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How to be a helpful pre-service teacher supervisor

This week we hear from Emily Kate, teacher and founder of Actual Teaching; a collaborative blog for teacher experience and growth. She shares what she learnt from her first go at supervising a pre-service teacher.

Last term, I had my first opportunity to mentor a pre-service teacher (known as a student teacher in many parts). I know that he learnt a lot, but I think I might have learnt more!

It’s surprisingly difficult to be helpful to someone when you’ve never done anything like this before. I certainly stumbled through the first few weeks, possibly causing more confusion than clearing it. We had a bit of a difficult relationship due to a number of reasons, but we came through it to the other side in a very good place. Reflecting on the experience now, there are some things I didn’t think of in the beginning; things that could have made the ride smoother and more beneficial to both of us!

Be extremely clear with expectations

I failed in this aspect in the beginning. I had assumed that he would come prepared with a check-list of sorts, provided by his university, that told him what was expected of him. If this was provided to him, which I assume it was, he didn’t show it to me. This caused a lot of drama throughout the term as I was making a lot of assumptions and he was not following any sort of obvious plan.

Simple things like what time of morning he was expected to be there needed to be laid out plain. A couple of days he arrived just before the bell rang, which meant we had no time to go through the schedule or lessons for the day. After a couple of days of this happening, I told him outright what time I expected him there by, and from that point on he was on time every day.

He saw it as ‘school starts at this time, so I need to be there then’, rather than realising that teachers use their mornings to prepare for the day and deal with any unexpected occurrences (like supervisions, unscheduled meetings etc).

I assumed he would have a proper observation form to fill in for the lessons he watched. I know I did when I went through my degree, and it helped me to focus on what I was observing in a more directed way. Instead he wrote notes in a note-book. I didn’t have a problem with this, except that he often wouldn’t ask questions after the lesson or make any comment about what he observed. I eventually got there by asking him what specific questions he had, or by simply starting to talk about the lesson and the decisions I made throughout it. The one thing that surprised him the most apparently was how ‘calm and patient’ I was with the students. That was a very good conversation, about how for many students getting angry at them simply causes them to switch off or fly off the handle completely. Taking a calm, patient, even amused approach to difficult situations brings them on side a lot better than yelling or getting angry will. I saw him trying this out a few times later on, which was great to see!

In terms of lesson plans from him, he was good about it for the first few days he taught my classes. He would show me the lesson plans the day before, and we could go through them to see if and where they could be improved. After a week or so, he just stopped giving me lesson plans altogether. I still have no idea why, and he would dodge the question every time, but he would go through a rough plan verbally with me before the lesson started. All of his lessons turned out to be lecture-style, and when I asked him to make them more student-focused he simply included a worksheet. I don’t know if I was failing to explain my position properly, or if he hadn’t been exposed to many active learning ideas, so I ended up writing a sample lesson plan and a huge document with activity ideas that could be adapted to any content. He still failed to incorporate any of my advice or give me lesson plans in advance, so eventually I got in contact with his university liaison about this, because it’s a massive oversight on his part. It got to the point where I had to say extremely bluntly that I needed the lesson plans at least a full day in advance, and his liaison backed me up. We never quite got there, but he did improve a little.

Perhaps if I were more explicit about these sorts of things from the beginning, instead of just assuming, these issues never would have arisen.

Be expansive with observations and feedback

There is no point providing half-hearted feedback to someone who is learning a new job. Be expansive, be honest, and be clear. Otherwise you are doing little more than provide a space for confusion and doubt.

Watch their lessons closely. Not just the teacher-to-be, but also the students. You will pick up on so much that they don’t (as happens with anyone who is sitting at the back of the room and not leading the lesson).

In particular, watch how the students react to the things the teacher does, the activities they lead, the resources they use. If the students are responding positively, make sure you pass this information on. Equally so, if they aren’t responding positively.

The pre-service teacher will not only love this but will greatly benefit from knowing what the students think about their lesson planning, and you have the expertise to tell what they’re really thinking while working.

Don’t comment on how nervous the teacher appears, because we all started there. Instead, look for things they are doing well or could improve on. For example, if they rush their speech when nervous, comment on how they could slow down a little and make sure they are pronouncing words properly to ensure the students truly understand what they are saying. If they say ‘um’ a lot, chances are they already know, so don’t mention it more than once. These sorts of things sort themselves out over time once the teacher gets comfortable standing up in front of a class.

Watch closely their interactions with students, and think of ways to help them improve. Think about the choices they are making with things like behaviour management and praise, and consider how you would have approached the same situations – taking into account your better familiarity with the students and the system.

There is no point offering advice for a way to approach a situation that would only work for you personally.

Make sure they are asking questions about their own lessons too. Lead them with some examples if they are reluctant or don’t know where to start. Ask how they felt the lesson (or particular situations) went, and what they would do different next time. Note here I don’t say ‘do better’, because not everything needs to be ‘better’ – that indicates a negative situation. If you focus on ‘different’ instead of ‘better’ it increases confidence and really opens the door for new ideas instead of defence.

Be open to criticism of your own practice

Having someone else watch your lessons so closely for such a prolonged period can be quite intimidating. We’ve all had individual lesson observations, but there is something more when it’s a pre-service teacher following your footsteps for weeks on end.

I tried not to alter my practice at all just because someone was watching. It’s very easy to think of all the ways you can improve, but if you aren’t already following particular practices, it’s unsustainable to try and do it just for the sake of showing off. If you’re having an off day, letting students get away with things you normally wouldn’t, didn’t plan as well as you should have, or know the lesson you did wasn’t that great, own up to it! Pre-service teachers need to know the human side of teaching as much as they need to know the professional, and sharing how you deal with problems that really are caused by your own actions can be a great learning opportunity for them.

Be prepared for the pre-service teacher to pick apart every single action you make. They are (or at least should be) watching you like a hawk, analysing every interaction and every decision, so be prepared to talk about them. Be prepared to explain things you might initially think are obvious. And be prepared to defend yourself. Chances are you and your pre-service teacher won’t see eye-to-eye on everything, and that’s perfectly ok, just make sure you can explain why you did the things you did. They won’t understand that you didn’t set that child detention for not doing their homework because you know that they are currently staying with Grandma and don’t have any books etc. at that house. They won’t understand that you didn’t ask that particular child to pick up rubbish because it’s more hassle than it’s worth.

Every decision you make is foreign to them, so explain them to the best of your ability.

I have seen pre-service teachers come through knowing that they know more than their supervising teacher. These types argue with almost every decision, and try to tell the supervising teacher how to do their job. Others come through with little or no opinions at all, just nodding and agreeing with everything they’re told. Yet others still come through nodding and agreeing, then promptly ignoring all advice.

If your own conversations with these types of pre-service teacher yield no results, get in contact with their university supervisor as quick as possible. You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught, and sometimes the pressure from their university is enough to get them to listen.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you are always right and they are always wrong. If you are willing, you can learn a great deal from your pre-service teacher! They are learning the latest research, being shown great new pedagogy techniques, and are (hopefully) all shiny and new and excited to be there. Let their enthusiasm soak into your work, learn from them as you teach them, and you will both come out of the experience for the better!

This article was written by Emily Kate and first published on Actual Teaching. Republished with permission. 

Emily Aslin

Emily Kate teaches science in Brisbane. She holds a Bachelor of Science (Botany), Masters of Communication (Science Communication) and a Graduate Diploma in Education. She is the founder and lead writer of a collaborative website called Actual Teaching – a place where ‘real teachers’ share their stories of success, challenge, and growth.

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