Student teachers find a home at Wilson

Photo courtesy of Julia Casey

Jamie Stewart-Aday

When most of us imagine college, we think of big lecture halls, relaxed class schedules, and parties. We probably don’t imagine waking up at six every morning to go hang out with a bunch of 16-year-olds. But that is the life of a student teacher.

“You’re a senior in college and all of your friends are having fun because they are on a different type of schedule than you which can be hard,” Betty Mfalingundi, a Wilson student teacher, said. 

But for students hoping to become teachers, it’s easily worth it. “It’s rewarding and I think a lot of seniors in college would benefit from having a semester that’s all about getting you a job, training you for your job, and getting you set up to enter the workforce,” Mfalingundi said. 

Student teaching is the last step before becoming a teacher, meaning that those currently at Wilson will be full-time teachers next year. This makes student teaching a critical tool for soon-to-be teachers, who gain valuable experience, comfort, and perspective before they take over a class of their own. 

While each college has a slightly different program (Wilson has had student teachers from American (AU), George Washington (GWU), and Brigham Young (BYU)), they all follow a similar pattern—students will observe multiple schools and then spend an extended period at one school with one teacher, gradually assuming more responsibility throughout their stay.

There are two student teachers currently at Wilson, Mfalingundi and Julia Casey. Casey is working with English teacher Lauren Hartshorn, and Mfalingundi is with History teacher Matthew Burgoyne. Both are AU students, and both wanted to come to Wilson because of its size and culture.

Casey was attracted to how different Wilson was from her high school in Boston. “I’d never attended a big public school like this so it was exciting for me, but I was kind of nervous also because I went to a very small private all-girls high school so a lot of things at Wilson are really new to me,” she said. 

Mfalingundi found Wilson appealing for the exact opposite reason—it reminded her of home. “I feel like I’ve been in the same shoes as a lot of students here,” she said. 

Mfalingundi also appreciated the diversity and culture that has been established at Wilson. “I see at Wilson that there’s a lot of effort put into inclusion and diversity,” she said. “The faculty that I’ve worked with have been pretty diverse and I feel like if I come here I won’t be a pioneer trying to start initiatives to get certain work done and I really appreciate that.”  

The shuttle from AU campus to Tenleytown also appealed to the two student teachers, as it made Wilson a convenient option.

Wilson is not from the first school they went to, though, as the AU program took them to Alice Deal Middle School, Langley High School, Mckinley Tech High School, Thurgood Marshall Academy, Horace Mann Elementary School, Green Acres School, and Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. Additionally, Mfalingundi and Casey did practicums, where they spent two days per week at Pyle Middle School and Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, respectively.

However, both had teaching experience even before their practicum. Each had done some teaching in high school, and Casey did a practicum teaching English while studying abroad in Denmark. 

“In Denmark… they have a lot more leeway in general, sometimes that’s a good thing sometimes it’s not, but basically the teachers will just ask a question or give out a task at the beginning of class and then they’ll have like two hours to figure it out… and they can just wander wherever.” 

Casey plans to incorporate some of these Danish values into her teaching in the US. “I definitely want to integrate what I learned. Not [to] fully be like a Danish classroom, but I definitely like the idea of letting students wrangle with a problem on their own and solve things for their own and I’ve been practicing that a lot in here too,” she said.

Once at Wilson, student teachers get assigned a supervising teacher who they work with for the entirety of their stay. 

For full-time teachers, taking a student teacher can be a professional courtesy and a way to eventually help manage the workload of teaching. “I was thinking about how I had a really busy year last year and that having some help would be nice, but also that I hadn’t had a student teacher in about five years so it felt like time to do it again,” Hartshorn said. 

However, Hartshorn noted that taking a student teacher can initially mean more work, but that it evens out in the end. “It can be a help about a month or so into it. That first month of having any student teacher kind of doubles your work because you make decisions and then you have to explain how and why you made those decisions out loud,” she said, “[but then] you kind of get a halving of the work later so it balances out.”  

Beyond the change in workload, teachers have to be willing to give up some control over their classrooms. “The supervising teacher has to be comfortable with things not being done their way. Even when you’re co-planning, the way I would say something is different from the way Ms. Casey would say something. And that just has to be ok because you’re letting somebody else come into your space, and if you’re really controlling as a supervising teacher, I think you’re giving a bad experience,” Hartshorn said. 

For the first few weeks, student teachers will observe and help their supervising teachers with planning and grading, and then they will start gradually integrating into the classroom. 

“The first few weeks were more observing and helping out Ms. Hartshorn, then I started teaching creative writing on my own and now I’ve been taking on multicultural literature on my own… and I’m going to start slowly integrating more into AP Lit and those sections,” Casey said. Similarly, Mfalingundi started by teaching one section of World History and then expanded to two sections and then to AP US History.

Having this experience in a classroom illuminates aspects of teaching that can’t be fully grasped in college education classes alone.

For Casey, this includes where to stand, how to grade fairly, maintaining an even tone, and how to build relationships with students. “Ms. Hartshorn has taught me a lot about building relationships with the students and how to do that effectively, even just having small conversations… talking about their favorite books, favorite things, just getting to know them and building a rapport with students,” she said. 

Mfalingundi’s time at Wilson has taught her a lot about timing. “I’m really bad at making sure I get through entire lessons, or sometimes I’ll just plan things where my students are capable of doing it but they need a little bit more time than I think they do, and that’s really hard,” she said. 

The culminating experience for student teachers is a period in which they take over a teacher’s full course load, which for Casey and Mfalingundi means six classes in multiple subjects per day. Unfortunately, this time is likely to get cut short by the school closure, but Casey and Mfalingundi will still get some of the experience by leading distance learning.

The period of taking over a full course load is a huge step in preparing student teachers to teach full time. “It’s a hard day, it’s a fast day,” Hartshorn said, “I don’t want anyone to get surprised by it. I think it’s important that programs equip teachers who want to stay teachers, and I think feeling the full experience of the school day and the school week is important for that.”

Mfalingundi agreed, emphasizing the level at which that experience prepares someone to become a first-year teacher. “That’s two weeks of, frankly, work I probably wouldn’t be expected to do as a first-year teacher,” she said, “having three different classes that you have to prepare for is typically not something that a first-year teacher would be expected to do.”

One of the clearest success stories of student teaching at Wilson is current-English teacher Jenna Postler, who observed and student-taught at Wilson last year before getting hired full-time for this school year. 

Postler took a different route than Casey and Mfalingundi, though, as she obtained her teaching license through a two-year masters program at GWU, as opposed to an undergraduate program at AU. 

In between undergrad and graduate school, Postler spent time working in marketing and in publications at an art museum. “I think I have the benefit of many more years of my life that I’ve lived to understand what matters and what truly doesn’t matter… I think life experience and having done a history of other things behind me has been a great advantage,” Postler said.

Postler has also been able to incorporate her experience into the classroom, making sure to use visual art as a learning medium whenever possible. 

Although graduate school was the right move for Postler, it’s not the best fit for everyone. For Mfalingundi, getting certified to teach as an undergraduate is likely the only reason she’s on the path to becoming a teacher. 

“If I went to my state school at the University of Minnesota, you have to get your license as a masters student, and frankly I probably just wouldn’t have gone into it; I would’ve done maybe education studies or public history, which is museums and stuff like that. I think being able to get my license immediately out of undergrad is what solidified the decision for me,” Mfalingundi said. 

Once Postler knew she wanted to become a teacher, she took a job at GWU, which allowed her to get her masters at a reduced cost. Similarly to the AU program, Postler spent time learning about teaching in a GWU classroom, visited multiple schools, and then student-taught. 

Postler first came to Wilson to observe 11th grade English teacher Spencer Nissly once a week in the fall of 2018 and then came back to student teach with English teacher Natalie Zuravleff that spring. 

At Wilson, Postler learned how to explain concepts to students, which she described as an art. “It sounds really fundamental, but the art of explaining things in a way that students will understand them is truly an art. If you think about one thing, you sometimes think that it’s logical to everybody or that the way you think about it is the same as everybody thinks about it, but that’s certainly not the case… and that’s something you really can’t get a grasp on until you work with real students,” she said.

Although she had to apply to teach at a variety of schools, Wilson was at the top of Postler’s list and she was skilled enough to secure a job here, along with her fellow GWU student and now Science teacher Barry Morrato. 

“I already had a jump start on close relationships with several teachers in the English department, so I’ve continued to build on those. It’s really helpful to know people and to get help when you need help and to just have somebody there when you need somebody there, so I definitely have a leg up on that,” Postler said.  “I also know how things work here a little bit more, and wherever you go, if it’s somewhere new, there’s a period of learning the ropes, and I think I learned a lot of them [through student teaching] and that helped me to not have as hard of a transition.”

Both Casey and Mfalingundi may follow in Postler’s footsteps, as both plan on applying to work at Wilson for the 2020-21 school year. But wherever they go, they know that their time at Wilson will have prepared them to take over their own classroom and excel. 

“It feels good to stand up there and give a lesson, especially when it goes really well I feel good about myself,” Casey said.