The Role of Mentorship in Successful Student Teaching

The Role of Mentorship in Successful Student Teaching

Student teaching is a time of dual identities as individuals make the transition from student to teacher. Researchers have consistently found that the time spent in the schools during practicum is incredibly impactful on future music educators, and this impact can be either positive or negative. In order to help maximize the growth of student teachers, it is important to understand the nature of the relationships that form the foundation of the student teaching experience and the roles that all three participants play.

Student Teachers

The first step is accepting that you may not actually know anything about teaching.

The term student teacher is such an apt one for the roles that these individuals embody. While the ultimate goal is to become teachers, most begin their time firmly in the mental state of students. They base their thoughts and decisions largely on their own experiences in this student role, either at the college level or earlier. While helpful as a starting point, too often student teachers are mentally mired in thoughts such as “that’s not how my band director introduced music” or “my choir director would have done that completely differently.”

With this in mind, the first step for the student teacher is to truly accept that the people with more experience might also have more applicable wisdom and knowledge. I have found that with many students, developing this awareness of their own limited knowledge, skills, and experience can be achieved through exposure to real students prior to student teaching, through the use of videos, and through dialogue.

Once this natural realization has taken hold, the next step is to seek out help. Fortunately, both the cooperating teacher and university supervisor are there for this intended purpose. While student teachers may be concerned about asking questions, the vast majority of those in music education want to help them succeed. If student teachers don’t know what they don’t know, which is common, they can begin by asking questions directed to the reasons underlying choices made by the cooperating teachers or for feedback about their own teaching experiences. These allow for discussions to develop that will help the student teachers to build an understanding of pedagogical and management strategies and theories that tie together the instruction from the coursework. Such questions should be born from humility and curiosity, acknowledging the mentor and seeking out their expertise. By engaging with the mentors already in place, student teachers can also further their own reflective practice, which will provide the foundation for professional growth for years to come.

Cooperating Teachers

Student teachers are students as much as the elementary/secondary children.

It can be easy for some cooperating teachers to fall into the trap of believing that student teachers should have much of the job figured out by the time they first enter the practicum setting.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Like student teachers themselves, cooperating teachers have to accept the likelihood that their college interns have very little experience in successful skill development. Fortunately, the cooperating teacher is perched in the ideal place to make a difference here; simply treat the student teacher as one of their students. This doesn’t mean that they should talk to them the same way they may talk to a 13-year-old (that would be counterproductive). Instead, it means being intentional with the student teacher to foster their growth.

What does it mean to be intentional?

There are two main areas that I have both observed personally and seen documented in the literature; communication and teaching time. As the experienced teachers already know, communication is both important and complicated. Cooperating teachers must make effort to build rapport with their student teachers. Many experts have suggested scheduling a time to consistently have conversations over a wide variety of topics, such as specific pedagogical approaches, repertoire selection, classroom management, feedback for teaching sessions, etc.

Additionally, communication can happen organically in the moment. For instance, when making an adjustment to a lesson plan on the fly, the cooperating teacher can stop and give a quick aside to the student teacher highlighting why they made the change. Moments like this rarely disrupt the flow of the classroom instruction or limit elementary or secondary student growth, yet they serve to contextualize theory and concepts for the student teacher in an authentic setting. I would caution, however, not to give too many asides during the student teacher’s instruction time, as that can undermine their self-confidence and authority in front of the students.

Teaching time is an essential part of the student teacher’s growth. If the desired goal is to have student teachers leave their practicum with the skills and knowledge necessary for success and to think of themselves as teachers, it is imperative that they be allowed to practice instruction. Consistent opportunities to teach students will allow the future teachers to see how real students respond to the content they have learned in college, the wisdom they have gleaned from their cooperating teacher, and their own thoughts and ideas. It is meaningful to allow for frequent teaching sessions over the course of the practicum, as it allows the student teachers to learn from mistakes and apply new understanding.

While I have referred to it as teaching time, it is worth noting that the nature of the teaching is important. Student teachers benefit from having experience working with students of varying skill and behavior levels as well as in different settings. Likewise, having the cooperating teacher in the room is helpful, but it is equally helpful for the student teacher to teach on their own. The removal of the “safety net” of an experienced teacher will provide a more authentic experience and give student teachers more opportunities for growth and reflection (particularly if they record their teaching regularly).

University Supervisors

Be the mentor everyone wishes they had.

Lastly, the university supervisor can also prove to be an excellent resource for student teachers. This is another experienced teacher that they can discuss their experiences with who can provide feedback and guidance, both for navigating university requirements and for improving classroom instruction.

Graduating, becoming certified, and finding a job can all be stressful for student teachers. The first two are often compounded by little or no clear directions. University supervisors are perfectly placed to provide insight into the sometimes labyrinthine procedures involved in school and government bureaucracy. It is important, then, for supervisors to be up-to-date on such procedures and to have a consistent, open stream of communication. Likewise, student teachers should seek out their supervisors (or another university mentor) to help answer any questions about the graduation or certification process. Additionally, supervisors will often have many contacts in the teaching field and can help student teachers prepare for the job hunt.

Once again, recording can be a powerful tool in this relationship, as university supervisors can foster reflective practice by participating in reflection with the student teachers about their own teaching session. Using the video to contextualize feedback will help student teachers to accurately assess their own teaching, and to take ownership of their continuing improvement. Such guided reflection can be useful, for instance, in evaluating the effectiveness of lesson planning after the fact, or in examining the classroom management procedures used in a lesson. These moments can be difficult for student teachers to dissect, often leading to either a lack of awareness or an over exaggeration of problems.

Finally, the supervising teacher can help student teachers navigate any difficulties that arise during their practicum. Supervisors should be the ultimate advocates for success, supporting and inspiring student teachers to put forth great effort, meet with failure, and rise above it to wondrous success.


Student teaching is a wonderful and powerful experience in the lives of young music educators. By actively engaging with the other parties involved, we can help to provide the most beneficial experience for everyone. If you would like a more in-depth commentary on these ideas, I’d like to point the interested reader to my article “Key Aspects of the Student Teaching: A Triumvirate Approach” found in Update: Applications of research in music education.

John Denis has 8 years of Texas band directing experience working with middle school and high school students. Mr. Denis is currently a doctoral candidate in Music Education at UNT and is a member of the Texas Music Educator’s Association, the Texas Music Adjudicator’s Association, the National Association for Music Education, Pi Kappa Lambda, and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia.  Mr. Denis has been active as a clinician in North Texas and Oregon.  He has also presented at the TMEA Convention, California All-State Music Education Conference, Maryland Music Educators February Conference, the NAfME Music Research and Teacher Education National Conference, NAfME Teacher In-service Conference, and International Society for Music Education World Conference.

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