March 31, 2024

FTV: Student Teachers


     There is only one student teacher who will be named in this article and that would be me.  It has been nearly fifty years since I was a student teacher but it seems like it only happened yesterday.  I found myself mentoring a student teacher of my own a mere four years later and over the next three decades, eight or nine more would find themselves occupying my classroom for at least part of each day for a semester.  Some of my colleagues would say things like, “Oh sure, you get to take a semester off and let them do all the work,” but they were kidding . . . I think.  Guiding a student teacher actually turns out to be more work than simply teaching your own classes.  In many ways, it is as much a learning experience for the supervising teacher as it is for the student.  I am not sure how long some of them stayed in the education game, but to the ones who stuck with it, I can only say, “Oh, I am sorry!”  No, now I am kidding.  It was always exciting to hear one of my past charges was able to get a job in their chosen field.  Student teaching is a necessary step before one gets the official seal of approval (aka:  a license to teach) which allows one to get hired.  Most found out, as I did, that waiting for your first class to show up on opening day is the starting point where you really begin to ride without the training wheels.  On my first day on the job, I remember thinking, “Okay, am I ready for this?”

     Before we get too far, let me point out the three things I always thought the universities could do to help their students.  First, make student teaching a full year instead of a semester.  The best way to learn how to manage a class is having the time to see how an entire year knits together.  Secondly, assign ‘practice teachers’ a half day schedule.  It would make more sense for them to be assigned a half day of classes and a mentor teacher to work with (not necessarily side by side, like team teaching, but certainly in the same content area).  Proximity to a mentor can help a lot when one is trying to crack the code of how to manage a classroom.  One of the first realizations a new teaching hire makes is the vast amount of time it takes to plan, execute, and evaluate lessons.  Having a half day left to do all these tasks would give them a leg up when it comes to the quality of the instructional materials they would be presenting.  Lastly, all student teachers should be paid the regular wage of a beginning educator.  I have seen practice teachers try to hold down another job while paying to student teach.  They have to pay the bills and make ends meet during this time but quality suffers when the student teacher is exhausted and broke.  Student teaching needs to be more like an apprentish-ship.  With that said, the economic reality of the school districts who help train and hire new teachers has kept anything like this from happening.  Call it a pipe dream, but one of these days it might be worth a try.

     Not all mentor teachers operate from the same playbook.  We have all heard horror stories from some of our colleagues about their own student teaching experiences.  Some tossed them the keys to the room on day one and said, “I will be in the teacher’s lounge if you need me.”  Others hovered at the back of the room and corrected any mistakes they observed, sometimes right in the middle of a class period.  I always told new student teachers that neither of these scenarios would work for them or for me.  Once they were comfortable and had a lesson plan blocked up (usually a month or so into the semester), I would leave them to run the show and not be looking over their shoulder.  If a problem came up, they would have to deal with it and we would discuss the specifics later, not in front of the class.  If there were specific problem students in a section, I would keep tabs on them but not intervene unless it was a major disruption.  Once cornered about their behavior, even the most hard core disrupter can be shown the error of their ways.  Final verdict from me was, “They will stay in the class but, student, you can be removed.”

     My fourth year was a big change for me after teaching seventh grade Geography / Earth Science (and a study hall) for two years, and one section of eighth grade science (for one year).  Principal Jim Ollila asked, “How would you feel about teaching History 7 for three hours and GES 7 the other three periods?”  He was pleased when I told him I have always liked the subject and had actually student taught 8th grade Social Studies.  Once the fall arrived, he surprised me again by asking,  “Would you be willing to work with a student teacher for the History classes next semester?”  This student teacher was going to spend half a day with a high school math teacher but nobody there was interested in taking him on in the History Department.  

     On our first meeting, I told this young man I was looking forward to him showing me the ropes of teaching history.  I say ‘young man’ as he was all of four years my junior.  We had similar ideas on how to engage junior high students (include a lot of project work, maps, and audio/visual materials) to keep it from being a ‘lecture, worksheet, quiz’ format.  He was confident and had definite ideas on how he wanted to guide the class so it was a great experience for me as well as our students.  A gifted athlete, he was a welcome addition when the teachers squared off with the boys basketball team in our annual grudge match.  The last I heard, he was teaching and coaching.  For my part, that was the only year I spent teaching seventh grade history but I never knew if those skills would be dusted off again in the future.

     My second opportunity to supervise a student teacher game in 1981.  I was now married and we had a young daughter.  My teaching schedule was evenly split between the 7th and 8th grade science classes.  The student teacher was actually an electrician who decided to get into education, but his primary interests were Phy Ed and Biology.  I winced a bit to tell him, “Sure, you can do a six week lesson plan in Biology with the 8th grade science classes,” even though my main focus had always been physical sciences.  We invited him over for dinner a couple of times and he offered to fix a couple of electrical issues we were having.  He didn’t want to get paid for being ‘Mr. Fixit’, but we felt better about helping him.  He had a family himself and the semester with no pay was hard on them.  As with my previous History class, watching him create materials for an area I was not trained was interesting.  I dug out some of his ideas thirty years later when I was assigned a JH Health class to fill out my schedule.  Like my experience teaching seventh grade History, Health was a one-off class I was never asked to teach again but it was still a good experience.

     During the latter part of the 1980s, Brian Mattson from the Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District office in Bergland gave me an opportunity that transformed my entire teaching style.  A renowned educator from California was going to be in Michigan to promote a new initiative he had developed and implemented out west called Activities Integrating Math and Science (AIMS for short).  The original workshops were to be held in Grand Rapids and Flint if memory serves me correctly.  I declined the offer to attend.  To spend three days (two travel, one for the four hour workshop) didn’t work for me.  Other U.P. educators must have felt the same as they adjusted the plan and decided to offer another workshop session in Escanaba.  Having told Brian, “Thanks, but no thanks.  If they hold it anywhere in the U.P. I will go,”  there was no way I could turn him down again.

     With concerns about lagging science achievement test scores across the state, the Michigan Department of Education was looking for ways to better engage students in Science.  The AIMS concept was simple – give kids hands-on activities to excite them about the subject.  Much of my generation were taught by instructors who  simply told us how things worked.  It took this one four hour workshop and I was all in.  I am not saying I had done a bad job up to then, but new educators tended to ‘teach as they were taught’.  The AIMS activities were designed to give teachers with minimal science background ways to teach ‘real science’ to their students.  Teachers with a background in the subject matter found these activities to be sound, information wise.  These activity based lessons were more exciting for students and teachers than endless hours of  lecturing.

     The second phase of this state-wide program was a three year run of local workshops.  Brian asked me if I would like to be part of a two person workshop team that would present AIMS workshops in Hancock.  The plan was to have three workshops per year for three years and I was more than happy to be in on the ground floor.  I thought, “If I learned so much in one workshop, think how much I can take away planning nine more over three years!”  A few weeks later, Brian called me back and said, “We have so many teachers signed up, we need to run the same set of workshops in Bergland.  Well, that and the teachers from the Western U.P. are in a different time zone than Hancock and are not thrilled with having to travel there.  Would you be willing to run the Bergland sessions on your own?”  “Sign me up!” came out of my mouth without me thinking about the ‘on your own’ part.  Apparently, the Bergland workshops were the only sessions that were run in the state without  tag-team presenters.

     Setting up three full day workshops was a job in itself.  As I suspected, I was able to identify a lot of activities to use in my own classes and admitted as much to the participants at the first session.  To squeeze the maximum amount of hands-on work in as possible, I set up a series of activities and had the teachers rotate through them in pairs.  There is no better way to show teachers how much fun teaching these kinds of science activities can be than to have them actually do them.  “Doing is believing,” is how I put it.  There were some bumps in the road but the first year went pretty well considering I had never run teacher training workshops myself.  I told Brian, “Hey, I am already looking forward to next year but I will only do them under one condition.  I need a partner.”  Brian thought this was a great idea and starting with year two, we became the ‘Ken and Chuck’ show.  From that point on, anytime I had a student teacher, they also became part of our traveling science workshop team.

     Once the initial three year run was up, we were asked to continue running workshops during the summers and during the school year.  The summer workshops took us to Iron Mountain / Kingsford and Ironwood.  School year programs were scheduled in Houghton, Bergland, White Pine, Ewen, and Ontonagon.  Our first sessions in Iron Mountain coincided with the Dickinson/Iron ISD introducing a Starlab Portable Planetarium as a resource.  Brian listened to our excited description of the Starlab program, and before we knew it, he had purchased one for our end of the Upper Peninsula.  The Ken and Chuck show added ‘Starlab trainers for the western U.P.’ to our resume.  I always maintain that the 25 years I spent running the AIMS and Starlab  workshops was my informal PhD program in how to teach hands-on science.  Including my student teachers to help run the sessions helped their understanding of the ‘how and why’ these kinds of activities were so effective. 

     One particular student teacher was able to parlay assisting with our hands-on activity workshop in Ironwood into a summer job.  The Ironwood Area Schools liked the program enough they decided to run a summer academy focused on this kind of science teaching.  He talked himself into a job for the summer after his spring student teaching stint.  I ran into him later and asked, “Well, how did it go?  Do you have your foot in the door to get hired full time?”  He smiled and said, “Ah, not really.”  He explained they had taken a trip to Wisconsin for a day of outdoor education that included horseback riding.  When it was time for the bus to depart, one of the students had not returned to the staging area.  The organizers there said this was a longer trail and sometimes the horses decided to take their time.  The location was not that far from Ironwood so they told him, “Take the students back on the bus and come back with your car.  By the time you get back, they will finally be here.”  

     This sounded reasonable to the former student teacher and all ended well – at least until he arrived back at the school with the ‘lost’ student.  The superintendent of schools himself was waiting and informed him the proper thing would have been to wait until all the students returned, even if it made them all late getting back to school.  The teacher on the hot seat disagreed (and I agreed with his course of action).  That pretty much sealed the deal future employment wise.  Happily, I can report a school in Green Bay had no reservations hiring him even after he explained what had happened during his summer job.  In fact, we tried to recruit him for our own district but by the time I tracked him down, he was committed to Green Bay.

     There was a period of time when the ‘Ken and Chuck Show’ organized two weeks of activities for the elementary classes in Ontonagon.  The occasion was the annual nation-wide observation of Science Week.  Our student teachers were again put to work.  We would divide up the classes and rotate through a series of hands-on science activities that culminated in a massive launch of helium balloons.  We needed a way to get the elementary teachers involved in running hands-on science in their classes so we literally took the workshop to them for several years in a row.  Gathering all the materials and organizing the schedule took a lot of time and it was always great to turn over some of the activities to a student teacher.  The only drawback?  We also needed to make sure we had sufficient class work for our own classes during the two weeks we were engaged at the elementary building.

     The idea of launching hundreds of helium balloons started off as a weather project.  Each student would fill out a return postcard that was attached to their balloon.  The card asked anyone who found it to fill out their location and mail it back to us.  In our remote area, the returns were spotty but at least a couple made it to the central U.P., northern Wisconsin, and in one case, the southern shore of Lake Michigan near Traverse City.  Ecological concerns eventually overrode the ‘good science’ aspect of this activity, but it was still a lot of fun while it lasted.  I remember one student teacher wondering why we didn’t launch balloons every week if it was so much fun.  After filling 500 balloons and delivering them to the classrooms, we gathered outside and watched them all take to the sky at once.  By the time the last balloons disappeared from sight, the same student teacher said, “I see why you don’t do it more often.  That was a lot of work!”

     There are more student teaching stories to tell so we will need to come back for Part 2 at a later date.  Anybody who has gone through the experience will have their own war stories about that fun and frolic time known as ‘student teaching’. 

Top Piece Video – Of course there are songs about teachers . . .