3 Reasons I Mentor Student Teachers

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My student teacher (right) and me having a discussion about student writing.

There are reasons both noble and practical to take a student teacher. Student teachers need mentors to complete the requirements of their credential programs. Public education will benefit from new teachers having capable mentors to learn from. You’ll be shaping the next generation of teachers.

There are selfish and harmful reasons to take a student teacher, also. Some mentors only want the free labor: someone to grade their assignments, teach their classes, and take some troublesome students off their hands. These teachers, however, often do a disservice to their students and to their supposed mentees by providing little in the way of support and guidance to the student teacher.

In addition to the purely noble, the purely practical, and the purely selfish, there are reasons for mentoring a student teacher that are wholly symbiotic. They can be selfish, but they will also make for a better experience for your students and your student teacher. These are the reasons I took on a student teacher this year–my second in as many years–and these are the reasons I plan to continue taking on student teachers in the years to come.

My student teacher this year, Leo, is a young man straight out of his undergraduate program at UCLA, my alma mater. The similarities in our educational background don’t stop there. Like I did several years ago, he is earning his teaching credential concurrently with his MA in teaching at University of California, Irvine. Preparing this blog post, I reflected on why the last seven months of mentoring have been such a positive experience for me. While I could articulate a number of reasons for the symbiosis of our mentor-mentee relationship, three feel particularly important and generalizable to any invested mentor’s experience with a qualified student teacher.

 

1. New Perspectives

Collaborating with Leo means that I get a new perspective on my teaching and my students. When planning a follow-up activity to an in-class writing exercise, I suggested to Leo that he assign students to different groups according to how far they had progressed in their first draft, allowing us to help at the same time multiple students who were at similar places in the writing process. Leo expressed a concern that students could feel embarrassed or discouraged by being moved to one part of the room for having accomplished less than their peers, and he suggested instead creating heterogeneous groups in which classmates who had made more progress could help peers who were in the early stages of drafting. Our different perspectives on the activity and our students led to a productive discussion about the pros and cons of each possibility.

2. New Ideas

As one of the younger teachers at my school, I often get comments about my energy, optimism, and progressive thinking. I recently found the tables turned when my student teacher suggested bringing Snapchat into a lesson on the YA novel Monster. Since my social media experience is limited mostly to Facebook, I didn’t have better than a rudimentary understanding of Snapchat and couldn’t fathom any educational application for the social media app that’s on so many teenagers’ phones today. Leo, however, pitched me an idea for students using Snapchat to stage and photograph scenes inspired by passages in the novel. The app allows users to add text, emoji, drawings, and “stickers” to their photos, creating ways for students to customize their scenes. I talked him through the possible obstacles to the lesson, he accounted for them, and the lesson was a success (more on this specific lesson in my next post!). He learned how to think through a new lesson idea, and I learned a new way to engage my students in thinking about literature.

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Leo leading a class discussion on author’s craft in Walter Dean Myers’s Monster.

3. Reflection and Affirmation

As a mentor teacher, one of my primary responsibilities is to guide my student teacher in reflection after each lesson. In working with him to think about the strengths of the lesson and possible improvements or adjustments needed going forward, I become more thoughtful about my own pedagogy. I find myself explaining why I do what I do, and this exchange with my student teacher often ends up affirming the strategies I’ve added to my teaching repertoire over the last several years. Even as my student teacher learns to be more reflective and to take from me what works with his own style of teaching, I am discovering what makes me an effective educator and finding regular opportunities to think about refining my own practice.

 

Admittedly, there are risks in taking on a student teacher. There are a number of ways in which a mentor-teaching experience could turn sour: a student teacher and mentor teacher could have incompatible personalities, a mentor could lack trust in the student teacher, or a student teacher could fail to meet expectations for content knowledge, effort and preparation, or progress toward proficiency. A prospective mentor might limit this risk by taking student teachers only from schools they trust, by interviewing the student teacher before agreeing to mentor them, and by staying in close communication with their student teacher’s supervising faculty or advisor throughout the year.

The potential rewards, however, are immense. If you’ve never given mentor teaching a chance, maybe next year is the year. It’s true, the future of education depends upon thousands of experienced teachers stepping up every year to mentor the next generation of teachers. But it doesn’t have to be a purely noble gesture; if your experience is anything like mine this year, the experience can be rewarding for you, too!

Have you been a mentor teacher before? If not, what’s holding you back? If so, how was your experience? What highs and lows did you and your student teacher experience, and how did you overcome the latter? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!

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