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Virginia Journal of Education

Professional Partners

Making it work when you've taken a student-teacher under your wing.

by Stephen Keith

You already know that, other than parenting, teaching is the hardest job in the world. Because of what you've learned and how you've grown professionally, you may now have the opportunity to significantly shape the teaching beliefs and behaviors of a future colleague, a student intern. The students go by a wide variety of titles, in part depending upon the amount of time they will be with you. If students have a short-term assignment with a cooperating teacher, they may be called practica students; if they have longer-term assignments, they have traditionally been called student teachers or, more recently, student interns. For our purposes here, we'll use the term student intern. As the cooperating teacher, your influence is critical in an intern's development and can set the stage for the rest of his or her career.

Being asked to assist in the personal and professional development of a student intern deserves to be regarded as an honor. In this article, we'll discuss some best practices in the cooperating teacher/student intern relationship.

Framework and philosophy
Share with the interns your philosophy of teaching and then be an active listener and ask them their thoughts. After all, in a matter of weeks or months they're going to be asked the same questions by a principal in a job interview situation. Give them documents about the school in advance, including a list of students' names, class schedule, pacing guides, lesson plan format, textbooks etc. Just as you feel disconnected when the principal does not have those tools ready for you, so will the student teacher.

Role model
Just as you want student interns to be reflective about their practice, it's important for cooperating teachers to be reflective about their own modeling of appropriate personal and professional behaviors. Are you accidentally negative in the teachers lounge or the last to arrive and the first to leave the building? Do you want the student intern to be more reinforcing with students when you are not? Do you think the intern needs to be more organized and deliberate in pacing in order to increase academic learning time but you "chat it up" with students more than you should? Having a student intern is a wonderful opportunity to state your specific expectations and then say "this is what it looks like in the classroom."

Scaffold expectations and performance
The student interns are not as good professionally as you nor have they had your experiences; initially, do not hold them to the same standards. Give them small "bites" of duties in which they will be immediately successful, starting on the very first day. Few things could be more boring than sitting in the back of the room taking extensive notes for three to five days, learning your routines and strategies. They have studied for four (or more) years for this capstone experience and they want to immediately get into the trenches and prove themselves to you.

From the very beginning, specifically reinforce their efforts. As in any behavior program, be specific in your reinforcement, not general. A generic "good job" is as meaningless to the intern as it is to your students. When you say, "You managed Johnny's behavior perfectly when you used the low-level intervention of moving towards him when became restless," it's much more specific and thus more meaningful. It then increases the likelihood that the intern will use the same strategy again. University supervisors often hear that the student interns cannot tell, from the cooperating teacher's perspective, if they are successful or not. Just as you wish to be recognized by your colleagues and the principal, so do student interns wish to get an "atta girl/boy" once in a while.

Structure for success
Initially, be overly directive in what you want to happen, and why. The interns will feel more comfortable and thus perform better. At the beginning, it's fine to have them write everything out in detail and give it to you in advance to review and reinforce. Don't be worried about overworking the interns (within reason). Their professors have mentally prepared them for this experience. It is not unheard of for a cooperating teacher to say at the end of several observation days, "Here, now the classroom is yours." I'm not sure that the myths of "trial by fire" and "rite of passage" work for any learner for any task. While a sudden assumption of duties may have happened to the cooperating teacher, it does not justify the continued practice. For those of us who are "seasoned" and thus perhaps experience a bit of a struggle, for example, with technology and its anxiety producing effects, our memories can be a little short.

Conference time for direct feedback
Be detailed in what went well, and pose questions that allows the intern an opportunity for reflection. Remember that teachers love to be verbally directive and solve problems--it's one of the things we do best--but it's better if the student intern learns the art of deliberate, reflective practice. Reflection is what teachers do automatically and unconsciously in the shower in the morning and in the car on the way to work, but interns may not have developed that habit of the mind. Instead, interns should be provided opportunities for guided reflective practice by the cooperating teacher by asking them to specifically think about what went well and what would they change. Initially, conferencing should be daily. As the intern's skills and confidence increase, conferencing twice a week at the end of the day may suffice (the end of the school day may be more appropriate because it is more open-ended). However, don't forget to take advantage of those "teachable moments" on the way to lunch or at other opportune times during the day.

Feedback using an appropriate "parenting" style
Meaningful cooperating teacher feedback to the intern should have similar characteristics to the "authoritative" parenting style. Not only should the intern receive frequent feedback, it should also be very specific and linked with a pedagogical rationale. That is, "This is what you were doing; this is what would have been better to do; and this is why pedagogically it would have had a better outcome." Modeling this practice pattern will lead to increased intern reflection. Remember, at this point in his or her training, the intern knows theory but needs to link it to practice in very specific, real-world examples. (This is the theory and this is what it looks like in the classroom.)

Style and creativity
Allow interns to develop, over time, their own style using their own elements of creativity. Once they have demonstrated to your satisfaction that they can perform using your authoritative, direct instructional approach ("Do it this way because.."), then reinforce them and ask, "How would you change this to be more reflective of you?" The goal is to pass along your best practices but still preserve the intern's elements of creativity; in part, it's why we choose the profession. Often, interns are very creative, but that creativity must be tempered with the demands of academic learning time and focus on specific teaching goals. Help them learn the balance.

Student relationships
Don't color the intern's expectations of students by telling them your thoughts about individual students' background, behavior and achievement. Tell them what they need to know legally, for IEPs, etc., but let them discover and build their own student relationships. It's not uncommon for K-12 students to have a better relationship with a student intern than with the regular teacher. Don't be dismayed; the intern is a new face, which can mean a new start for the student. Students may also sometimes better identify, because of age, with a less seasoned teacher.

As soon as possible, empower the student intern with structured authority. After the intern has assumed a successful teaching role and your students ask you questions, send them to the pre-service teacher with the comment (so the intern can hear you) "You will have to ask Ms. Abracadabra, she is also in charge now." Bite your tongue if a pre-service teacher does something wrong, or even different than you; don't interrupt and correct him or her in front of students unless it is a highly significant issue. Such interruptions reduce their authority and power; have a private conference later. Just as you would not want the principal to employ that practice in front of your students when you're teaching, you should not do so either.

Becoming colleagues
You'll enhance your own professional development and make the intern feel more like a colleague if you develop a culture of also learning from him or her. Just as they are going to "borrow" from you in terms of ideas, bulletin boards, materials, strategies (remember 1,2,3-eyes on me?) etc., feel free to "borrow" from them. Systematic professional development for teachers has had increasing emphasis in school divisions. But for some "seasoned" teachers, it has been a while since they have been exposed to newer, research-based practices, while the student intern should have been immersed in it for the last two or more years. It's fine to ask what is new in the world of behavior management or the fact that you are curious about why the intern used a specific professional term or strategy. Such types of questions enhance the development of a collegial culture as well as interns' ability to verbalize what they should know. To some degree it is almost like an interview; if they can not verbalize the concept or practice, they may not know it that well.

Hopefully, these perspectives have given you the information you'll need to make an informed and empowered decision regarding working with student interns. The more you know the variables and implications involved, the less likelihood that there will be surprises and unrewarding experiences. Working with pre-service teachers is powerfully rewarding and can be a process in which you honor those teachers that made a difference in your life. You are an integral part of the teacher training process and participating is an opportunity to develop best practices in yourself and in your building.

Keith ( ), a former teacher and building and central office administrator, is an assistant professor of education at Longwood University and the chapter advisor for the Longwood Student VEA chapter. He has supervised student teachers, including international placements, and has been Longwood's Coordinator of Student Teaching and Field Service. He currently teaches in the Educational Leadership master's program.



You Need Answers Before You Sign On

Questions to ask yourself before you agree to take on the responsibility of a student intern:
Why am I considering the role of a cooperating teacher? Do I think this will lessen the load of my regular teaching assignment? (Unconscious motives may not always be the best ones for either the student intern or yourself.) What other commitments do I have this semester? Am I mentoring a new teacher or on the curriculum development committee?

Questions to ask the principal:
Why am I being selected to have a student intern? Do you intend to give me another major assignment because I now have more free time since I have a student intern?

Questions for the university supervisor:
What are the specific written expectations for me as the classroom gatekeeper? Who assigns the final grade, and am I consulted? How often will you be visiting and will I be given a copy of any notes and feedback that you give the student? (Remember the worst and most unwarranted observation/evaluation you ever had from a principal? Don't allow this to happen to a student teacher). How can I contact you if there are problems? What real experiences has this student had?

If the placement does not reflect intern growth or there are significant core personal or skill problems, do I have the option of asking that the student intern be removed? (Don't let a supervisor send you on a guilt trip if you find this necessary. You may be told, "This will delay her graduation and cost her extra money." Those problems are not your problems. If the student does not show growth or is clearly not competent, you are not doing the student intern or children in the future any favors. Given the climate of teacher need, this student intern will find a teaching position. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Many colleges and universities have the option of giving a student an Incomplete and then attempting another student internship in another location. Sometimes a fresh start is valuable.)

Does this student intern have to work for extra money during the internship? (This is not uncommon as college costs continue to escalate. A Saturday workload is probably manageable but more time is certainly going to have an impact in your classroom. Do not be afraid to verbalize your concerns to the supervisor or intern or, if need be, to present the intern with a choice: internship or work. It is your professional right to make those judgments because employment has the potential to impact your students, and they are your first priority.)


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