The first year of student teaching was a whirlwind. While every day seemed to stretch on forever, the time I spent as a student teacher seems like it went by so fast. There were many highs and lows over the nine months I spent in my master teacher’s classroom. Here are the biggest things I learned through the program.
Teaching is super physical
I didn’t realize how much standing, walking, and especially, talking went into teaching. I had a fairly active job as a retail manager so the standing and walking wasn’t new for me, but the talking portion was. My classroom was huge and I had to really project my voice so that the students in the back could hear me. I also had to constantly walk around the room to ensure students were on task or answer their questions. It was something I got used to as time went on but I never appreciated the wear and tear that teaching takes on your body. It was also hard to drink enough water and not have to use the restroom during class. I have a new respect for the ways teachers can train their bodies to wait until the break.
Lessons flop… a lot
Not entire lessons really (although that does happen) but little pieces of lessons flop all the time. Things that you are really excited about go over like a lead balloon. Discussions that you thought would take 20 minutes take five because no one wants to participate. Students don’t understand the way you worded the instructions. There’s so many ways things can flop even if you have a good plan. At first, it was hard not to get flustered or beat myself up about it. As time went on, I learned to just take it in stride because the students don’t really know if your lessons aren’t going to plan anyway. At the end of the day, as long as there is a good lesson place in plan with enough flexibility to allow for little flops, you can recover from anything. And I learned it’s always good to have more planned for the day than you can get through just in case things move more quickly than you expected. Better to have too much than not enough.
Classroom community is worth fighting for
Taking the time to build classroom community is invaluable for the ways it impacts student engagement, learning, and output. It can be so tempting to get into the content right off the bat because I love art and am so excited to share my passion with students. However, taking some days to get to know the students, play ice-breaker games, get them to talk and open up makes a huge difference in their buy-in. It also helps students to feel more comfortable with partner critiques or voicing their opinions in discussions. I spent a ton of time on community with my beginning art class and I felt that it paid off in the ways I was able to get them to interact with each other and the respect I saw them showing each other. Sharing your art and ideas isn’t easy and can make anyone feel vulnerable, taking the extra time to make a positive classroom environment ensures students are sharing so much more authentically and having fun with it. I also really enjoyed seeing the students form new friendships throughout the year.
Stick with the people that love what they do
Teachers have incredibly hard jobs and it can be easy to feel burnout. Some teachers have felt the backlash from districts and administrations over and over again. Many feel under appreciated, under payed and over worked. However, you will find that some teachers want to continuously vent frustrations about everything from parents, to students, to other teachers. Everyone vents about their job at one point or another and it can be easy to fall into these conversations to build rapport or feel included. However, it can quickly become overwhelming and start to disillusion you from your job. I learned this pretty quickly in my student teaching. I was so excited to be there, I really didn’t enjoy getting caught up in the drama of teachers who were burnt out and not taking care of themselves. I decided to stick with teachers who were handling their careers well, that were excited to come to work despite challenges and gave advice from the solution perspective. In the profession, these mentors are referred to as “marigolds” because they help other people grow in their roles, just like marigolds help other plants grow in the garden. I really learned to leave gossip behind and stick with people who enjoyed teaching and would help me to grow. My master teacher was, and continues to be, a great “marigold”
Never stop learning
This has been one of my favorite aspects of the teaching profession. I have the excuse, really the duty, to continue to learn everything I can about art and education. I have to stay current with what’s going on in the art world and continuously expand my knowledge so that my lessons are always fresh and relevant and never stagnant. I also have to stay up on education practices and try new things in my classroom, again so things stay fresh and students stay engaged. I love reading books on different art theory and now I love reading about educational theory as well. To be a teacher is really to be an eternal scholar and student yourself. I really love that part of the job. I have continual motivation to keep learning and sharing that knowledge with others. I hope that in 30 years, I’ll have learned many different things about art and education and never teach the same thing in the same way twice.
Teenagers are actually pretty cool
When I say I teach high school, I get a lot of people who say, “how do you do it? Don’t they all have horrible attitudes?” and really, my experience (albeit of one year!) has been extremely positive. Of course they can have moody days and they do spend a lot of time on their phones, but they’re really neat to be around and I love seeing them experimenting with who they are and what they like and trying out new styles and new ways of communicating. It’s fun to talk to them about what they’re doing and what they’re excited about in their lives. It’s humbling to help them with their problems when they come to you for advice. It’s really exciting to share art with them and open their minds to new ideas and hear their thoughts. One of my favorite days was when we took a field trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the students discussed some of the work i a group with me and a docent. I was blown away by their insights and what they thought about the art and how they were seeing the art and experiencing it in their own way. I am so excited to continue to work with high school students during their mercurial time of life.
Take time to reflect
I am in the habit of reflecting a lot in my personal life. I love to journal and write about how I’m accomplishing my goals and just how life is going. This habit carried over into my teaching practice and I found it helpful. I would sit for about 20 minutes after teaching my lessons and reflect on how the lessons went and what I would change about the content or delivery the next time I taught something similar. Sometimes I would talk about it with my guide teacher or my university supervisor. It helped me to see where I could do better, what was working well, what to do more of, and what maybe needed to be abandoned all together. I would write these reflections in my lesson plan book so that I could refer back to them in the future. I will continue this practice in my first few years (and probably beyond!) of teaching. It was helpful to sit and reflect and also acknowledge that I had control over so many variables to make a great lesson. I had lots of hits and misses in my lessons and reflecting helped me to celebrate the wins and see the opportunities more clearly.
Treating each day as a new day will save your sanity
This was probably the biggest lesson I learned and the one that benefitted me the most during my student teaching experience. When I would walk out of the door at the end of the day, I would leave any bad vibes behind. And as I walked in the door each day, I got excited and filled myself with positive feelings. Of course, sometimes I had crappy interactions with students. Ones where either I or they got frustrated, sometimes students were uncooperative, sometimes they were just having a bad day, or maybe I was too. But I made the conscious effort to leave these interactions in the classroom at the end of the day and forget them the next. I never let a bad interaction with a student on Monday affect the way I treated him on Tuesday. Of course, if there was anything serious, a quick one-on-one conversation would usually fix the issue, but any silly little misunderstandings did not affect my teaching or interactions with students beyond the class period. I found that this attitude really paid off. Students generally want to do well and be on your good side. However, they’re humans and sometimes have outbursts of bad attitudes or uncooperativeness. I saw that by me treating them new and fresh everyday really helped to build my relationships and create a positive classroom climate. It really worked for me and it’s something I will continue to do in my teaching.
I obviously learned so many other things too like Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (hah!) but these things were the biggest takeaways for me from student teaching. It was such a whirlwind experience and I can’t believe I will be starting my first year of teaching art in just one week! I will continue my reflection practice, learning as much as I can on my own time, and seeing each day as a fresh start. It’s an exciting time in my career and I’m looking forward to learning more as the years of teaching go on. If you’ve been a student teacher, what were some of your main lessons from your experience? I’d love to know what you felt was the most valuable learning. Hope you’re enjoying the last few moments of summer. - Sierra