Schools and teachers have no incentives to foster a nurturing atmosphere for student teachers. Unless the school expects to hire the student teacher, there’s no inherent reason for a school to particularly care whether or not the student teacher makes education a lifelong passion or if they burn out and never even enter the profession. The level of emotional support offered to student teachers is solely a function of the benevolence of the mentor-teacher. Thankfully, teaching ranks are largely populated by benevolent individuals; that’s why they’re teachers.
I was thinking about this as a classmate shared a journal article about pastoral care for pre-service teachers (Philpott, 2015). The article lays an excellent foundation of care for student teachers, which I’ll discuss in a moment. I’ve written about care for students in the past, but rarely about care for teachers, let alone student teachers.
I never had a proper student teaching experience. I was supposed to student-teach for 8 weeks at a middle school, followed by 8 weeks at a high school. After 2 weeks into my stint at a Middle school stint the High School called me and informed me that my cooperating teacher resigned. And rather than find a long term sub or open up the hiring pool, they asked if I’d be willing to simply take over the class. They hired me sight unseen. And at that time, earning a $25,000 salary sounded incredible, compared to the $0 I was getting for student teaching. Eventually I found my way into a mentor-mentee relationship at the High School; the High School at which I was employed and ostensibly teaching teens mathematics had an exceptional math teacher, Ms. Meeks, to which I am indebted.
At my previous job, my swan song project entailed training practicing teachers to be leaders of learning at regional schools. I tried my damndest to support and care for those teachers. Even the teachers that had been in the profession for years were nervous to facilitate professional development in front of adults. I still have in mind the nervous energy I felt in that first year of teaching students. It’s akin to the nervousness one might feel leading professional development for adults, who can be much ruder than teens. The concept of care for novice teachers is one I’ve always been passionate about, but not particularly strategic. That’s why I was so enamored with this research article.
The article (Philpott, 2015) discusses the anxiety and emotional burdens student teachers feel as well as potential remedies. Teacher prep programs focus almost entirely on content knowledge and pedagogy, but little time to the well being of its enrollees. A review of the existing literature offers guidance into how to improve teacher prep programs and partnering schools to be more attentive to the pastoral care of its pre-service teachers. Maybe one day I’ll have sway in a college program, but for now I’m more interested in what schools and peers can help student teachers.
Two of the most common anxieties student teachers experience relates to classroom management and time management. Few teacher prep programs explicitly incorporate classroom management, possibly because there’s not really an accepted knowledge base on how to best tackle classroom management. I’m not even sure it’s a knowable thing, asbest the context of a classroom ecosystem. I do remember the nervousness of being a first year teacher that everything could just go off the rails at a moments’ notice. And it (almost) never happened! Eventually relationships and quality instruction begat classroom management. That’s hard to accomplish while student teaching.
Much of the onus of the care for student teachers needs to come from emotionally intelligent mentor teachers. Not only does the supervising teacher need to help the student teacher along, he or she must pay careful attention and probe for possible anxieties. Student teachers may be unwilling to share when they’re struggling or near their breaking point. There’s a perceived cult of competence when it comes to novice teachers. A student teacher that admits when they are struggling is the exception. In the same way a teacher must recognize when a student of theirs is in an anxious state, the supervising teacher needs that same awareness concerning their 21- or 22-year old student teacher.
Student teachers need time for affective processing, not just lesson debriefing. Supervising teachers need to incorporate techniques to help student teachers work through the emotions associated with teaching. One of the pitfalls of a profession populated by natural nurturers is that we tend to feel acutely responsible for the well being of our students. When our students suffer, we suffer. When our students succeed, we succeed. It’s near impossible to disentangle those emotions, nor do I necessarily want to. However, the emotional burden of teaching is a seachange for a heretofore independent college student. Student teachers are suddenty thrust into an environment where their emotions are interdependent with the situation around them. Where possible, supervising teachers ought to shoulder student teachers’ emotional burden and help them work through those feelings.
These are hefty responsibilities for a supervising teacher. And there certainly isn’t much in the way of financial compensation. Some states offer a few hundred bucks for supervising teachers. Many states offer none. It’s another instance where the profession of teaching is held up and advanced by the goodwill of its teachers. Still, I’d argue that these practices of pastoral care for student teachers transfer to and from authentic care of K-12 students (which student teachers are only a couple years removed from being).
Philpott, C. (2015). Creating an in-school pastoral system for student teachers in school-based initial teacher education. Pastoral Care in Education, 33(1), 8–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/02643944.2014.990989