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EDUCATION / An exploration of ideas, issues and trends

The Importance of Teaching New Teachers


My student teacher was dragging last Friday when she packed up her briefcase; it had been a long week, full papers to grade, discipline problems and stress. But she was back at it Monday morning at 7.

A test on "Lord of the Flies" already had been photocopied, the papers on "1984" were all graded, and she was full of energy for the day ahead.

It's clear this young woman will be in front of her own class this fall at some high school lucky enough to enlist her in its ranks. She has passed one of the toughest tests any prospective teacher faces and will garner top reviews from all three of her master teachers. Her success, and that of others like her, has come from a combination of her own efforts, coupled with those of the university and her master teacher.

Obviously, teacher training programs vary in quality, but let's assume that they, for the most part, are sending out candidates qualified to begin their training as student teachers.

Once they arrive at their campuses, these candidates are assigned a master teacher (often more than one) and take over the teaching of one or more of the master teacher's classes. Sometimes the student teacher takes over the class immediately; other times the transition is more gradual.

Although there is some relief for the master teacher in terms of student load, lesson planning, and paper grading, a good deal of that time is now spent working with the new student teacher. Being an effective master teacher is a big responsibility.

Unfortunately, we've all heard horror stories of master teachers who handed the student teacher the keys to the room and then disappeared for the semester. Such neglect is more likely to occur when student teachers are awarded as "perks" based on a staff member's seniority, or on whose turn it is to have one. The student teacher is then left to sink or swim, and such a system is clearly inexcusable. Appropriate master teachers need to be chosen who are willing to spend the time it takes to be a real mentor.

Furthermore, the master teacher is ultimately responsible for the student teacher's class and what happens there. Both parents and the children in the class need to be assured that quality is not going to be compromised.

Perhaps the most important quality a master teacher can nurture in a student teacher is a passion and excitement about the job and its potential to make a difference in kids' lives. Although the job may be a bit overwhelming at first, student teachers need to monitor their students and not allow them to disappear into the class or quietly fail. It's not enough to just throw out the material; they need to know if the students are receiving it as well, and this takes time and guidance.

It's not always easy to keep new teachers positive about the job, given the inevitable stress of teaching. Many times the atmosphere of a school may work against them, and it's up to the master teacher to counter a negative climate with an alternative model. It's important for a beginning teacher to see energetic veterans out there. Burnout and cynicism need not occur, no matter how many years in front of the class.

Despite all my efforts, one of my weaker student teachers continued to make disparaging comments about her students at the end of the day. She was civil around them, but she clearly did not like them. I finally suggested she rethink her career choice.

Beginning or experienced, a good teacher must be willing to work very hard and juggle myriad tasks. Successful student teachers, such as my current one, face these new demands with determination and a massive time commitment, sometimes as much as 60 hours a week. Former student teachers who ran into problems in this area thought they could get by with minimum planning and a fairly casual attitude. It can't be done.

Another essential trait a master teacher needs to encourage in a prospective candidate is a solid background in subject matter. No amount of trendy methods or flashy lessons can cover up a lack of knowledge.

A student teacher may gradually acquire the necessary passion, commitment and knowledge, but these qualities must be combined with effective teaching strategies. Here is where the master teacher perhaps does the most coaching. For example, she must help the student teacher determine what is important to teach. There is far more material than can ever be covered, so what to include and what to leave out? How much time does one devote to the specific battles of the Civil War as opposed to the underlying causes? What is it we want students to remember about what they've learned a year from now?

Next, how does one design an effective lesson that involves all the students, offers variety and addresses different learning styles? If the instructor only calls on students who raise their hands, what is the rest of the class doing? One also has to be able to accurately assess what students know. A student teacher may get caught up testing minutiae rather than larger concepts.

Finally, how does one ensure a classroom environment conducive to learning? It doesn't matter how impressive the cooperative learning groups are if no one is discussing the assignment.

It is clearly the master teacher's responsibility to address these issues. To walk the fine line between providing guidance and allowing for independence. To step in when necessary, but never in a way that demoralizes or humiliates. To be in the classroom enough to know what's going on, but not to micro-manage.

With all the work good mentoring involves, why do master teachers continue to accept student teachers? The answer has to do, once again, with the reasons so many of us went into teaching: We believe in the importance of what we're doing. And what could be more important than ensuring that our knowledge and ideals continue on long after we've retired?


Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at or (714) 966-4550.

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