Learning From An Unusual Teacher

For the past eight weeks I have had the pleasure of learning from another educator. This educator is not a master teacher (of which there really is no such a person), a seasoned veteran, or even one with a couple of years experience. My teacher was a practicum student-teacher completing of her final leg of her teacher-in-training journey.

Denise* is the first student-teacher that I have sponsored in my nearly nineteen year career, and needless to say, I very apprehensive about the commitment. After saying “yes” I was advised that “it’s a lot of extra stress”, and that as a young administrator it might not be “the most effective use of my allocated teaching time”. Yikes.

Would I be making more work for myself as a part of an already substantial learning curve? 

Was taking on a student-teacher a necessary evil? 

As an administrator, when would I find the time to fully mentor and support her? 

Ah, good questions…

And, yes, it appeared that my hasty commitment did not seem to yield any immediate benefits…

Initially, our relationship was more of a front-end loaded experience: reviewing lessons plans, pre- and post-lesson conversations, and even remaining the room for the first several weeks to help maintain student behaviour (think middle school).

But as the practicum ticked on I noticed something very elemental was missing in her actions. Engagement and respect of the students didn’t seem to catch as it did with me (and to be honest my lessons and class structures were something far less than ideal!). And yet, while I was able to reign in and regroup the class when it went a little sideways, Denise seemed to struggle for the first seven weeks with management of the classroom. Several times, the frustration became evident as tears welled up in her eyes.

And it wasn’t until the sixth week of her practicum that the students appeared to re-engage with a commitment to their learning. At the time, I couldn’t tell decipher the agent of change.

Upon reflection, the immediate shift was imperceptible. While modeling an assignment for the class, Denise shared a selfie of her sky-diving last year in Asia. She then read an honest and emotional poem she penned that described her fear, trepidation, anxiety right up until it was time to leap from the plane. 

From that point on the class was hers.

From that trusting launch pad, Denis was able to build relationships with each student in the class. And several times she was able to rescue ‘the ship’ before it went sideways by simply a word and/or a nod to an offending student. Denise was using her growing relationships to leverage and manage the culture and atmosphere of the classroom. She spent more time laughing with the students. Sharing more about herself. Using her quick wit and sense of humour. Becoming more comfortable with making mistakes in front of the group. She was well…being herself.

Denise reaffirmed what we know to be true: powerful, positive, relationships (while they take a long time to build) are elemental if we truly desire our students to become owners of their learning; to engage an active and genuine way. According to Hattie’s Visible Learning factors, teacher-student relationships have an effect size of .72 on the influence of learning. Only formative evaluation and reciprocal teaching have a greater impact.

Knowing what we know about relationship and learning I now wonder if it is even fair to offer any student-teacher an eight-week practicum. Healthy relationships require time to develop; they can be messy and intense. Relationships take time.

And learning requires healthy relationships. Period.

*Denise is a pseudonym.

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