The ultimate guide for preservice teachers

The Ultimate guide to being an outstanding preservice teacher

getting the most out of your student teaching experience

Are you a soon-to-be student teacher? If so this is the place for you! This article is full of advice to help preservice teachers get the most out of their practicum experience. These teaching tips are based on my own teaching practicum experience, as well as observations of other student teachers I have made over the years. This advice is tailored to Australian preservice teachers, but most tips will translate well to other countries and contexts.

You may find all of these strategies useful, or only some of them – take what you need!

Image of Nadia sitting at her desk with laptop, smiling at camera Text reads ultimate guide to being an outstanding preservice teacher

My own teaching practicum experience

Overall I really enjoyed my teaching practicum experiences, but there were definitely ups and downs, tears and fails!

In 2017 I completed my Graduate Diploma of Secondary Education at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. I majored in Science and Health. As part of this qualification, I completed a total of 11 weeks of practicum placement, which all happened to be in public schools.

Preservice teachers were assessed on two domains as part of our final practicum – Teaching Skills and Professional Development. For each domain we were awarded one of the following grades:

  • Fail
  • Graduate
  • Highly competent graduate
  • Outstanding graduate

Being the high achiever I am, of course I was aiming for the elusive ‘Double Outstanding’ – signifying a preservice teacher achieved the ‘outstanding graduate’ grade for both domains. However, I ended up achieving outstanding for my professional development and highly competent for my teaching skills – an achievement I am very proud of. But perhaps what I am prouder of is the fact that I was later offered a job at that highly competitive school based solely on my practicum performance. Below are my tips to help you achieve to the best of your potential and make the most of your practicum experience.

Advice for student teachers: Before the practicum starts

Ensure you have a strong support network

My first tip is not something that will be within control for all preservice teachers – we all come from different backgrounds, circumstances and experiences after all. Personally, I was going through my practicum after recently moving across the country all by myself! I barely knew anyone in Perth and my whole family was either on the East Coast or overseas. I was isolated!

But, if possible, try to strengthen your support network around you. I enjoyed my pracs, but there were still plenty of phone calls to Mum where I’d bawl my eyes out because at times it was just so hard. Plans with friends were cancelled because at times I was just too exhausted. I’d snap at my partner because at times I was just too frustrated.

What you can do:

  • Let family and friends know you’re going on prac: Make sure they know that you will be extremely busy and you will need their help and understanding
  • Stay in contact with university peers: They’re going through a similar experience as preservice teachers, if anyone understands it’s them! Make a WhatsApp or Facebook messenger group so you can vent away!
  • Plan coffee dates with friends: Leave the nights out and grand weekend plans for a bit (at least until you’ve figured out your time commitments), but don’t isolate yourself – you’ll be grateful for the distraction and if you’re lucky you’ll be able to have a vent
Image of Nadia and her mum, both smiling at camera. Nadia is on the left and her mum is on the right. Text reads: My mum who put up with plenty of teary phone calls!

Make preparations with work and ready your finances

Again, depending on personal circumstances this tip may be easy for some and difficult for others. My friends that were also preservice teachers came from a very wide range of personal situations: from living at home with parents, to being the sole breadwinners for their young family, to single parents, to professionals in demanding jobs, etc.

But, no matter your personal circumstances, it’s likely you will need to be available full time for chunks of 5-10 weeks to complete your unpaid practicum components. During my placement I was supporting myself – I had rent, bills and car payments to make. It was definitely a challenge to figure our how I would afford to feed myself and keep a roof over my head! To prepare, I started a flexible retail job – so even while on prac I could still work on Saturdays and the occasional night shift. I put away extra savings before it started, and I was able to take annual leave (my boss was also nice enough to let me take sick leave) during my practicums. Again, you will have to figure out what will work for you, but it is important to plan.

Shop for the essentials for preservice teachers

While the school should provide essential items, it’s nice to come in prepared and organised so you don’t have to stress about finding the stationary cupboard on top of your other obligations on your first day.

I recommend the following items to preservice teachers:

  • Whiteboard markers: just a small pack of 4 will do to get started
  • A pack of pencils: to hand out to forgetful students. Just be prepared to never see them again!
  • Lever arch file for each subject: make your life easier by keeping work organised
  • A ton of sheet protectors: to go with your files
  • Large bulldog clips: to organise class sets of worksheets, assessments, etc.
Image of pencils, bulldog clips, whiteboard markers and ring binders text reads the essentials for day one

You’ll also need to have a think about your student teacher wardrobe. Don’t go overboard, I did my pracs with a few dressy shirts from H&M, some work pants, a skirt and a dress. You can check out What the Teacher Wears for women’s teacher outfit inspiration. My biggest tip is to make sure you are comfortable! Choose outfits you can move around in and more importantly choose quality footwear. Before my placement I bought a pair of heels and a cheap pair of flats and didn’t end up wearing either! Remember you will be on your feet for most of the day.

It’s also important to feel confident in your outfits! If you feel confident you’ll come across as confident, which is very important when you need to tell off a misbehaving student for the first time, or feel like an expert teaching a subject that is out of your comfort zone. Confidence is key for preservice teachers!

Meal prep for preservice teachers

It’s the oldest time-saving trick in the book for a reason! If you’ve read my article on how to become a more organised teacher, you know I’m all about meal prep! On my first day I pulled out my beautifully constructed Greek salad for lunch – my pride and joy! Only to be shot down by my Mentor Teacher commenting “It looks like someone’s got too much time on their hands!”. It didn’t take long to understand what he meant, when I slipped into the bad habit of stopping at McDonalds on my way home from school each day. I learned my lesson for my final practicum though, I went into it with a freezer full of turkey mince and veggies and halfway through I discovered my saviour – ALDI frozen meals, which cost only $2.50 at the time. You will be time-poor but it’s important that as a preservice teacher you eat well – You’ll need plenty of energy!

Image of food stacked up in containers and text reads meal prep to save time

What you can do:

  • Meal prep: Stock up on takeaway containers and get in the kitchen! Tasty has compiled some recipes to get you started
  • Stock up on frozen meals: Visit Aldi for cheap meals or Woolworths and Coles usually have specials
  • Meal delivery service: definitely the pricier option but, incredibly time-saving and healthy too. Services like My Muscle Chef and Youfoodz will deliver fresh, healthy meals to your door

Advice for student teachers: while on practicum

Treat your teaching practicum experience like an extended job interview

You, like most preservice teachers, probably have the goal of receiving a job offer at the end of your practicum. Furthermore, it’s likely that your Mentor Teacher will be your first reference on your teaching resume. For these reasons it’s important to treat your teaching practicum experience like an extended job interview. Please understand that no one expects you to be an expert on practicum – you are there to learn. However, you are expected to work hard and try your best. A contributing factor to me later landing a job at my practicum school is that I was enthusiastic about getting involved with the school. I helped out at the after school robotics club and a year 6 science preparation program. I basically put my hand up to participate in anything and everything that was happening!

What you can do:

  • Participate: Does your Mentor Teacher or department run an after school club? See if you can help out!
  • Be professional: Don’t go crazy at Friday afternoon drinks and don’t participate in office politics/gossip
  • Have a positive attitude: Extra difficult when you’re sleep deprived, but try to maintain the positivity, staff and your students will notice
  • Ensure you’re completing all of your student teacher duties: even if your Mentor is lenient, try to complete all of your student teacher duties. You should be attending staff meetings, doing lunch duty, marking assessments, writing assessments, contacting parents about student performance. These are tasks you will have to do when you have your own classroom and now is the perfect opportunity to get some practice.

Receive and implement feedback effectively

This point ties in really will with treating your practicum like a job interview, and is an important student teaching tip. Listening to feedback and receiving it well can be challenging. It’s especially challenging if you’ve never been in a profession where it’s commonplace before. The good news is you’ll quickly get used to taking on feedback in a career as a teacher. It all starts here!

What you can do:

  • Listen – really listen: Don’t interrupt, but do repeat the main points back to show your understanding
  • Don’t take feedback personally: It’s not about you, remember your Mentor Teacher wants to help you improve. Take a deep breath and try to keep your emotions in check
  • Ask for practical advice: Hopefully your Mentor Teacher will give you practical strategies that you can put into place next lesson. If the feedback is vague, try asking questions like “How would you handle that situation?” “What would you do if that happened?” “What would you do to improve that activity?”
  • Put feedback into practice: Try out a practical tip your Mentor gives you in your very next lesson. If you do this consistently you will surely impress

Don’t justify

This tip ties in well with the last. My biggest piece of advice for student teachers when taking on feedback is don’t justify. I remember our practicum coordinator explaining to an auditorium of pre-service teachers that we should under no circumstances justify our choices or get defensive when receiving feedback, and I tried my hardest to take this advice on in my own teaching practicum experience.

Unless you are one of the unlucky, very, very small minority, you should have a reasonable and experienced Mentor Teacher. They will always have a reason for giving you particular feedback, and although you may not agree with their style of teaching, they are the expert, and they know their students best. You don’t have to agree with all feedback, but listen, nod and just have a go of trying things their way. Take on feedback rather than questioning it and you’ll almost always come across as a more professional and competent teacher. Teachers will notice.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

As a soon-to-be preservice teacher, I’m sure you’ve heard this one over and over – don’t reinvent the wheel. While it’s important you gain some experience in creating your own activities, resources and lesson plans, you will have so many student teacher duties that you won’t realistically have time to create everything from scratch – and that’s okay!

There are some great places preservice teachers can go for resources and lesson ideas including:

  • Pinterest: great for getting activity and lesson ideas
  • Teachers Pay Teachers: I wouldn’t recommend purchasing your resources while on your unpaid practicum, but there are plenty of free resources available on TPT (as well as paid ones if you get stuck)
  • TES: Similar to TPT but more free resources available
  • Ask your Mentor Teacher and other teachers in your department: Most teachers are happy to share resources if you get stuck. However, keep in mind you should also be showing your Mentor Teacher that you are capable of finding or creating your own resources

Practice, practice, practice!

Practicum is the chance for preservice teachers to try things and to fail in a safe environment. Once you have your own classroom, failures will be trickier to justify. Push yourself out of your comfort zone! One of the most rewarding activities I did with a year 10 class while I was a preservice teacher was taking them out to the oval to kick balls and take measurements to make calculations. It was absolutely terrifying! I had no idea how the students would behave in a new environment – they’d run off like wild animals for all I knew! My mentor teacher helped me make a plan – I worked out how I’d structure movement from classroom to the oval, how I’d organise students and consequences for students misbehaving. I gained confidence and I was so proud of myself, even though the lesson wasn’t perfect.

What you can do:

  • Try out different classroom management styles
  • Have a go of different kinds activities
  • Try moving and teaching your class is different locations

Have a backup plan

One of the most important skills for preservice teachers to possess is flexibility. There will be things that happen within your classroom that are beyond your control. You will have to be able to roll with it. Perhaps it’s year 7 immunisation day and your mentor teacher has forgotten to tell you, meaning your students will be in and out of the classroom and you won’t be able do that awesome experiment you had planned, perhaps there’s been a big fight at lunch and your students are just off, maybe you’ve organised an experiment and it goes wrong, perhaps it’s storming on a day you planned a fun outdoor activity, or maybe your class finished an activity way earlier than you expected. You’ll have to roll with it.

An example from my own teaching practicum experience was lesson on flight with my year 7’s. It was going to be so fun! We’d fold paper planes using templates and see how far each one flew… The only problem is I didn’t practice making the paper planes before class. Most of my students couldn’t figure out the template. I couldn’t even figure it out! What a disaster! How did I roll with it? Luckily one of my more confident students figured it out and he became the class expert! He was happy to come up to the front of the class and step the rest of us through the design. Of course, my mentor teacher and I had a big chat about the importance of testing things out before a lesson after that!

Image of rainy sports oval with text that reads plan for bad weather, its an indoor day today

What you can do:

  • Have a backup plan – I’m not saying plan two lessons, that would be crazy! But perhaps there’s a textbook chapter your students could work through if they’re a bit too rowdy
  • Plan for weather – if you plan to work outdoors always have a backup! Move your activity to the gym. Or maybe you’ll have to save it for a nice, sunny day
  • Early finish activities – one of the trickiest things about being a student teacher is knowing how long it will take students to do your activity. Sometimes they take longer than expected and sometimes they are done in a flash! Have a few games (like silent ball, celebrity heads, heads down, thumbs up, etc.) up your sleeve to play at the end of the lesson and have a stack of printed activities that you can rely on if you have spare time (like colouring in, word searches, puzzles, etc.)

Get as much out of your teaching practicum experience as you can

This is your teaching practicum experience – make the most of it! This is your opportunity to learn, not only from your Mentor Teacher, but other teachers in your department and the school.

What you can do:

  • Observe as many teachers as possible – ask your Mentor Teacher about observing other classes, it’s is an amazing way to learn skills from other teachers and gain ideas
  • Ask advice – Do you have questions? Ask away! Perhaps you want to know what first year teaching is like, or how to apply for your fist job – find the graduate teachers and pick their brains
  • Compile resources – Most teachers are happy to share their resources and you should take as much as you can at the end of your practicum! You’ll be grateful to have filled up that hard drive once you get into your own classroom.

Reach out to you University or University Supervisor if needed

As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of Mentor Teachers are reasonable and experienced; and most practicum placements are an overall positive experience for the preservice teacher. However, we do hear the occasional practicum horror stories. If you are not being treated well or unrealistic expectations are being placed on you, please contact your University Supervisor. They are there to advocate on your behalf and support you. There are systems in place for dealing with these issues when they arise and protecting preservice teachers.

Lastly, remember you won’t be a preservice teacher forever!

It’s a hard, long, unpaid slog but it’s worth it! Your teaching style is likely very different from that of your Mentor – and that’s okay! One of the best things about being a teacher is being able to do things your way. It’s being creative in coming up with lesson plans that you and your students enjoy. Being able to have a classroom management style that fits your personality. Winning over your students in your own way. You’ll get paid for it too, which is maybe the best part!

When you get into your own classroom you can start from scratch and build any style of classroom that you want. And no more insanely long lesson plans!

Image of a glass of champagne sitting on a table. Text reads: It's not forever! Soon it will be time to celebrate

Do you have any questions about being a preservice teacher? Perhaps you are an experienced teacher with more advice for student teachers?

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2 thoughts on “The ultimate guide for preservice teachers”

  1. Great tips that will come in very handy. Thanks for sharing your knowledge it doesn’t seem so intimidating now.

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