Why My Students Listened to Me (& Not to My Student Teacher)
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If you’ve ever had the experience of watching your mentor teacher teach a lesson to her class, and all of the students were respectful and did what she asked... everything flowed and seemed pretty peaceful and easy...
And then you took over the class and suddenly the kids acted entirely differently – suddenly they wouldn’t listen, no matter what, they interrupted you a dozen times in the middle of your lesson, and everything seemed suddenly completely out of control?
If that's ever happened to you, you are not alone, my friend.
I had many different student teachers in my classroom over the years and it seemed like this was so common. For the longest time, it was so strange to watch because the moment I turned my attention away – the moment that my students knew that I was no longer paying attention, or, heaven forbid, if I had to step out of the room for even a moment, they became entirely different little people.
My student teachers were completely baffled – WHY was this happening?
Their lessons were well prepared, they had engaging activities for the students to do, and yet, these kiddos were acting like little monsters. Has this ever happened to you?
Well, after about a half-dozen student teachers and seeing this happen over and over again, regardless of how skilled and talented my student teachers were, I realized that there are four foundational reasons why this happens – and how you can prevent this from happening to you.
To the students, you are essentially a substitute teacher.
You are new. Think about how you behaved when you had a substitute teacher.
You pushed all of the boundaries, right? The students know that you don’t know all of the details of what is normally allowed and what isn’t, and, because it’s just what kids do, they are going to push the boundaries to see what they can get away with.
Don’t take this personally because it has nothing to do with you. Kiddos everywhere, no matter how sweet they are, are going to push the boundaries and behave differently with a sub.
Kids don’t think of time the same way you do.
Even if you know that you will be there for 8 weeks or for however long you will be there, to them, you are not their “permanent teacher.”
Even though, when you do a student teaching practicum, you are thinking about these kiddos as your students, remember that to them, you are only temporary.
Think about how you behaved when your parents went out for the evening and you had a super fun babysitter. That’s kind of how the kids are likely thinking of you.
When you teach a lesson, they perceive that experience as a fun, temporary break in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. Again, don’t take it as a personal attack when kids perceive you this way.
It’s pretty exciting to have somebody new teach them in the middle of an ordinary day – and they likely haven’t even been told how long you will be there.
When they test you, they figure out pretty quickly if you aren’t confident, and you don’t really know what to do about it.
Here’s where it starts to get tricky. When you first enter a classroom as a student teacher, one of the things you want most, of course, is for the students to like you. And because of that, you don’t want to seem mean.
So, when a student interrupts you or behaves disrespectfully, for example, you lovingly and calmly pause and say something like,
“Sorry Harry, please don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking. I can answer your question in just a minute.”
You think that you’re being calm and loving, but what you’re actually doing is giving Harry attention for something – a lot of attention – in the middle of a lesson, which of course encourages him to do it again... the last thing that you want.
Unfortunately, what you have just modeled for the entire class is that you don’t really know what to do when kids interrupt you – and mostly, that’s because it’s a surprise to you when they do it because they never behave this way with their teacher.
Now, if you’re starting to feel anxiety as we’re talking about this, it’s probably because this has happened to you. It's happened to all of us. But don’t worry, because I’m going to show you how you can prevent this from happening again in your next student teaching placement or in your own classroom if you’re already teaching your first year.
They have likely figured out that their regular teacher won’t interfere.
Now, here’s where it gets especially tricky.
Your wonderful mentor teacher, as supportive as she likely is, has been instructed to stay out of it and to let you figure it out on your own because that’s the only way you’ll learn how to manage a class.
I know, because I watched, countless times, my own student teachers in this situation before and felt helpless – trying to figure out what I could do to help her without interfering and undermining her credibility.
Does any of this feel familiar to you? If you’ve student taught before, you’ve likely had an experience like this. And, when you do get a student teacher of your own in your classroom, there’s nothing harder to watch than when a very well intentioned new teacher flounders because the kids decide to test them every single day.
So, let’s talk about exactly what you can do to ensure that this doesn’t happen to you.
- Remember that to the students, you are essentially a substitute teacher – you are temporary, and you are not their “regular” teacher.
Therefore, the very first thing you need to do when you start your teaching practicum is to take some time to let the students know who you are and how long you’ll be there.
Lay out very specifically how much you’ll be teaching them each day and for how many weeks you’ll be there. This is the first sign to them that you’re there for awhile and that you intend to become part of the class.
At first, you are a stranger to them and you’re entering their world, and they want to know how you’ll be involved from this day forward - so clearly tell them.
- When you first come into a classroom for a student teaching placement, you have not seen all of the focused and intentional work that went into shaping that class’s routines and the expectations for the students that your mentor teacher did at the beginning of the year.
As a student teacher, you can’t take that amount of time to teach students in the same way, and nor should you. You are a guest in this classroom and so it’s important for the students that you maintain as much consistency as you can for them in keeping the same routines as they have when your mentor teacher is teaching so the kids don’t get confused with another set of rules and expectations.
However, you can (and should) ask your mentor teacher detailed questions about what is allowed and what isn’t, and take detailed notes when you’re watching your mentor teacher so you can learn about the routines and procedures that are established in her classroom.
Pay very careful attention, for example, about how she handles it when a student speaks out when they aren’t supposed to, or about any other behavior issues that come up that you wouldn’t know how to handle.
And then – and this is very important – when you first take the class for your first lesson, after you’ve established with them how much of a permanent fixture you will be in their classroom, take a bit of time to let them know that you’re a team with their teacher, and that all of the same rules and routines will apply when YOU are teaching.
I’m always amazed when student teachers don’t establish this first.
Even though it might seem obvious to you that the students know the rules – they don’t know that YOU know the rules.
And, even more importantly, they don’t know that you’re going to enforce them.
In fact, they’re banking on the fact that you don’t know, and even if you do, that you won’t reinforce the rules.
Just saying this and letting them know that YOU know how things are run in this classroom will earn you some respect among the students and will help them to feel like you’re actually a teacher and not just someone new who’s there to try to teach them a lesson.
However, they will still test you, because that’s what kids do – so make sure you know what the rules and routines are very specifically and – here’s the key - be bold enough to give consequences if students don’t follow the rules while you’re teaching.
- It might not feel like it, but a lot of the time, kids are misbehaving because they want your attention and that’s the easiest way to get it.
The best way to refocus negative attention like this is to give your attention to the behaviors that you want, not that you don’t want - to build relationships, let them know you care, and infuse some of your own magic into your lessons.
What do I mean by this?
We’ve talked about this so many times in different ways on this podcast, but that’s because it comes up in so many different ways as we are learning how to teach because we make the mistake of believing that teaching is all about techniques and content.
Of course, that’s an essential part of what it means to teach. But you’ll never get to the content if you first haven’t taken care of building relationships with your students.
Because the reality is that the real learning takes place for kids – and in fact for all of us – it all happens once you’ve earned their hearts. Once they know they can trust you. Once they know that you like them and that you care about them.
We talked all about this in last week’s episode – when you think back to the teachers who you adored, who you’ll never forget – think about WHY you feel that way about them. You knew that they cared about you, right? You felt respected and inspired and cared for by them.
Think about this: Why is it so easy to misbehave for a substitute teacher? Because you don’t know them and you will likely never see them again. Nobody really cares about each other.
And again, what you haven’t seen when you watch your mentor teacher teach are all of those moments that she’s had with those students in the months before you got there. That time that she’s taken to get to know the kids. That’s the time it’s taken to cement those relationships and to build the respect and care that comes with the behavior you see when she teaches.
So, here’s how to start building that with these children as a student teacher:
- Ignore the behavior you don’t want, and call attention to the behavior you do.
For example, when Harry calls out in the middle of the lesson but someone else puts up their hand, you ignore Harry, and you say to Avery, who has put up his hand, “Avery, you are so respectful and awesome, and I love how you’ve put up your hand because you have a question. What would you like to know?”
- You are a student teacher, and that means that you have the luxury of time when you are not teaching to spend some time with students who are the most challenging to you when you are teaching.
Take some of that time to get to know them and build some relationship with them. With your mentor teacher’s permission, give them some special help with an assignment when you see them struggling.
Be intentional about connecting with them every day and ask questions about things outside of school. Whatever you can do to let them know that you care about them and that you want to get to know them.
But, it has to be genuine. If you’re just doing this as an assignment and because you think you should, kids will pick up on that right away and it likely won’t work. So get your head and your heart aligned, and then make a daily effort to let those kids know that you really do care and that you’re invested in them as human beings.
- Finally, remember how I mentioned that you should “infuse some of your own personal magic into your lessons?”
Relationships aren’t a one-way street.
We all have stories from our own lives that our students find fascinating. So be intentional about sharing a little bit about your own life, your own experiences – your pets if you have one – anything that will help you to build a relationship and a connection with those students.
We get so caught up in talking about how unmanageable kids are these days. How out of control they are. But the reality is that what we all crave as human beings is connection. Being intentional about connecting with your students and letting them get to know you a little will go further for you in helping them to learn the content that you need to teach them than anything else will. The two seem entirely unrelated, and yet they couldn’t be more connected.
All right, we covered a lot today. I hope that was helpful for you if you are a student teacher and you’ve struggled with this – or if you’re a new teacher who hopes to get a student teacher in your classroom one day, you might want to bookmark this episode and pull it out as you prepare to work together.
Also, if you’re getting ready to set up your own classroom, or you already have a classroom and you want help streamlining your classroom management, be sure to join my 7-Day Challenge!
Until next week, remember - just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need for you to struggle like one.
P.S. Are you already teaching in your own classroom & want some help with classroom management right away? Check out my Chaos to Confidence Classroom Management System:
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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