The relationship between a demonstration teacher and their host teacher is a significant component of the student teaching experience. For the demonstration teacher, the ideal relationship consists of open communication, understanding, and support.
However, many of the student teachers I spoke to got mixed signals from their host teachers and found it difficult or intimidating to reach out to their mentors. On the other hand, the host teachers I spoke with described their experiences as subjective and thought the student teachers lacked the courage to speak up and ask for help.
Further Reading: How to Nail Your First Teaching Job Interview and Demonstration Lesson
Student teaching is a critical experience on the journey toward full-time teaching. Here are a few tips for getting host teacher–student teacher communication right and establishing a strong working relationship.
When to Ask for Help
Student teaching can be great; it can also be scary. My first experience was wonderful. My host teacher went out of her way to make me feel comfortable enough to ask questions anytime I needed to. I never felt as though I was bothering her, and she always made a point to ask me if I had any questions.
My second experience was drastically different. I never knew when the right time to ask for help was because the host teacher always seemed so busy. It left me intimidated and unsure of myself.
The student teachers I spoke to had similar experiences.
"In my student experience, I was reluctant to ask for help in fear of looking incompetent," one middle school teacher from Boston said. "My mentor was busy, and I didn't want to seem overly aggressive by always asking her questions."
The host teachers I spoke to agreed that it's essential for demonstration teachers to ask for help.
"I would never think of a student teacher as incompetent if they asked for help," Marcy, a second grade teacher said, "because the sole purpose of this experience is to learn."
But another stressed the importance of knowing the right time to ask for help.
"Don't bombard your teacher with 20 questions while they're busy grading papers, eating lunch, or trying to complete multiple tasks at the same time," Lindsay, a fifth grade elementary teacher from Buffalo said. "Instead, if you have a lot of questions, try writing them down and setting up an appointment. This way, they can give you their undivided attention."
In my experience, I learned that it's helpful to make sure that you ask host teachers questions that only they can answer — questions about classroom procedures, grading policies, or the like. If it's something your professor or another student teacher can answer, ask them first.
Further reading: The Mentor-Student Teacher Relationship: Finding Common Ground
What Communication Should (and Should Not) Look Like
Hindsight is 20/20. My second host teacher had a few student teachers before me and always compared me to them—often putting me in a negative light. If I could go back in time, I would have said something to her. Honest, balanced communication is key to a positive relationship, and that wasn't happening.
One student teacher from Buffalo State College told me about a similar situation, where she felt that her host teacher was constantly criticizing her.
"The teacher had no hesitation sharing negative feedback, but there was never anything positive to balance it out," she said.
One elementary school host teacher from Niagara Falls, New York admitted that there is a hierarchy between host and student teachers and that it takes a lot of courage for a student teacher to communicate their feelings with their mentor. Host teachers are there to help you; if you're feeling unsure about something, you need to let them know. This will be seen as a sign of maturity, not a lack of respect.
However, it's important to communicate professionally and respectfully. It might not be easy to initiate the conversation, but a respectful ice-breaker—such as "Can I ask you a question about this?" or "I noticed you did this; can you explain why?"—will go a long way toward getting the answers you're looking for while maintaining a professional and healthy relationship with your host teacher.
Further reading: 3 Ways to Mentally Prepare for Your Student Teaching Requirement
Finding the Right Time to Talk
Student teachers need to be courageous and find ways to communicate their feelings to their host teachers. Speaking up will help parties clear up any misunderstandings and clarify any confusion.
Ultimately, it's important to be mindful of when and where you communicate with your mentor.
"The best time to initiate conversations is before or after school, through email, or when the students are not busy in the classroom," one high school host teacher from Williamsville, New York said.
"Student teachers need to remember that the priority for the host teacher is the children and their learning in the classroom, not the student teacher," another said.
Further Reading: How to Become a Teacher: 5 Things Student Teachers Should Know
If you have a less than pleasant student teaching experience, like I did, don't let it define you or your future teaching career. Working with an experienced teacher can be a wonderful opportunity. Use this precious time to gain valuable insight into your own teaching practice.