This post is part of a series on #summerPD for pre-service teachers.
Maggie Darnell recently completed her student teaching internship and will be teaching seventh-grade English (plus an awesome-sounding enrichment course in Zombie Survival!) in the fall. In this interview, Maggie reflects on her experience and shares some advice for cooperating teachers and pre-service teachers. After taking a blogging hiatus during her student teaching, Maggie is back to regular blogging at lechatdu503. You can also follow her on Twitter at @missmdarnell.
What do you wish cooperating teachers would know, understand, or do?
I wish cooperating teachers would know to leave their student teacher alone and let them teach on their own (and not with the cooperating teacher’s scripted lesson plans). It’s scary, as a student teacher, to have that responsibility, but that’s what you’ll have as a real teacher with a real job and a real classroom and real students, so it’s important for both parties to let the student teacher be themselves and teach by themselves. It’ll build the student teacher’s confidence and skills. I feel a bit like some cooperating teachers stay too involved because of their own control issues, but then the student teacher never gets to ride without training wheels and I think that is a disservice to everyone.
What do you have to share about building relationships with students?
This is a tricky question because you build the relationship with the individual and each student is so different. What I found made the difference was sticking to my word. I told them at the beginning that I wasn’t going to write on their work and I never did. I never corrected their grammar or did the typical English teacher thing, but I did engage with the students about what they were writing. One of my students came in and told me that writing that one page letter back to their personal narrative was one of the coolest things a teacher ever did for them. She told me that those letters changed things for the other students and that it was all they could talk about for a week. I also brought my classes food four times. I brought breakfast burritos twice, pancakes (which were a horrible flop) once, and lasagna on my last day. Another student mentioned on the last day that no one ever did that for them. It was said kind of flippantly, but you could tell that those four meals had made a difference to my students. Don’t forget to be a person either. Students can tell when you’re being “the adult” and when you’re being you. They hate “the adult,” but they love you because you are genuine.
What was the best thing about student teaching?
The students. Hands down. They win every single time. I didn’t expect to really fall in love with my students, but I did. Each and every one of them is an incredible character and they’re all so brilliant, whether or not the rest of the world and they themselves want to recognize it. I would do anything for those students. I know even now that it’s students that will keep me in the classroom, not English, not really the act of passing on information, not summers off. It’s the students. It was always the students, even if I didn’t realize that when I went into education three years ago.
Students hard at work in Miss Darnell’s class
What was the most challenging thing?
Oh goodness. I had a bit of a unique experience because while I was student teaching there were approximately eleven suicides, though I will preface this with saying that they were not all at the schools where I was teaching, but every student was affected by it. Every teacher was too. It was challenging to figure out how to move forward after the first suicide, which rocked the school to its core. I had no idea what to do or how to handle student death and continuing to teach Macbeth was probably not my best idea, but it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time. It was challenging not knowing when or what would take a student away. On the day of my graduation, one of my brightest seniors, who was a candidate to become a Gates Scholar, overdosed on meth and the students who came to my graduation reception found out there. They’re tough and they live in a cruel world, but you could see their hurt and worry and, as a teacher, you share that with them. You just never knew and that was so incredibly hard.
What surprised you least about student teaching?
I was least surprised by the actual teaching piece. That was easy. It came with the expected amount of prep and lesson planning, though I was building my own curriculum for the most part, but I was so prepared for this piece – the actual teaching. The teaching became boring even though my students were excited by what they were doing. The building of relationships and finding how to make something click with a student was what kept being in the classroom worth it for me, but I wasn’t surprised by that.
What surprised you most?
The best way I can think of to describe student teaching is like being on a foreign exchange. I wasn’t quite prepared for that. Having spent a year in Lille, France as a Rotary foreign exchange student, I was familiar with the different stages of being abroad where there’s the overwhelming honeymoon period where everything is new and wonderful and then it all starts to slide downhill and you’re not as excited as you once were and this work is really hard and unfamiliar. Then, there’s the upswing again. Everything is peaches and cream and you get it and you’re connecting to people in ways you had thought impossible and suddenly it’s time to go. After the first few suicides, I suddenly realized that I was in an experience that was its own separate experience from France, but that many of my emotions and reactions to it were the same, especially at the end. As I left Pine Ridge, I was ready to go. I was ready to graduate. I wanted school to be over (many of my seniors felt the same way about their own education). At the same time, I hated walking away, and while I’ll be back for their graduation, I can’t promise I’ll come back again for good. There’s a weird grieving that takes place after an experience like that because you know you’ll go back, but you know you can never go back to that time. You have to keep moving forward. I wasn’t expecting that again and it will take me a long time to process through again.
What do you wish you had known about yourself, your students, your content, or teaching in general before you started?
I wish I had known how relaxed in the classroom I would be. I’m a very competitive, type-A sort of student, but as a teacher, I’m super flexible and much more ‘chill’ than I ever thought I would be. It was a startling discovery, but not necessarily a bad one. If I had known that about myself ahead of time, I think I would have been easier on myself for being me.
Miss Darnell invites her students to change the world
If you could get pre-service English teachers to read just one book, blog, or article before they start teaching, what would it be?
What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamamda. Everyone needs to read that book and everyone needs to take it to heart. As a pre-service teacher, you’ve got ideas. I know you do. You’re excited about them. What could you accomplish if given the chance to try them out? People aren’t always super accepting of new ideas though and this book would hopefully remind you that you should still keep heart and not give up on them just because people look at you funny or call you crazy. For example, I’m super against the whole class novel. My cooperating teacher only really taught out of the textbook and was trying to force march the class through Great Expectations before I took over. I put the textbook on the shelf and we never touched it again. Luckily, I had a really awesome cooperating teacher and he really let me do whatever I wanted, but you could tell he was a little skeptical about my free reading program that I did (inspired by Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild – also a great way to connect with students) Yet, at the end of my semester, he told me he was going to keep doing reading the way I did it, letting students read whatever they wished. So, what do you do with an idea? You keep it and you don’t give up on it until you’ve tried it.
What piece of advice would you give to student teachers?
Go the extra mile, even if people say don’t. Invest yourself in your students and take risks. Go fast, take chances, and you’ll still come home in one piece.
Graffiti photo CC-BY Brooke Novak