Help! How Am I Supposed to Mentor a Student Teacher in the Middle of a Pandemic?

Focus on what you CAN do.

Illustrated superhero mentor and student teacher on purple cityscape background

Welcome to the first edition of Ask WeAreTeachers, a weekly advice column we’re launching this year! We’ll take your most pressing questions and run them by our group of experienced, no-nonsense teachers, as well as experts in the field. Look for a new column each Friday, and be sure to send your questions to This week, Ask WeAreTeachers tackles mentoring a student teacher during a pandemic, pronouns, Zoom fatigue, and more.

A Rough Time for Student Teachers

I’ve been teaching for eight years now, and this has been by far my most challenging year. We’re 100% virtual, and to be honest, I’m struggling. On top of everything, I just found out I’m getting a student teacher. They start Monday. I just don’t know how to make this experience valuable for them when I don’t even know what I’m doing myself. Help! —The Worst Mentor Teacher

Dear T.W.M.T.,

I feel for you. It’s hard to mentor a preservice teacher when you yourself feel unmoored. And you’re not the worst, because it’s clear that you care. So, take this one step at a time. Try to focus on the stuff you can do, like using breakout rooms (now you have two adults to run groups!) and planning collaboratively on shared documents. And don’t throw too much at your student teacher too soon.

Fourth grade teacher Richard Kennedy was in your exact position last fall. Here’s how he handled it: “I followed a gradual release model, where she started with a couple of lessons a week, then a few lessons a day, then multiple lessons a day. I also included her in lesson plan writing. If she was correcting or redirecting a student, I stayed out of the way.”


Make sure you’re touching base with your student teacher regularly, just like you would if you were in person. Schedule a regular virtual check-in (daily, at least a first) for questions and reflections and to make sure they’re able to check all the boxes of their program’s requirements.

A Problem with Pronouns

One of my high school students approached me after class earlier this week to tell me that they are now using they/them pronouns. I’m trying to get used to it, but I’ve been using she/her for this student all year, and it’s really hard for me. I keep messing up, and I feel terrible about it. —Trying to Do The Right Thing

Dear T.T.D.T.R.T.,

First of all, thank you. You are doing the right thing for your student. Research shows that calling transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive students their affirmed names and pronouns significantly reduces their risk of suicide and depression. So just know that your efforts will make a difference in the life of this student.

Now for what to do. First of all, it’s important not to make a big deal out of it when you do make a mistake. Don’t dwell on how bad you feel or how difficult it is for you. That puts the focus on you instead of the impacted individual. I spoke to gender expert Michele Hatchell, who suggests the following course of action: “Apologize, correct yourself, move on.” That might sound something like this: “She’s a pleasure to have in class. Sorry, I meant to say they. They are a great student.”

Now that you’ve made the correction, you’ll want to take some steps to make sure you get it right the next time. Hatchell recommends practicing the new pronouns when you’re not with the student. You can also conduct a bit of a “self-audit” and try to identify what structures trip you up.

All Zoomed Out

Teaching virtual kindergarten is no joke. I’m trying to keep my little learners engaged via a screen, and it’s exhausting. On top of that, we just had three days of professional development over Zoom, and we had to keep our cameras on. I’m so tired of it! How can I beat this Zoom fatigue? —Coffee Isn’t Cutting It

Dear C.I.C.I.,

Yep. Zoom fatigue is real. It’s because video calls require more mental processing. That’s all well and good, but you want to know what to do about it. Start with the technology. Make sure there’s no glare on your screen. Use speaker view instead of gallery view. Try blue light glasses.

Next, it’s all about you. You need to enforce breaks for yourself. I recommend blocking out some daily “sacred time” to get outside and away from the screen. If your schedule doesn’t allow that, try doing some stretches at your desk or a brain break with your kids (they need it, too!).

Still not any better? Consider that your Zoom fatigue is likely part of a larger fatigue over—well, just about everything. You’re not just exhausted from being in front of a screen. Be kind to yourself.

Extra Credit? Try Regular Credit

A student of mine turned in a project a month late. I’ve refused to grade it as it is outside the parameters of the rubric. Now they want extra credit to get their grade up, and frankly, I don’t think a kid who’s been slacking off all quarter deserves the opportunity. Am I being unreasonable? —Fed Up in Middle School

Dear F.U.I.M.S,

Honestly, in the middle of a pandemic, yes. You are being unreasonable. Your frustration is understandable, but these are not normal times. We do not know what is going on in this student’s life, and they are making an effort.

It’s OK to set limits about what you are and are not willing to do, but it’s not acceptable to shut them out of any chance to improve. Extra credit is more work for you, so maybe you open up the late assignments. At the very least, provide some encouragement going forward to let them know you’re on their side and want to see them succeed.

This is a good time to rethink your overall grading practices. The current situation demands more flexibility in both grading and assignments. Additional time to complete content and demonstrate mastery is the very least we can do. If you can move to proficiency-based grading, all the better.

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Help! How Am I Supposed to Mentor a Student Teacher in the Middle of a Pandemic?