Learning to Teach: Do's and Don’ts

Walking the tightrope of etiquette involved with student teaching…in front of thirty kids.

By Mollie Moore

teacher with students

As a student teacher, I used to love the days my mentor teacher was gone, because I got to teach all her classes while the substitute sat at her desk and got paid to read the paper. I’m sure you know I’m not being sarcastic, either. This was one of those days, and I remember the substitute who greeted me when I walked in that morning, because he had been my 7th grade history teacher when I was a student at this school.

He explained that he would like to introduce himself to the class, after which he was happy to step aside and let me take over. I felt a strange sort of new pressure; my mentor teacher hadn’t ever been my actual teacher. She hadn’t graded my essays, hadn’t known that I once thought the Magna Carta was a Swedish historical figure, hadn’t caught me sneaking Sour Patch Kids during class. As students poured into class, Mr. Reed took his place before them with the commanding, yet kind presence I recalled immediately. The rest went something like this:

  • “Good Morning, class. My name is Mr. Reed. How are you this fine morning?”
  • Murmurs of “good” and “fine” as the teenagers began their expert evaluation of their substitute.
  • “Who knows Mrs. Moore here?” All hands raise.
  • “And who wants to guess how much she gets paid per hour to be here with you all day in and day out?” A few hands raise.
  • “$1000!” The first guess is a precocious boy who knows that isn’t correct.
  • “No. Lower. Keep guessing.” More hands.
  • “$50?” No. “$20?” No. “$5?” No. “Nothing?” Mr. Reed stops calling on students and lands on this answer with a raised eyebrow.
  • “Nothing is very close, however it is actually less than that. How is that possible? Mrs. Moore, how much would you say you pay to teach these folks every day?” I’m taken aback by this question, but have a pretty good idea given how shocked I am every time I pay tuition fees.
  • “It’s about $3000 per month.” I answer, as some of the kids gasp theatrically. Mr. Reed doesn’t skip a beat.
  • “$3000 per month. That’s how much she is paying to teach you. So, I hope you make it worth her while. She should get your utmost respect, as I’m sure you have been giving her up to now. Good. Shall we get started, Mrs. Moore?”

I recall the feeling so—well, it was extreme gratitude and strange relief at having someone recognize the lengths I was going to become a teacher. Not only was I trying to run a classroom for the first time, but I was also stumbling through it with the lingering knowledge that this isn’t my classroom. These aren’t really even my students. It’s an interesting dichotomy: such complete ownership, yet really none at all. 

So, how do we conduct this delicate harmony together, student and mentor? A group of students from the University of Colorado, Boulder compiled quite a list of advice for their cooperating teachers including such simple tips as videotaping the student teacher, long-range planning together, and explaining the school’s social culture clearly.

Things to Consider

 As a mentor teacher:

  • Leave the Room: Even if you have a great rapport with your student teacher, having the classroom to him/herself speaks volumes. When you walk out of the room, your student teacher is hearing, “I trust you with these students. I don’t need to watch you. You can mess up, and that’s okay. I appreciate you doing this because I can now go get some copies made.” Don’t even make a big deal out of it. When they’re teaching, try to leave more and more often over time.
  • Be Flexible: Never had book clubs while reading “Where the Red Fern Grows” with your 5th graders? Student teachers are being bombarded with incredibly fun teaching ideas daily through their program, so don’t be surprised if they want to try out a few of these ideas (maybe with a little unrealistic optimism). This is a great opportunity for you to try new strategies and come up with a plan together.
  • Stay Organized: Nothing is worse than having your student teacher come up with a complete unit plan, then losing track of time and not being able to let them teach it. While a unit plan may take you 10 hours at the most, a student teacher may have taken weeks to put together a ridiculously detailed masterpiece. Respect their time by organizing yours effectively.

As a student teacher:

  • Respect the Classroom: Although you are sharing this room, it can be very personal. Honor the organization system your mentor teacher has set up. This could mean putting copied papers in the same place, writing assignments on the top left corner of the whiteboard, not allowing backpacks to be zipped up before the bell rings—these are small indications that you respect the room and your mentor teacher, and they don’t drastically impact your teaching style. I would wipe down desks and the whiteboard if I had extra time, and always made sure to have the kids pick up pieces of paper on the floor.
  • Ask to Be Involved: There are times your mentor teacher may not even think to include you in something such as a department meeting. Don’t become preoccupied with why they didn’t ask you, just ask if you can come! They have plenty to think about, and it’s a relief to have you advocate for the things you would like to experience.
  • Understand You Are a Student: When a classroom of kids is depending on you as their teacher, it’s easy to forget that you’re still learning yourself! Remember that your mentor teacher should give your advice and tips—that’s what they’re there for. Muster up the courage to ask, “How could I have done that better?” knowing that this is exactly why you are here.

Related Lessons:


Check out this app as a possible way to keep classes organized and maintain communication between student and mentor teachers. All your classes are in one place, including attendance, assignments, parent communication, grades, and even seating charts.  

Student Teaching Fears

Here is a great discussion starter for student teachers who are about to begin a first placement. There are ten questions to guide them in getting started on the right foot with their cooperating teacher.

Exploring a Teaching Career Through an Energy Lesson

For older learners who may be interested in a teaching career someday, try this fun activity which has groups of high schoolers create a lesson on energy conservation appropriate for elementary school pupils. The groups present their lessons to teachers, who sign up to have them visit their classrooms!