Tips for an English Language Arts Student Teacher

Mark Patton, January 2012

The experience of student teaching is the culmination of preparation transpired into action.  Student teachers have spent the last few years studying pedagogy, grueling away observation hour after observation hour, and even finding time for furthering their precious content knowledge.  When their moment comes to finally step up to the front of the classroom and address the class as teacher, does all that preparation go out the window?  At that moment, do student teachers have to forget their preparation, and rely on how well they have fostered their studies to this point, and just hope that their voice doesn’t crack, or that they don’t lose track of where they are in their lesson plan that they’ve stayed up all night planning?

Let’s face it: the article you read on curriculum mapping in your Introduction to Education class might not be the guiding force behind your first lesson.  You might never use that one strategy from Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion.  To some extent, student teachers do have to throw what has been studied out the window, and rely on the culmination of what is best for that moment.  This is not to say that curriculum mapping and Lemov do not add invaluable teaching tools to your repertoire.  This is to say that a student teacher needs to rely on a new kind of knowledge; the kind of knowledge that disregards its origin; the kind of knowledge that produces lasting, meaningful learning.  

You may be exhausted of reading education articles on what to do and what not to do, how best to prepare your lessons, how to account for differentiation, and how the standards should fit into your lesson.  The truth is, you will find your own niche, your own style and way of determining what works for you.  However, I have just got done student teaching, and there are a few things I wish I had been told, or was told and wish I would’ve believed.  If I had to boil my whole student teaching experience down into advice for a future student teacher, these are the areas I would be sure to reiterate.

Relationship Building

The further I dove into my student teaching experience, the more I realized that teaching is more about relationship building than content knowledge.  The principal at the school I student taught told me, “When you get your students to believe in you, you can teach them anything.”  Relationship building is about doing the basic things like getting to know your students’ interests, and greeting your students at the door everyday by name.  Students may not show you their appreciation for greeting them by name, they may not even respond to you, but whether your students show it or not, you are establishing a culture of trust and respect.  Greeting students at the door might seem like an easy thing to do, but its power should not be underestimated.  It is an action step that I did not believe in prior to student teaching.  However, the fact that it is the first action step I advocate to new student teachers should be testament to the value I place on doing so.  

Once you believe in the power relationship building has to increase productivity of learning, you will begin to utilize it in each manner of your classroom.  There is just something about Monday that makes it seem wrong to jump into plot pyramids or literary devices without some mention of the previous few days.  Ask your class to share what happened over the weekend but require that they use some form of figurative language.  Do not doubt the power of life’s experiences—yours or your students—to enhance learning.  How you begin and end class has an enormous impact on the effectiveness of your classroom management and learning environment you establish.

There will be times where your class is too chatty in those few moments before the bell rings.  There are better alternatives than lecturing your class about your behavioral expectations when the bell rings to guarantee an effective start of the class.  There is no law that prohibits you from starting class before the bell rings to best ensure that class does begin when the bell rings.  If you notice your class is hyped up from the weekend, polling your students on the weekend’s events, especially if they are related to school events, is a great way to start class and foster professional relationships.  Just ask for hands and say to your students, “Raise your hand if you went to the school dance this weekend,” or “Raise your hand if you played a sport this weekend,” or “Raise your hand if you ate pizza this weekend.”  By the time the bell has rung, you will have the students’ attention and already have shown interests in their lives.

Connecting Learning to Students’ Lives

Any time you connect learning to students’ lives, you have achieved successful relationship building because you are showing interest in the importance of what students are learning and how it relates to real-life situations.  Students must see the relevance in their learning in order to believe in the value of education.  One way to do this is to bring in variety of texts.  English Language Arts teachers are at an advantage because there are so many new forms of text that are redefining what it means to be literate.

Music is one form of text that I used effectively during student teaching.  There will be times when you ask the students to write for a few minutes, possibly as a bell-ringer.  Why not time this writing prompt with music?  Tell your class, “I want you to respond to this question.  I will give you three minutes to respond to this question.  This song is about three minutes long so you should be finishing up when the song is about done.”  A key to this strategy is that the song should have some relevance to what you are learning.  Relate the song or a story about the artist to the learning topic or enduring understandings.  Students will not only appreciate the learning atmosphere music establishes, but will also recognize connections of learning to real-life or alternate texts as meaningfully valuable.  Don’t ask your students to fill out a characterization chart; ask your students to fill out a blank Facebook page, or to respond creatively as if you were texting or tweeting as that character.

English Language Arts teachers have another advantage in relating course material to students’ lives because literature is about life.  One strategy is to generalize a fundamental issue from the piece of text your class is reading, and to ask students to relate this to their lives.  For example, when reading a short story about a student that had to make a difficult choice, I asked the class, “What types of choices do you make every day?”  When we read an article about Cyber Schools I asked the class, “What ways does technology make our lives happier?  What ways does it make our lives worse?”  Students become interested when you ask them open-ended questions that force them to take a stand on an issue that is relevant to their lives.  One essential to this strategy is that you want each student to participate.  Make it an expectation in your classroom that students should have paper out, and should be ready to respond to class discussions through writing.  Take a few responses from the class, but then require all students to give a response, and have them turn it in at the end of class.

Final Thoughts

I cannot take you through my entire student teaching experience, nor would you gain valuable insight if I did.  However, I will offer a final few additional suggestions, action steps, or must-dos for your student teaching experience. 

  1. Teach to the bell.  Plan, plan, plan, and then plan some more so you don’t run out of things to do.  Always be prepared to answer the student’s question, “What do I do if I’m done?”
  2. Don’t let the bell end class, you end class.  The last minute should be a review of what you learned today.  You could ask a couple questions by playing naïve, “I forget, what is that term we give to the use of extreme exaggeration?”
  3. I used an effective bell-ringer everyday that I called the word of the day and the quote of the day.  English Language Arts always has the potential to call direct attention to some literary term.  You may want to compile a handout of these terms in advance that students can use for reference.  If you don’t use this, be prepared to effectively start class each day.  
  4. Always use visuals.  I had a PowerPoint going almost every day in class.  Students might not understand something if you just tell them once, but offering a constant visual and supplementing handout is not only good for differentiation, such resources benefits all learners.  Visuals can also help guide you through your lesson.
  5. Use the same voice for behavior modification that you would use for giving instructions.  Make behavior about the students’ choices.  “You can choose to work productively in groups or you can choose to take out a piece of paper and we will write independently.”

To summarize action steps from the first two sections:
  1. Greet students by name at the door by every day.
  2. Use life experiences and relationship building to begin class and establish a culture of respect and trust.
  3. Use music to time writing assignments.
  4. Guarantee student participation through short responses by establishing the expectation that students will have to write responses to discussion questions.
  5. Relate issues of literature to students’ lives.

Lastly, you have to believe in what you are going to teach and how you are going to teach it.  This might seem trivial, but there were a few policies and procedures I carried out simply because they were already put in place.  You might be dissuaded or influenced to teach something or in a different way by what you have learned or by how the status quo operates.  There is no one size fits all to teaching.  If you don’t believe that what or how you are going to teach is meaningful, it will come across as insincere.  If you don’t believe in a lesson, your students sure won’t.  

Remember that student teaching is a learning process, and that most teachers do not become a master teacher until a few years into their career.  Use student teaching as a way of finding your own style and what does and doesn’t work for you.  You may throw out curriculum mapping, Lemov, or this article once you get to the front of the classroom, but you never know, you might use one of them spontaneously on day 38 of student teaching.  You may find that one strategy becomes a part of your style, and that another doesn’t.  There is no one size fits all to teaching, but what I have attempted to provide here, are steps that should be a part of any English Language Arts teacher’s repertoire.  You may have heard these before, or you may not believe in them today.  Good luck student teaching, and may you inspire brilliance.