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April 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 7

Classroom Conversations / Student Teacher Standouts

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Four traits we should encourage in novice teachers.

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Classroom Conversations / Student Teacher Standouts
Credit: CHOREOGRAPH / iSTOCK
As I approach the second half of my teaching career, a few new passions have sustained my energy. The most important of these is mentoring student teachers—specifically, helping them to lead tough classroom conversations. While I try to assure them that their personal pedagogy doesn't have to match mine, I do want them to leave after a semester in our classroom feeling comfortable enough to not shrink from necessary conversations when the moment calls.
Some years, this one included, I'm lucky to have a student teacher who doesn't need to start this mission on step one; their first few student interactions reveal that we can skip to the more complicated aspects of leading classroom conversations. While we often think that these proclivities are natural, I like to think that there's something about these pre-service teachers' training or prior experience that gives them this capacity. That it might be as much nurture as nature. Let's look at a few of these prescient behaviors, so that those of us who teach students before they become student teachers can nudge them in the right direction.

They initiate informal student interactions.

This year, it's been great to see my student teacher greet students at the door, ask them how their day is going, compliment them on their outfits, offer a silly "Happy Monday!" on a 1st-period Monday or "We're almost there …" on a last-period Friday. This should not be extraordinary, but it actually is, even among otherwise warm and outgoing pre-service teachers. Sometimes student teachers are afraid of the kids (which might be a red flag), but just as often they're so busy thinking about what they need to do that every second away from teaching is spent huddling over a laptop preparing to teach. Yet these check-ins can be just as important as last-minute edits to one's Google slideshow. Informal micro-interactions help students feel comfortable being vulnerable with the teaching team, which is a necessary prerequisite for them to contribute thoughtfully in tough classroom conversations.

They are excited about students' work.

Every year, I give my student teachers a slice of class to own: our Silent Sustained Reading program. Basically, they show our students how to find cool books, and once a quarter, they help the students design a project that lets them show off what they've gotten from the reading. These creative projects are brief, unless a student takes special interest in something (this year, one of our freshmen made an awesome stop-motion video with LEGO materials). I am always encouraged when, as the student teacher first hears students' project ideas, their eyes light up. "Whoa! That's a cool idea! Tell me more!" And when some drafts appear, they talk about how much they can't wait to see how the story ends. Then, after the final projects come in, they pull the students aside to pepper them with compliments.
I am especially happy when a preservice teacher accesses kids' writing on Canvas that I have not asked them to grade, just because they want to see what students created. On a few occasions, I've come into the classroom wanting to tell the student teacher how "___ really did a good job on her memoir vignette," only to be interrupted by an excited, "I saw that!" A pre-service teacher who is excited about a student's burgeoning creativity is more likely to be excited by the fragmentary and often marginally coherent ideas that students share in class discussions. When students sense real excitement from their teacher about their creativity, they are more likely to keep recommitting to the creative process when it's needed in more challenging arenas.

They offer prompts before offering answers.

My students are often very comfortable asking student teachers questions that they hesitate to ask me. This might be because student teachers are typically closer to students' age or because they occupy the quasi-causal space of being both a still-stressed student and an authority figure. Students especially love asking pre-service teachers questions that are rooted in a momentary lapse of attention. ("Hey Miss, what page are we on?")
Sometimes, however, the nervously whispered questions are about ideas that the class is discussing. ("But Miss, why would Macbeth do that?") Here, I am always impressed when a student teacher doesn't answer with her own analysis, but instead chooses to answer with another question ("What do you think?"), or even better, with a specific prompt ("Haven't you ever just wanted something really bad? Yeah? What does that do to your mind?").

My students are often very comfortable asking student teachers questions that they hesitate to ask me.

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Matthew Kay

Answering questions with higher-order prompts keeps the inquiry going, which in turn keeps important conversations from dying prematurely. This decreases the awkward silences that student teachers often dread. Clever re-prompting is a skill that good dialogic teachers spend their entire careers perfecting, but it begins with this simple habit.

They take initiative.

A few years ago, I had a student teacher who, without my asking, constantly went to the board to take notes during our class discussions. This seemingly small habit was incredibly useful and inspired what has become one of my few non-negotiable rules: Take initiative at all times.
I make this expectation clear in my first conversation with student teachers, and it becomes a mantra throughout our time together. If you see a student struggling, go help them. If the numbers don't quite work out for a peer review, step in for the absent kid and give feedback. If nobody raises their hand to act out a role, step in and try to win an Oscar. If a conversation stalls, and you have an idea of how to rev it back up, do so. Or at least try. If you are unsuccessful, you haven't really lost anything, and you've gained useful experience. And most important, you have shown students (and your cooperating teacher) a willingness to mix it up.
Many mentor teachers are likely to reward this willingness to mix it up by trying to match your energy. Want to teach a cool unit that engages a personal passion? Go for it. Got a field trip idea? Let's give it a shot!
It's easy for us to trust student teachers who take initiative—as long as when we gently and respectfully redirect them, or offer them notes after class, they take the feedback in stride.

The Right Direction

When a tough classroom conversation comes up, these underrated habits can make all the difference. A student teacher who is eager to read a student's imperfect but thoughtful creative work is more likely to recognize and engage that same kid's intent through some poorly phrased takes in conversation. A student teacher who offers prompts before answering questions is going to find that skill very useful when digging through the lines of a tough text to find discussion-worthy gems. And a student teacher who takes initiative in all things is more likely to find the best supplementary sources, the ones that allow students to make connections and see themselves in the conversation just a bit clearer.

Matthew R. Kay teaches students English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and is the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018).


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