Dear Preservice Teacher:


For nearly 25 years now, by mid-August, I fall asleep and wake up with gnawing little anxieties about the school year to come. Will my plans fall into place? Will a workable, energized classroom climate emerge?  Can I juggle what I know to be a staggering load of preparation, papers, extracurricular responsibilities and professional duties?  Why haven't I completed all the preparation and planning for the new units I have committed to teach? Will this be the year when I finally encounter the intractable student whose will and wiles are stronger than mine? 


Frankly, the only teaching seasons I didn't have these feelings were my semester of student teaching and my first year on the job. Armed with that transcript of As, a student resume of successes, and tons of experiences as camp counselor, youth group leader, and chaperone, I was prepared. I knew what teaching was all about.  I had no reason to be anxious. Yeah, right!


If you, however, feel inadequate, unprepared, a bit intimidated, or even actually scared as you approach student teaching, good for you! You'll be teachable, impressionable, open, adrenaline-charged, eager to discover what works and what doesn't, determined to learn more than you need to know.  You'll watch not only your mentor teacher, but also every other teacher as you continually build that repertoire of teaching skills. And if you go on to be a truly fine teacher, you'll experience that little twinge of anxiety every August throughout your career. Please don't approach student teaching to show what you know; approach student teaching to learn whatever you can.


How have you prepared to be a language arts teacher?  Do you read, read, read as personal choice?  Do you write, write, write as a way of processing, reflecting, organizing, and communicating. Do you watch and listen with depth and intensity?  Do you speak clearly, vibrantly, purposefully?  Have you mastered the basics of grammar and usage to the point that you can evaluate and edit the writing of others? Have you read widely enough to be familiar with the literature of the English canon as well as the multicultural traditions of the United States and the world? Have you a fair sense of historical and cultural frameworks on which "to hang" these literary works? Are you fairly fluent in computer use including preparing web pages, creating Power Point presentations, researching and evaluating Internet resources? Can you use and teach the resources of a print library with speed and efficiency?  Whew…stop!  Of course not!   Such content /skills preparation is life-long! When you think you're ready to stop soaking up and reshaping content /skills, quit teaching. You have little to offer learners.


What expectations might your mentor teacher have of you? That you will intensely and passionately care first about the welfare of his or her students. Those students, frankly, are more important to your mentor than you are. They come first!


Your mentor teacher may interrupt, intervene, restructure, even dictate how the classroom will work—if your mentor teacher truly cares more about your learning to teach than about his or her getting a lounge break. Live with it! Be respectful, attentive, observant, and flexible. You DO NOT know more than your mentor teacher does, although you may have more natural teaching gifts. No, you may not teach whatever you're “interested in.” You will be able to do things "your way" all too soon. Your mentor teacher has invited you, as a guest, onto the most precious turf there is—his or her classroom. Honor the turf, please.


The kids will try making you believe you're "way cool" compared to your mentor teacher. But you have the task of switching, perhaps for the first time in your life, from the role of labor to management. You are NOT one of the students. You are a "real" teacher. That the kids like you is irrelevant That you like the kids is essential. Your behavior, attitude and knowledge affect lives in ways you can't imagine. Your loyalty, always, must be to the CEO of the classroom, the mentor teacher, except in those rare cases in which you might observe what you judge to be physical or mental abuse of a student. In those cases, call your college supervisor for advice on procedure. Yikes, isn't this whole discussion way too heavy—way too serious? You'd better believe it's serious!


This veteran suggests you get to know and observe as many teachers as you can in your school.  But here's a caveat—schools are political territory. Lounge gossip, cliches, and cabals operate there. Take in each conversation with wary ears and listen more than you talk. Oddly enough, the initially friendly and confiding teachers may be the least reliable and the least loyal. Learn who the truly respected teachers are and follow their lead. 


Your mentor teacher can expect that you prepare lessons thoroughly, that you understand the context of the lesson within the unit and the scope and sequence of the whole course.  Expect to do the "grunt work" of room arrangement, bulletin board, materials collection, cleanup, media previewing, as well as scoring of papers and projects, recording of grades and supervising extra-curricular activities.  Student teaching IS your job. Nothing else—save family emergencies—may interfere. All work schedules, vacation plans, recreation needs, etc. take second place to this critical vocational preparation. If your student teaching is to be valuable, then you will work harder and longer than you have in any academic class to this point.


What can you expect of your mentor teacher?  Passion about a vocation; a body of skills and knowledge to be tapped; detailed observation and descriptive feedback. Your mentor may be flexible and humorous or anal and intense. Live with it! Your mentor may micromanage one week and then throw you into deep water the next. Trust the process.  Ask for rationale—but do your own homework. Offer ideas and check signals before you implement.


As you begin to feel more comfortable and as your classroom management skills increase, your mentor teacher will encourage you to take risks in method. Ask and hope for establishing a personal relationship of honesty, friendship, and vulnerability. The collegial journal (See "When Coaching is Teacher to Teacher: the Collegial Journal" by

Teresa Berndt and Donna Fisher in Winning Ways of Coaching Writing: A Practical Guide for Teaching Writing in Grades 6-12 edited by Dr. Mary Warner, Western Carolina University, Boston: Allyn and Bacon: 2001) is a practical way to enable that kind of conversation even during the hectic schedule of student teaching.


Here's what we wrote in Winning Ways:


While the early years of teaching writing can be both exciting and intimidating times, veteran teachers continue to struggle with fears and questions. Because writing with one's students and the intimacy of the writing process in general are so risky, perhaps such fears and questions are natural for both veteran or novice teachers.  Being able to place those fears and questions on the page allows us the opportunity to know where we need to focus. The daily rush of teaching becomes a fierce reality for us. The journal forces us to slow the pace long enough to use this reflective tool.


Jim Burke, in The English Teacher's Companion, calls writing


an activity that forces thought: You cannot write without thinking, for to arrange language into meaningful units…is to use the mind. True, we might not be conscious of our thinking…however one reason for using writing to think is precisely to bring the unconscious more to the surface, where we can ‘see what we have to say’ (140).


In journaling each teacher captures both the triumphs and the disappointments so often lost in the daily rush of teaching writing. The trust between journal partners allows each teacher to examine the feeling of the moment by telling her journaling partner.


. If you're lucky, the two of you will move from student/mentor to colleague/colleague. Then the fun begins!


Till now, I've talked lots about respect for the mentor teacher. You, dear, student teacher, will be receiving a great gift in these next weeks. But you'll also be giving one, believe me. Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach:


Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching’s great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor.  It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn” (25).


Here's more from our chapter in Winning Ways:


On the opening pages of a little journal I gave Teresa when she began student teaching, I wrote these words: Will I be able to show you what you need to know, to offer just the right mix of counsel, challenge, and comfort? For you: question, search, push, try, and especially fail now and then so you'll know that's OK too. For me: watch, listen, and let go—and especially, take the opportunity to reflect and study.  For us: let's keep a record in this journal; you get to keep it when the journey's ended. Welcome to my precious turf, Teresa. I'm opening my hand and offering to share what I love—my kids and my vocation.


With trust, dedication and commitment, something special can happen between and preservice teacher and a mentor teacher. I wrote this in our journal a month or two into her student teaching experience with me:


So few take time to reflect with each other. And so rarely do our supervisors genuinely remind us of the incredible difference we can make in a child's life. I've got you, girl! Am I glad!  How blessed I am at this stage in my teaching career to have an energetic colleague I respect and admire as a partner in this venture of praxis [practice and reflection].


At the end of your student teaching experience, you'll have a decision to make. Will you

As I write these words for you, my former student teacher Teresa, now a veteran beginning her eighth year, is sitting on my deck waiting to share a weekend of recreation before she heads back to school next week.  She's a marvelous, energetic, gifted teacher. Just retired, I'll face my first September in more than 25 years without a classroom of kids-but I'll be teaching in consulting and volunteer contexts. 


Teresa’s early questions in our journal reflect student teacher angst:


I’m trying to decide whether to apply for a teaching job or try for another English career?  What do I really want to do?  What can I handle?  One day I love to teach, the next day—never!  This personal struggle weighs heavily on me at times.  Can I do the job I want to do as a teacher?  There is so much I don’t know.


I wrote this response and I still believe it. I'll share it with you to re-read near the end of your student teaching experience:

I'm glad that you're wrestling with these feelings now. You'll make a good decision if you choose teaching.  All those gifts and graces—determination, stamina, enthusiasm, courage—you have already.  Both skills and knowledge will continue to grow from experience. But there is one key question to ask yourself: Is the act of teaching, the interaction with kids, basically nourishing—"feeding" for your spirit or is it strength-sapping, draining? I don't mean whether you get tired or discouraged or even angry or just plain bummed. You've surely seen me in all those circumstances. But somehow being with the kids is energizing and exciting and worth it all. If this isn't true, don't teach.


Dr. Warner and I teach because we love our students. It's as simple as that.




Books I wish I'd seen as a beginning teacher:


Burke, Jim. The English Teacher's Companion. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1999.  Jam-crammed with tons of practical tips on everything from rubrics to unit design.


Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach. New York: San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Palmer put into words the mystery and power of teaching.