Rumor has it, the education fairies are granting me a student teacher this semester. A real one, not just a volunteer. One who will have to make lesson plans and grade stuff and, you know, teach. You don’t look shocked. Let me make this clear: someone is trusting me the task of helping a 21-year-old kid either become a teacher or decide that this career is not for her. And yes, okay, people hand over their seventh graders to me every day in the hopes that I’ll give them basic literacy skills, but this seems scarier.
What if she’s bad? What if she’s like the volunteer who brought pepper spray to school and, when I mentioned that she should maybe stop doing that, told the whole class, “My daddy wants me to carry it. I have to drive through the Mexican ghetto every afternoon.” The “Mexican ghetto” is where all my students live. Or what if she comes up with terrible lesson plans that are all worksheets? Or what if she tries to evangelize the Muslim kids? (I live in the South…this is a completely reasonable fear.) Or what if she thinks leggings are pants and I have to—God forbid—talk to her about professional dress?
Obviously, there are concerns. So why, you might ask, did I agree to take a student teacher? Well, two reasons. First of all, free labor. I mean, she can make my copies and grade my papers and return my overdue books to the library. The possibilities are endless. Plus I’ll presumably have some control over her grade, so I’m hoping she’ll feel the need to suck up to me and bring me food or coffee, or maybe organize my file cabinet someday. (Here’s a tip, honey: just set the damn thing on fire.)
Not to mention, once she starts teaching, that’s an extra planning period for me! Maybe I could use that one for actual planning, instead of the frantic parent phone calls and copying and IEP meetings and recommendation writing that consume the planning period I have now.
But there’s also the fact that my own student teaching experience almost made me not become a teacher Looking back now, it’s hilariously awful. At the time? Not so much. My mentor teacher was an incredible teacher, and a truly horrific mentor. I’d turn in lesson plans two weeks ahead of time; she’d look at them the day before I was supposed to start and tell me that they were all wrong.
She never brought up any issues with me, but went straight to my supervising professor any time she felt like I was on the wrong track. She called me apathetic and said maybe I should reconsider my career plans because my photocopies were poor quality. (At a school that wouldn’t give me a copy number, forcing me to sneak around on campus and copy stuff or pay for copies at Kinkos on my salary of $0,000. Anybody remember Kinkos? Does that place still exist?) Back then, all it took was turning right into the school parking lot to inspire a nauseous dread that pretty much eliminated any chance of success, much less enjoyment.
My mentor teacher never acknowledged that teaching is hard. She’d been doing it for twenty years, so maybe it was easy for her. But I was only a few years out of high school myself; I had students who were less than two years younger than I was. I was attempting to spend 8 hours a day at the high school while completing 300 or more pages of reading and at least 10-20 pages of writing a week, while also holding down a job to help cover my living expenses.
And sure, it’s not med school. There are lots of things in life that are hard, and at some point you learn to suck it up and do what needs to be done. But nobody acknowledged that mistakes are part of the process, not necessarily indicative of a basic character flaw. That year made me feel like teaching was hard because of something I was doing wrong, and that just wasn’t true.
So I want a student teacher of my own now so I can tell her that it’s hard. And that just because it’s hard doesn’t mean she’s doing it wrong. And that she’s going to screw up all the time and quite possibly do some damage to a kid or two in the process, and that’s okay; we all do when we’re learning. (And when we’ve been teaching for decades. And possibly even, somehow, after we retire.) Reading a poorly-photocopied Alice Walker story probably won’t scar anyone for life.
I want to tell her what somebody should have told me: Teaching is tough. And it’s rewarding. And it’s exhausting. And if you lie awake at night worrying that you’re doing it all wrong, you’re probably doing just fine, because I still feel that way after ten years in the classroom. And also, please remember in the future that I prefer whipped cream on my latte, like any thinking person.