Working With Interns: Thoughts & Advice
Starting the Year in Field Instruction
- Starting the year in a classroom is a complex and important teaching task that extends across the first few weeks of school and tends to shape the whole year.
- Ideally, interns would learn so much from observing and participating in the mentor teacher's class that they would be able to start the year well in their own classroom next year. But we have good reasons to think that's a very ambitious goal. Just doesn't happen that fast.
- We are not sure what or how much interns' can learn, using their experience and studies to date. This is a matter to be explored.
- We are not sure what or how much interns can learn when playing the roles of observer or assistant teacher. This is a matter to be explored. At a guess, an assistant will be unaware of much that is going on.
- In the first weeks, some or many mentor teachers will be so heavily engaged in getting the class started that they will be unable to talk much with the intern about what's going on. So, many interns will have limited access to the mentor teacher's thinking as they observe or try to help the teacher.
- We are inclined to think that, unless we cue interns how to use their studies so far to interpret what they see/hear, and unless we help them to make sense of what they see/here, they are likely to learn far less from observing and participating than we would hope.
So, our problem is described. What can/could we do?
Field instructors make important contributions by "co-observation" with interns. At the most extensive, co-observation would mean that the intern and field instructor would independently take notes for 30 minutes while the mentor teacher teaches. Then field instructor, intern, (and perhaps mentor teacher, on some occasions) would go and talk about what's in the notes and why. In that exchange, the intern would get to hear what the field instructor thought important to record, and why.
The idea or tactic of co-observation can extend even to small events like standing together watching for two minutes and then exchanging four sentences. What matters is (1) looking/listening together, and (2) field instructor helping the intern to perceive, interpret, etc., partly by asking what the intern "saw” and partly by sharing what the field instructor "saw.”
Ask Important Questions
Field instructors have a stock of questions which tend to be fruitful when co-observing. [Bracketed statements attempt to express the aims or strategies behind the repeated use of these questions.]
- Tell me about; tell me more about...
We are giving open-ended cue to remember and describe, not everything, but something the field instructor generally points toward as being fruitful to talk about. That is, the field instructor is using her judgment to say "there's something important over in that direction,” and asking the intern to get in the game.
- How would you describe or explain that to someone who wasn't watching...?
We are making another request to recall and describe "just the facts, ma'am,” and then to go on to interpret.
- How did you feel when....?
We are cueing the intern to notice her/his own thoughts and feelings, and how they might affect her or his own learning. Also, possibly, a way to cue an intuition.
- Did you see how (the teacher just did something)?
We are labeling an event or pattern as move or practice, so that it can be perceived.
- How many times...(did something or other happen)?
We are giving a cue to notice repetition, as a way to detect patterns of classroom activity, or to detect what's important, or to detect what might be going wrong.
- Did you see that (the teacher has just made some move that makes sense in relation to her last move or in relation to something that a kid did or said)?
We're pointing to teacher-student interaction playing out in some way, pointing to something that a teacher probably would or ought to notice.
- Did you notice the student who....that group of students which...?
We are pulling the intern's attention away from the teacher's actions and toward the students' activities, statements, etc. Promoting the habit of watching and listening to kids. Introducing the idea that a teacher figures out what to do largely by observing students.
- What other ways could a teacher have....?
We are promoting the habit of generating and comparing alternative options for thought and for action, because that's how we increase our wealth as teachers.
- What did you see or hear that made you think that?
As teachers we have a duty not to fool ourselves about what's going on in our classrooms, a duty not to make up nice stories about what's going on because those stories make us feel better. We avoid fooling or misleading ourselves, and we avoid abusing our students, by constantly asking, "What did I actually see and hear?"
- How could we discover who learned and who didn't?
We are declaring that we cannot just "see" that kids learned, and that we cannot assume they learned because we told or taught. A constant invitation to build curiosity and assessment skill.
- I was wondering what you were thinking when....
A cue that thought process is important, and a way to get into the intern's mental game, in order to help.
Teach Intern How to Ask Questions
There is reason to think that interns often refrain from asking questions of their mentor teachers because the interns know that they will be unable to keep their biases and judgments out of the question. For example, "Why did you get down on Johnny so hard about that little thing?”
There is a teachable question pattern that seems to be pretty safe in lots of situations. It seemed to meet approval from some field instructors. Example:
"(a) A few minutes ago you went over to Johnny's desk, leaned over close to him, and said something I couldn't hear, but it sounded firm. (b) I think it might help me learn if you would (c) tell me what you were thinking about just then and what you said to him.”
The pattern of the question is: (a) Brief, dead-pan description of what was seen and heard. (b) Invocation of one's role as novice teacher and therefore mentor teacher's obligation as teacher educator. (c) Brief indication of the information that the intern would like to have.
Ordinarily, when the mentor teacher has responded, the intern would just smile and say "Thanks.” What was asked for has been provided.
Adapted from 'Grades and Grading" by Tom Bird, AY 2005-2006