus on your understanding and difficulties rather than faulting either of these mentors. Ask for your supervisor’s help in getting permission to try some different kinds of activities and lessons with your students. Help in this situation might include a three-way meeting where your desire to depart from some of the CT’s routines is discussed and a plan for doing so is agreed to by all.

If this conversation is a dead end, you may want to check in with another teacher educator in your program. Programmatic customs for navigating gaps between placement and university-endorsed practices may already exist, as this gap is one that many teacher-educators have managed. Additionally, policies regarding independent student teaching where you take full responsibility for planning, teaching, and assessing lessons may be in place and these can support your independent decision-making. In my view, the program bears some responsibility to support you through difficult situations at your placement, especially those that impede student learning or your own.

Make incremental changes in lessons.
You describe what your CT wants you to do as: “spoon feed my students and have them copy my notes and my completed graphic organizer.” It may be worth seeing if you can tweak this approach, allowing for more student-generated thinking and activity while not changing it entirely. For example: can students take notes and then work on the graphic organizer individually or in pairs? This could then lead to a full class discussion. Could you integrate questions into the lesson that prompt students to share their thoughts or analysis? Could you start the lesson with a close examination of an image or quotation that leads into the day’s main objectives?

My point here is that rather than thinking of this as an either/or situation—that is, either wholly accepting or abandoning your CT’s methods—you identify a few ways to increase the level of student activity and thinking in a day’s lesson. Making these kinds of incremental changes may be more acceptable to your CT. (For example of such ideas, see this blog about making lectures more interactive or these two entries about ways to use textbooks.)

Show that you’re ready to depart from the CT’s script.
Have you planned some lessons that are more aligned with prompting students’ active engagement with texts, ideas, or problems? It may be that showing that you have done some careful planning and thinking can ease your CT’s requirements. It could even be a lesson that you’ve adapted from a well-respected website (see our Lesson Plan Reviews for some ideas.) Doing this kind of homework could also help your supervisor see that you are also trying to meet his/her expectations.

Overall, approach both your CT and advisor with respect for their experience, if not their expertise. While it sounds like you will not want to emulate your CT’s approach, there is still likely something to be learned from her. For example, does she use effective strategies for delivering direct instruction or managing the class? Don’t overlook the aspects of teaching that your CT does well.

And make clear and consistent communication your friend. It may be that neither of these mentors know the dilemma that you are feeling. To be a teaching professional is to also be an advocate for your students and for yourself as professional. Ask for help, explain the situation as you see it while assuming good intent from those involved, and hopefully the three of you can come to an understanding that works for you and your students.

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