stephanie jones

student teachers and first-year teachers for social justice

Finding space for trying new things: Mentor and student teachers

As universities work harder and harder to prepare teachers who can be powerful and successful educators for/with students from increasingly diverse backgrounds, student teachers can actually find themselves in an enviable position. Sometimes mentor teachers and/or administrators and/or family members will tilt their heads and raise their eyebrows at a classroom practice that doesn’t look familiar…but the student teacher can easily “blame” the craziness on their university professors;) “I have to do it for an assignment” is one easy way out of a politically tenuous situation…but I urge you to also add, “are you interested in seeing the books/videos/articles we’ve been reading to do this?”

Teachers are busy, and mentor teachers have taken on even more responsibilities by inviting you into their classrooms. This means that many of them don’t have lots of opportunities to read the latest research, keep up with the most recent books, or even just sit for a few hours and reconsider how they’ve done things for the past year or so.

Lots of mentor teachers accept student teachers because this is an opportunity to engage with ideas promoted by local universities…so give it a try, and if your mentor teacher is receptive and enthusiastic, you may have just found a fabulous collaborator to work through some new practices.

Some “new” things students have been trying in my course this semester:

Critical literacy practices


I’d love to hear how student teachers have been/continue to negotiate the “disconnect” between current classroom practices and their attempts to insert critically-focused practices that may not be familiar to teachers/students/families/administrators;)

**New questions from students out in the field:

Will I have to do what every other teacher does?

*** and I have been placed in a *** grade classroom at ****. We haven’t been very impressed with the lesson plans and overall atmosphere of the classroom thus far. Yesterday we sat in on a *** grade team meeting about L.A. The teachers were discussing their lesson plans and how they all need to have the same lesson plans and do everything the same. It really concerned me that not only my teacher was teaching non-engaging lessons, but that the entire grade level was doing so as well. I asked if they were allowed to deviate or do their own thing if they see fit, and they expressed how they’re required to be on the same page and that if the principal were to walk into their classrooms at any given moment, they should all look the same.

After all of the things we discussed last semester, especially the Reading Workshop model and critical literacy activities, I was wondering what a teacher would do in a situation like this. If I were a new *** grade teacher at that school this year, would I be able to deviate from the group and incorporate meaningful, engaging activities? There didn’t seem to be much wiggle room for different ideas, so it concerned me. I would hate to work in a place that made me conform to the (sometimes inferior) ideas of my colleagues when I become a teacher.

Any insight on the matter? Sorry, I know this is a long email, but it really does concern me. Given the lesson plans and the way they are implemented, it is no wonder that the students are so miserable. I would just hate to think that there was nothing that an effective teacher could do. Thanks for your time! I miss your class already!
A Humble Response:

I don’t know the particular situation that you’re talking about, but I will tell you this.

I work with incredible teachers in various schools across *** who are engaged with community, developing learning around students’ interests, and explicitly teaching their students critical literacy practices to use in and out of school. In some of these schools it seems there are groups of teachers who all do the same thing (meaning attempting to “look” the same when a principal walks in) – and in some cases, believe that they must do the same thing. It’s extremely complicated to understand why teachers will agree to completely conform even when their students are miserable.

Teachers have agency – they can make change. When you interview, you will ask the principal about how much power you have over developing curriculum that students are interested in and that meets their needs. If the principal says “none,” and you have other possibilities for earning a salary – I personally wouldn’t take a position where someone was going to dictate what would be happening in my classroom without knowing my students, families, and the learning theories I know all too well.

You are right to be concerned. Whether or not they actually have ‘wiggle room’ I don’t know. Whether or not they have the responsibility to educate the children in front of them is no question. That’s the bottom line – children have  a right to a deep, broad, and expansive education – not a narrow and limited one.

It sounds like you are using your critical literacy lenses well;) Good for you. You are a powerful person who will be incredibly well prepared for learning from and teaching children from diverse backgrounds. You are an intellectual who will seek out answers when you bump up against something you don’t understand in your classroom. You are exactly the kind of teacher our children deserve. Sometimes you may have to do some things you don’t agree with (I even have things like that in my job at times…), but you will make sure you and your students create powerful spaces together where learning, curiosity, and exploration will be unlimited.

Use this as an opportunity to be an ethnographer to see how different teachers might handle this situation differently. Perhaps you can do some short observations in multiple classrooms, watch them on the playground, listen to how they talk about children and families and education and administration. Learn everything you can about what’s happening – think about it from multiple and critical perspectives – and imagine creative ways you might handle the same situation.

I wish you were in a better situation – I hope you can make this an important learning experience.

  1. Starting with a classroom in the middle of the year?

    How do I use Responsive Classroom principles when I’ve missed half the year?

    I’ve had two people ask about starting in a classroom in December/January and what they might do regarding setting up new classroom structures/rules/routines/rituals. My suggestion is to expect to spend about 1 week with the students revisiting and revising what they already have in place. For example, instead of starting “fresh” with new rules, pull the rules down, read them, discuss them, find out if they’re working to make the classroom safe, respectful, and a good place to learn. And then work together to make them better. The same would go for other structures (seating expectations – assigned or not; the consequences in place or the use of a “thinking chair” or “control chair” instead of a punishment system; how to do independent work time; etc.).

  2. As per your suggestion, I’m reading Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire. 2 chapters in and I’m loving it. Have you ever tried using the Six Levels of Thinking in your own classroom? I think it sounds like such a great idea, encouraging self-regulation and deeper thought. As always, however, I’m scared of how this would turn out in an elementary classroom. Middle school, sure, I think it would work. But would a 3rd grader be able to understand and reflect on these ideas enough for it to modify behavior? Just some questions I’m considering…

  3. hi sarah! great to see you in cyberspace…
    i don’t have the book near me at the moment, remind me what the “Six Levels of Thinking” is and i’ll respond as best i can.

    glad you’re liking the book!


  4. My previous message had a typo in it so here’s a corrected version.
    During writing today I had a student tell me that his baby is a gangster (his baby brother, but he just calls him ‘my baby’). I was a little taken aback. My first instinct was to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. But then I realized that probably wasn’t the best reaction. I told him in a half joking way not to turn his baby into a gangster, but I don’t know what the best thing to say really was. Others said to say “we don’t talk about that at school” so that you still validate their lifestyle without… well, validating their lifestyle. I don’t think that telling a student we can’t talk about his lifestyle is really validating it, but I also see the value of teaching students that certain words and behaviors that may be considered acceptable at home are not acceptable in public. I think that separating home from public lives is actually a necessity for becoming successful adults. When they grow up, they will have to use a “public language” and “public behaviors” in order to get and keep jobs! I don’t know. I don’t think that either of those methods of handling the situation are great, but is there a better way? I don’t want students to think that it’s ok to be in a gang, but I don’t want them to think that I do not value their lives either. I also want them to know they can talk to me about stuff like that if there is a major problem and they need help.

  5. Hey Jamie!
    This is such a great story, and I’m so glad you posted it on here for us to talk about…

    My first thought would be to say to the child (with a genuine look of interest and curiosity on my face), “Tell me about that…”
    This might be a joking nickname given by the family (kids in my family have been given little temporary nicknames as a result of some of their actions ), or something the child himself says without meaning the same thing that adults around him are thinking.

    What a lot of adults in school tend to do is to jump to a conclusion that is not related in any way at all to what the child actually means. We project all kinds meanings onto children’s talk and action without genuinely engaging them in a discussion.

    The key here is genuine interest and curiosity, however. And that’s how I would try to respond to all things kids say to me.
    If you’re not sure how to respond to something, practice these:

    “Tell me more about that…”
    “What do you mean by that?”
    “I never thought of that before…”
    “That’s really interesting. Can you tell me what it means?”

    You bring up good issues around public and private language, and we could talk all day about that. What I don’t want us to do, however, is use the eventual “adulthood” and employment as a reason for something we do in kindergarten. They have plenty of time to learn to be adults – in fact, I’m still learning myself:) We should encourage kids to bring their whole selves into the classroom when they feel safe in doing so, and not work extra hard to build up the brick walls already pervasive between home/community and school life – including language use.

    It might even be fun to do a little language inquiry around “gangster” with this child and anyone else who uses the term to help the adults learn the child’s uses of the word and help the child to see multiple ways of “reading” the use of the word.

    Thanks for the great topic J! I look forward to hearing from you about this again soon…


  6. Thank you so much for your suggestions and your quick reply! I knew there had to be a better way to handle the situation.
    I should have added, however, that this child has close family members that are known gang members in the community. I am naive enough that I probably would have just laughed it off without thinking much about it had I not already known that. It’s actually very likely that this child himself is already an honorary gang member. So he does already know what that word means and probably has people he greatly admires who are members of the gang. But he probably just sees a romanticized view of being a gangster. This could make an inquiry very beneficial, however, so that he could think about it from multiple perspectives. Another child wrote the number 13 on a sheet of paper one day and this child made a big deal about “that’s a BAD word.” To me, this probably means one of two things. Either he’s got someone close to him discouraging him from following that lifestyle and telling him that those things are “bad,” or MS 13 is actually a rival gang.
    Is it horrible though that I actually hesitate to do an inquiry though for fear that it may get back to those gangster family members who may not like it very much?

  7. This is a tricky situation, and without knowing the family yourself, it’s impossible to have a real idea of what’s going on.

    Perhaps I would stick to things like, “Tell me more about that…” rather than doing an inquiry around the word. He might be able to educate you a bit 🙂

    good luck and let me know how it goes –
    and, of course, come back with more stories and questions!!


  8. As I’ve grown older, I fear that some groups of students (hippies, headbangers, rappers, bohemians in general)are on the enemy list of administrators at least in a conservative community. Remember when Richard Nixon put Joe Namath on his infamous enemy list? If a lot of the wrong kids like you as a teacher, then your career will be in danger. I know this is really nihilistic, but I’m not suicidal.

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