Surviving to Thriving: Practicum Tips from a Couple of Old Pros

In the complex and winding journey that is teaching, one of the key milestones prior to certification is ‘THE PRACTICUM’. Although governments and teacher education programs in each province/ state and country have varying requirements for the practicum (amount of time, responsibility, frequency, etc.) it remains one of the most important parts of the teacher education process. I (Doug) clearly remember the speech that the Dean of Education gave to the 130 or so Year 1 after-degree students in my class (a couple years back…). He stood up and said (my remembrance, not verbatim):

Welcome to Professional Semester 1! This is your first practicum term and for many of you, it will be a wonderful experience and confirm everything you’ve ever thought about being a teacher. Some of you will have a more difficult, adverse time and although you will question your desire to be a teacher, the experience will ultimately confirm your decision. For a few of you, this term will involve monumental struggle. You will doubt your abilities, career choice and professional efficacy. And that’s OK. Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher and it is OK to realize that in this term.

Although I appreciated the rather visceral nature of what he had to say and actually took it on as a bit of challenge it was certainly not a talk that was meant to reduce stress or ease us into the practicum experience!

At the University of Alberta, where the Healthy Schools Lab is located, some of our students have already started their 9 week practicum (Advanced Field Experience) and others will be heading out in November for their 5 week practicum (Introductory Field Experience). We thought it might be timely and helpful to invite two recent graduates from our program to share their tips for a successful practicum experience. Karly Janssen and Taylor Del Bianco, both new BEd graduates recently delivered a workshop session for us on that very topic so we thought, “Who better to write a blog post about thriving during student teaching?” As such, please welcome Karly and Taylor in their first guest post for the HSL blog!

Hi, Taylor and Karly here! 

We are recent graduates from the University of Alberta, Faculty of Education (After Degree Program) and we are here to share with any ‘soon to be student teachers’ about how we survived our school placement experiences. We both spiraled through a lot of emotions before and during our student teaching experiences, but we hope through this post we can ease your mind about the practicum process and help set you up for the beginning of a great career! 

You are finally on the last stages of your degree! It is now the time you are all eagerly awaiting – your practicum! You may feel a multitude of emotions as you prepare to enter your student teaching experiences such as confidence, excitement, or ultimate preparedness. However, you may also be experiencing anxiety, nerves, self-doubt, and maybe even dread as you think of saying goodbye to your social life for the next number of weeks… If any of these emotions resonate with you: take a deep breath and know these emotions are normal and you are not alone. We are here to hopefully provide support and ease your concerns before you enter these incredibly exciting and rewarding learning experiences. Following are our answers to a few common questions we wish we had the answers to before our placements: 

How much planning should I do before the first day? 

As soon as you know the school you will be teaching at, it’s a great idea to browse their website and learn more about the school and neighbourhood demographics. Once you find out what grade you will be teaching you should familiarize yourself with the Program of Study (POS) and the various units you might be teaching. This does not mean memorize and read the entire POS front to back, we just suggest you form a general understanding. Who knows, some fun and creative ideas might start popping up in your head! Doing these two things are the foundation which you will continue to build on throughout your placement. 

One big mistake the both of us made entering our practicums was thinking that we needed to have everything done for the entire practicum experience before the first day even started. We both spent the majority of our spring break gathering materials for units, lessons etc. and well, there was a lot of unnecessary stressing out. This is not what is expected from you! When we got to our practicum schools we soon realized that planning this far ahead in this amount of detail created more work than it should have. We frequently changed our lessons as we adapted to the needs of our students and received feedback from our mentor teachers. Make sure you talk to your mentor teacher on one of your observation days and get a clear answer of what is expected – we sure wish we did this!

Follow up question: What if I don’t know the grade I am teaching right away? 

No need to panic! Yes, it would be nice to know your grade as soon as you’re given the school but that may not be the case. Not knowing the grade you will be teaching right away will not put you at a disadvantage to those who do know. You can still browse through the POS to better understand general outcomes that are applicable to all grades. As we mentioned earlier, planning too far ahead can cause unnecessary stress and remember, as a teacher, you are constantly adapting to the unknown and lessons will always be changing!

Goodbye social life? 

Heading into your practicum you may hear whispers of “kiss your social life goodbye” or “you’ll see your friends and family when it’s over”. However, this is not the case! Yes, you will have a busy schedule but you will have time to see friends and family and continue regular activities. In fact, we highly suggest scheduling time to see your friends and family and do things that brings you joy. Creating time for yourself and separating work from home life is incredibly important for your mental health and overall wellness. It also begins to set positive work and life habits for when you enter your career. We promise, your students will appreciate you much more when you feel rested and connected to those you love.

When should I do my planning?

When you plan is (mostly) up to you. Some teachers like to stay later after school whereas others like to come early and plan. We suggest you talk about this with your mentor teacher as they may have a schedule for when they’d like to see your lessons. However, your mentor teacher is an asset, so planning around them may be the best for any questions you may have – we both took advantage of planning alongside our mentor teachers. 

Don’t be afraid to ask your mentor teacher questions

Communication with your mentor teacher is huge to experiencing a successful practicum! Here are a few important questions to ask your mentor teacher: 

  1. Do you have any resources I could refer to? 
  2. How did you establish your classroom culture?
  3. What is your signal for attention?
  4. How do you approach behavior management?
  5. What do I do when I am overwhelmed when teaching?
  6. What works well for your students?

What if my mentor and I don’t mesh? 

This is a very tricky situation to navigate and something we have experienced in our practicums. If this happens to you, we suggest trying to build up your relationship with your mentor teacher by having frequent check ins and asking for advice. If this doesn’t work, reach out to your practicum supervisor and they will support you in navigating your individual situation. At the end of the day, it is of the utmost importance to remain professional. In our province,  we are held to the Alberta Teachers Association Code of Conduct. Please refer to the relevant provincial/ state document in your location to ensure you are maintaining the expected level of professionalism, even in tricky situations.

When should I arrive/ leave school?  

There is no exact answer for this question. We suggest that you have this conversation right away with your mentor teacher to see what their expectations for you are. For your first day, be in touch with your mentor teacher to ask when they would like you to arrive. 

Should I ask the Principal to come observe me? 

This is completely up to you and your comfort level! However, we highly suggest asking for an observation because not only will you get valuable feedback, you will gain further experience with being observed while teaching. Both of us asked for our principals to watch us in our practicums and although incredibly nerve wracking, it was an excellent opportunity that we might not have received if we didn’t seek it out! That being said, principals are very busy people and sometimes just can’t find the time to observe you. It happens. It’s OK!   

Now that our practicums are behind us, we took the time to reflect upon things we wish we would have done differently and any advice we would give to future preservice teachers. 

Things we wish we did: 

  • Taken more risks 
    • Student teaching is the perfect opportunity to take risks and learn from your mistakes. You are supposed to make mistakes during your practicums. You are learning how to teach and the most valuable lessons often come from the “bombed” lessons. 
  • Included our personal passions into more lessons
    • We think this helps build a stronger relationship with your students as they get to know you through things you are passionate about. Your passions can often align with the POS curricular outcomes! 
  • Less overthinking 
    • Just jump right in! You do not need to be perfect and you are going to make mistakes. You’ve got this. 
  • Honored our physical and mental health
    • When you are sick, stay home. It is not worth it to get your students or mentor teacher sick as you try to fight through a sinus infection. Please don’t forget you are human and are allowed to do what is best for your overall wellness. 

Final Messages to our fellow future teachers: 

  1. This is a learning experience – don’t expect perfection! 
  2. Take things one step at a time
  3. Missteps are critical to development 
  4. Ask for feedback 
  5. Negative feedback is an opportunity for growth
  6. Have fun! 

We are incredibly excited for the journey you are about to embark on. Your practicum experiences are going to challenge you daily and keep you on your toes at all times but they are truly the most rewarding experiences of your degree (in our humble opinions). There are going to be moments of stress and fatigue but please remember that you are not alone and your physical and mental health matters immensely. Whenever you think you don’t have time to do something to benefit your own wellness, remind yourself of the impact taking the time to sleep, seeing a friend, or going for a walk will do for you – and your students. There is a common narrative that if you are not stressed and tired while teaching, you are not doing a good job. This is simply not true and does NOT need to be YOUR narrative. Take each day one day at a time and most importantly have fun! What is better than getting to spend your days with a group of awesome students?

Good luck, take care of yourself and have a happy practicum! 

Karly & Taylor  

Karly (on the right) graduated from the Kinesiology / Education Combined Degree program in 2019. After graduating she began her journey as a certified teacher subbing and is now experiencing her very own classroom as a Kindergarten teacher. 

Taylor (on the left) graduated from the Elementary After Degree program in 2019. Previously, she completed a degree in Speech Sciences from UBC before taking off to live in Europe for a few years. She loves the outdoors, cats and the movie Hot Rod. She is eagerly awaiting a classroom of her own! 

Come on, MOVE me!

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