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Alums offer advice on how to survive student teaching

Students and professors in a group

Assistant Professor Kara Lycke (left), Kevin Ruehrdanz ’14, Sidney Comstock ’13, Shelby Lawson ’13, Steven Ybarra ’13, Mary Becker '14, Joshua Sutter '13, Laura Brask '14, Dan Bajek, Brianna Koenig, Allen Hays, Jackie Svetich, Kristin Reynolds, Sami Dees, and Emily Schmidt

Student teaching can be daunting. Student teaching through Illinois State’s nationally recognized Secondary Professional Development School (PDS) model is no exception. That is why the University offers multiple avenues of support to maximize the value of this vital part of teacher preparation.

What is the PDS experience?

Each student teacher (referred to as an intern in the program) participating in a PDS spends an entire year in a school environment as opposed to the traditional one-semester model. The experience allows them to gain a full perspective of the roles of teachers, staff members, and administrators from  August through May.

During the fall, interns conduct a progressive clinical experience that includes assisting their mentor teacher in planning and instructional duties, working with students in a variety of capacities, and teaching lessons of their own design. They also attend school meetings and participate in other professional activities at their school. From the first day of the spring semester, student teachers step into the role of classroom leader, several weeks sooner than their traditional student teacher counterparts.

Built-in support

Kara Lycke, the College of Education’s coordinator of the Heart of Illinois (HOI) Secondary PDS Partnership, supplements the aspiring educators’ clinical experiences with “Friday focus meetings,” which are monthly informal learning sessions. Lycke strategically features professionals from the field including alumni educators, administrators, and other school personnel. The forum allows student teachers to share their experiences and get answers to questions they might otherwise not have a chance to explore deeply during course work.

January’s topic, “Surviving Student Teaching,” featured five outstanding alumni educators who also participated in the HOI Secondary PDS within the past two years: Kevin Ruehrdanz ’14, Sidney Comstock ’13, Shelby Lawson ’13, Steven Ybarra ’13, Mary Becker ’14, Joshua Sutter ’13, and Laura Brask ’14.

“Participating in a PDS provides an excellent opportunity for preservice teachers to grow as professionals and develop collaborative relationships with other beginning educators,” said Lycke, who also serves as an assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning. “Friday focus meetings allow interns to discuss issues with practicing educators and administrators. What they learn will directly influence their performance in job interviews and in their first positions as teachers.”

Here’s some of the advice that alumni educators gave to the preservice teachers:

On gaining respect and engagement of students

“It is important to establish mutual respect with your students. You have to ‘be real’ with them. Share your personality and what you care about with them. And make sure you get to know what matters to them, too, and use that information to get them motivated to reach their goals.”—Becker

“Some students think that teachers ‘have it out for them,’ so it is important to show those students that you care about them as individuals. This helps to create some common ground.”—Comstock

“At the same time, make sure they recognize that you are not there to just be their friend—you need to establish respect and responsibility in the classroom.”—Brask

“A good way to gauge whether they respect you as a teacher is to invite the principal to come observe your classroom. Their engagement level during a class period when you are being evaluated by an administrator will tell you a lot. Do they go out of their way to make you look good?”—Ybarra

“Coaches can be great for classroom management, too. If you are having recurring behavior or academic problems with a student athlete, speak with their coach.”—Brask

“Everyone has their own philosophy on how to handle student misbehavior. I am probably a little more relaxed in that I always let the small things go. However, once students are distracting my line of thought or the learning of others, that’s where I draw the line.”—Sutter

(From left) Laura Brask '14, Mary Becker '14, Kevin Ruehrdanz' 14

Laura Brask ’14 (left), Mary Becker ’14, and Kevin Ruehrdanz’ 14

“A great way to engage with students is to create themed lessons. Use their name, a movie, something they like, to give them a little extra motivation.”—Brask

“Engage the class by getting them up and moving while initiating discussion. Lycke taught us a strategy called the Human Barometer. You ask your students a controversial question and get them talking about their opinions. Have them stand with those who have a similar opinion and let them move to another group if their stance changes. Make sure to ask them why their opinion changed.”—Sutter

“It’s important to test a lot of different teaching strategies to see which ones work. This is a great time for you to try out different things.”—Comstock

“Sometimes, the teacher next door to you has the lesson you’ve been laboring on. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. It is important to share ideas and ask your colleagues for help.”—Ruehrdanz

“Don’t get married to your ideas. So many times, I have decided to change my lessons, and I believe my teaching and my students have benefitted from that flexibility.”—Sutter

On responding to students when they ask, “Why should I care about learning something I will never use?”

“I have to tell them, ‘Yes, you may not use this specific information, but the problem-solving skills I am teaching you will help you succeed later on in life.’”—Becker

“Just like going to the gym to exercise your muscles, this work is exercising your way of thinking. When someone presents you with a task that you will need to complete, you will be a better problem solver for having been challenged to think differently.”—Ybarra

On job applications and interviews

“The jobs sites I’d recommend are K12 Job Spot and IASA Job Bank.”—Comstock

“Ask your principal to look over your resume for some pointers. This was helpful and gave me more confidence.”—Comstock

“Put the best things at the top of your resume. Definitely put that you student taught in a PDS at the very top!”—Brask

“Something that was recommended to me was to put awesome quotes people have said about you at the top of your resume. Employers always see the typical ‘my objective is …’ statement at the top of every resume, and simply skip over it. This approach gets their attention from the beginning.”—Ybarra

“For your cover letter, one of the best things you can do to make things simple for yourself is to make a general cover letter that you can customize for each school by including the language from their own mission statement.”—Becker

“The first people you should ask to write a letter of recommendation are your cooperating teacher and your university supervisor. When either of those two letters are missing, it is seen as a red flag for school employers. You can also ask your last manager at a job you held to write a letter, your tutoring supervisor, or any person you worked for as a volunteer out in the community. And make sure to have them write something specific about you, not just a canned letter.”—Lawson

“I did this, and recommend you (interns) ask their principal and cooperating teacher to do a mock interview with you. They grilled me for 30 minutes, and I felt as though it took some of the stress away from what the experience will be like. What’s great is that it’s free and it gets the ‘stress’ out of the way.”—Ruehrdanz

“During interviews, one of the best questions you can ask the person interviewing you is, ‘What is the school’s available technology?’”—Brask

“Another good one is, ‘What does your ideal classroom look like?’”—Becker

“I think they want to hear you ask if there are any extracurricular opportunities available for you to help out with after school. And follow that up with starting new clubs.”—Sutter

“Networking is key to landing a job. I heard about my current position from the friend of a friend.”—Ybarra

Talk with your student teaching network. Strike up a conversation and talk with other teachers, administrators at lunch. Developing relationships during student teaching and beyond is so important. And the people who are willing to vouch for you or make an unsolicited phone call don’t need to be principals to improve your chances of landing a job. All of your connections are valuable.”—Lawson

On the edTPA

“Honestly, the best advice I have for edTPA is to do your best because you’ve been prepared well for this evaluation.”—Becker

“EdTPA is a lot of work, but it is very useful for the interview process and your evaluations as a practicing teacher. It also helps get you ready to send out applications.”—Brask

“One of the resources who I would recommend is the teacher education coordinator of your department. But also, Elisa Palmer, the edTPA coordinator down in the Teacher Education Center is another great person to talk to if you have questions. She was so valuable for me.”—Ruehrdanz

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