student teachers

R – I was going through goober music teachers and was somewhat surprised to realize that I’ve never written a blog post on student teachers. Working with them has been one of the great joys of my career for many reasons. I even started this blog with Jarika who student taught with me in 2011 – and I’m still trying to become half the teacher she is. I’ve written before about how I believe we give younger teachers short shrift (nothing to learn from beginning teachers) but not about those in the final phases of their training. Currently, Emma Donahue is a 5th year intern pursuing her Masters degree and she’s with me this Semester through December. Just four weeks in, it has been an incredible reminder of how lucky I am to be involved in this kind of work with preservice teachers.

Yesterday after school we made sure her new laptop was uploading student video submissions from google classroom to doctopus so she could also be assessing them along with me from home. We got it running and ran through a few of the videos together to calibrate our thinking (these were of the treble choir sight reading in class from earlier in the week). It was a fascinating time we spent. We watched the first singer and Emma noted that her voice was somewhat breathy. We had already assessed her jaw/mouth placement and were now onto tone. Our discussion was centered around the difference between tone; voice placement (ring/loft; resonance/space) and vocal production. My premise is that placement is post production and an entirely separate indicator. It’s not that one doesn’t impact or even inform the other, it’s that they are two separate things. In addition, I can hold a student completely academically accountable for placement – that’s a cognitive choice (as long as I’ve done my job) – but production goes to a point beyond what I can hold a student academically accountable for. We have to find the time to work with them on it for sure, but it is not a formal indicator. Emma and I talked about that. She was in the position of having to deconstruct that singer’s sound to the point of determining placement, all the while hearing and seeing other issues. It’s a challenging multi-task. She scored the student remarkably well on that and the other indicators, provided written feedback, submitted it, and we went on to the next student. Emma was surprised at hearing a strong, healthy production and placement from this Sophomore because this same student did not generally sing out in class to the same degree. We discussed why and Emma scored her indicators. We went on to one more. Breathiness issues again, but this time we could pinpoint some specifics why as they pertain to our indicators. The corresponding lower scores were put in place because of the rubric attached to them, and appropriate feedback was provided so the student could demonstrate improvement next time. Emma also sent the request of having the student sign up for academic intervention time to work with her on it for a few minutes for the purpose of giving her some pointers. I’m looking forward to watching that.

What happened here wasn’t just the routine assessment of some of our singers. It was a process that required us to dig deeper into student achievement and what building blocks are in place that we not only can control, but have an obligation to address. How do we address them? How do we tease out individual small grain size building blocks and address them individually and independently so that we can bring them all together and synthesize them by the end of the school year? What deductive reasoning can we use when we listen and watch the video assessments? What are the sequential steps we can take with each student? This time together was a microcosm of what having a student teacher is like. And while it is instructive for the student teacher, it’s a turbo charger for me because I a) have to articulate my own beliefs and understandings and b) do so in a way that is transparent and coherent. And if I can’t? That should be a huge red flag for me… and for my administration who has me under a professional contract to be a competent educator. A few other thoughts:

  • Emma is my 24th student teacher in my career, and there is one common thread every single one of them have: not one OUNCE of their success was attributed – in any way whatsoever – to how well they did on their Senior Recital. Thanks to higher ed, a ton of my time is getting my student teachers to transition from their “performance” mindset to an “analytical observation” mindset. My most successful student teachers are the ones who did so, and viewed the analytical observation part as the most rewarding component of their placement. Emma is one of them: she is already discovering that if she nails down 13 different things simultaneously while in front of her students, I can identify 2 or 3 things she missed 😉 What this is doing however is causing HER to become that analytical as well, and she’s now running with it. The resulting growth in her teaching pedagogy and acumen is literally occurring on a daily basis. She is feeding the analytical side of her mind, she is now standing in front of her classes with that approach, her lesson plans and on-her-feet thinking reflect it, and she is blossoming. Today, four weeks in, I would happily hire her as a teacher in my own school district for that reason.
  • What’s happening now for Emma with each new experience in front of the kids is a football quarterback analogy I’ve used so many times over the years. With regard to progression as a teacher, there are maybe five or six Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in the last 50 years who have even been remotely successful in the pros. Talent really won’t help you any more at that point. Rather, if your approach and mindset is spot on, the game gradually starts slowing down. To a rookie quarterback, the safety blitz is a killer because it just comes out of nowhere too quickly to react in any positive way. To a veteran quarterback, they not only see it coming sooner, their thought process is so quick that they don’t even think of how to respond, they just already instinctively know and do the right response. The better ones even use it to their advantage because they have enough mental time to look at their options and make the defense pay for it. They think it that quickly. If you’re Tom Brady, it even gets to the point that you, “already have all the answers to the test”. Every blitz is literally slow-motion to him. The game slows down. That’s one of the most awesome transitions to see in a student teacher and facilitating this transformation is about the most fun a cooperating teacher can have.
  • I believe a misconception of student teaching is the “mini me” mindset, not only for the student teacher but perhaps too often for the cooperating teacher as well. “Watch what I do so you can learn how to do it too.” Obviously, if you’re worth anything at all, any student teacher (any peer for that matter) can learn from various things you do and adopt it into their regimen. On the other hand, I have told every one of my 24 the same thing when they began: that they can do anything they want. Anything at all, even if – ESPECIALLY if – it is different from what or how I do things, and that this time with the students is a blank canvas for them. But: I’m going to ask them why they do everything they do… and they had better have a pedagogically sound answer for me or it’s not going to end well. It is not sufficient to “do” the right thing, because the “right thing” is 100% subjective. The right thing for the choral program at York High School might be the polar opposite of the right thing at Keene High School where I student taught over 30 years ago. But if you – any teacher at all – can articulate the pedagogical “why” behind what you do, there is no discussion to be had. And isn’t THAT the goal for a student teacher to achieve? I could go on an on for hours about the impact Jean Nelson had on me when I student taught with her at Keene. The greatest gift I believe she gave me however was the gift of allowing me to develop my own teaching style and strategies while holding me insanely accountable. I’ll never forget her words to me when I started. Jean is a brilliant piano player and I on the other hand was a “claw”. I was very nervous about student teaching because of my lack of piano skills. But she began by telling me this: “…you have the rest of your career to learn how to become a good rehearsal pianist, but you only have these four short months with me to learn how to become a good rehearsal technician, and that’s what you’re going to focus on.” She never once allowed me behind the keyboard. I quickly started to wish she had! The minutia with which she asked me questions and held me accountable was never ending, but it caused me to start becoming a teacher. Better yet, she allowed me to become ME, not her. Did I take dozens of things she did and incorporate them into my own teaching? Of course. But she also allowed me to experiment with my own ideas, teach with my own style – not because mine was better, but because it was an extension of me. When I got my first teaching gig, I would stay through after school routinely, sometimes through supper, working on my piano chops. And I indeed needed more student face-time in the years to come to continually refine my craft. But I showed up on day one to Bellows Falls Union High School knowing the reason behind everything I did, and I knew it was pedagogically sound. Consequently, I showed up believing that I was a damn good teacher… thanks to Jean.
  • There is another myth about student teachers, that the actual students suffer when someone new and unexperienced get in front of them. Well, it depends on your definition of “suffer”. Do things slow down? Yup. Emma told me yesterday of her frustration that the Treble Choir is moving so slowly through a song much less challenging to them than a song I’m teaching that they’re flying through. But she’s not moving them any slower than I did 30 years ago. It’s part of the process. Mistakes will be made along the way too. So be it. The question is, do you have an environment in your program in which students are taught to learn from everything and everyone around them? How does a student teacher in that environment not invigorate the students’ learning process? Do you have an environment in your program in which you make it transparent that you, as the teacher, have much to learn and that it is equally transparent that you are learning too? Do you have an environment where the students take as much pride in watching a student teacher progress as you do? God bless you if you don’t, but my experience at KHS was extraordinary in large part because that’s the environment that was provided me. And I refuse to have one at York that denies a student teacher, and my students, and ME those same opportunities. We don’t suffer with a student teacher: we grow. I just about fell out of my chair taking notes on Emma’s teaching two weeks ago when, in something like her third warmup ever, she took the kids in a circle, and had them sing in four part harmonies on crunchy numbers like I do. But she instead decided to work on blend as a learning target for that warmup, and instead had them sing “ooo” while holding up the fingers of the numbers they were singing. I’ve never thought to do that. It was nothing short of emma trebleextraordinary, and suddenly there were overtones in the room which prompted further discussions about the essentialness of blending vowel sounds, including and especially the inconvenient ones (sorry solfege). That was the springboard for the work we are now doing with them on vowel formation. My mind was blown and now I have a new warmup I will be incorporating the rest of my career. I can give more than few other examples from my other student teachers in years past (precisely because they weren’t “mini me”s btw). Does this sound like my program is “suffering” from having a student teacher?
  • I’ve already alluded to it, but I have to state unequivocally: I am the teacher I am today because of my student teachers. Every one of them had and have strengths and weaknesses… just like me. When I teach, I require them to take notes as if they were my college supervisor and ask leading questions afterwards about everything I did. The pedagogical reason for this is so I can evaluate them on the types and the quality of the questions they’re asking me. I discover what they are thinking and observing… and what they are not! This informs my further work and discussions with them. But the Randy Pausch head fake is that I grow exponentially through this process too. I have to be accountable for every syllable I say, every action I do, every vocal and physical inflection I make, because my student teachers will eventually question me about each and every one. There is no greater professional development than a post observation discussion about the “why” behind the “what” (quick insert here, there’s only two reasons to question someone: 1. because it’s a passive/aggressive way to disagree or 2. because you genuinely want to learn from that person and asking them leading questions is how you do so… isn’t it a shame we live in a society where the cultural default assumption seems to be reason #1?). When you have a student teacher, this professional development of questioning and discussion occurs on a daily basis. Even when the roles are reversed. When I sit back and take the notes on my student teacher, I have to be really clear with my questions, and I have to be really sure I know what I’m talking about if I call them out for something. Yesterday, I quickly, almost subconsciously wrote down a three pronged approach to my philosophy of kinesthetic learning in the choral rehearsal. I’ve never done so before, I’ve never been able to before, and then I looked down at her lesson plan and my scribbling: and there it was. No joke, the growth in a student teacher is crazy significant during their time with you. But if you are authentic about providing pedagogical feedback, you will find yourself doing the growing too.

I interview every single potential student teacher before I commit to them, for the purpose of seeing if they actually want to be a teacher or if it’s just a peripheral interest. I have no patience for a twenty-something standing in front of my kids with less than a 100% commitment to all it takes to become a master at this craft. My students deserve better. But for those who are committed? After Emma and I finished calibrating our assessment scores yesterday after school, it was about half an hour beyond what we had planned. She thanked me for taking the time and also for the additional work it requires to have her with me this Fall. I told her right off that in no way is it extra work. She didn’t accept that. She came right back at me: “You find it fulfilling, but that doesn’t mean it’s not extra work. It is extra work. That’s not the same thing.” Color me called out 🙂 And yes, she’s dead on correct. Working with student teachers is extra work. It’s extra work, extra time, extra energy, extra commitment, extra expectations. But it is also hands down one of the most fulfilling things I can be a partner in, causing me to grow and become even more proficient at something that is the passion of my life. How could that ever feel like work? Every student teacher I’ve ever had has made me a better teacher, and each one has also made me a better student teaching cooperating teacher as well. Best yet, in every case it’s also been an opportunity to thank Jean Nelson for all she gave me at Keene High School by simply paying it forward. And all this is why, often as much as my students, my student teachers have been some of the greatest blessings – to me – of my career.

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2 Responses to student teachers

  1. Topher Keene says:

    As a proud former student teacher of Rob’s this rings incredibly true.

    Thank you again Rob for all you taught me. You may not have heard any updates recently, I’m Director of Education with the Phoenix Boys Choir Now, delivering classroom workshops for students and teachers across Arizona. I was in around 100 schools last year with over 3000 students and provided PD to about 1000 educators. Every single student, teacher, and pre-service educator I interact with gets a little of your wisdom shared with them. Every rehearsal has something I learned from you (stealing Emma’s ‘ooo’ with number fingers exercise for my next rehearsal tuesday!).

    Hope you’re doing well!

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