By Laura Blumenthal (with Justin Majta)
[This article was first printed in the Spring 2016 issue of TEAL News.]
The first time she stood in front of my class, she was nervous and excited, even though all I’d asked her to do was call the roll. As the students’ bright eyes looked at her expectantly, she absorbed their energy and I could tell she was ready to give back to them.
The second time, she had been asked to lead a warm-up activity. It was one that she’d seen done in one of her Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) classes, and she had planned it carefully down to the scripting of the instructions, as she had been taught. It did not go as well as she’d wanted, though. Some groups did not follow the instructions, and others got done too quickly, but she did have a nice interaction with one group of students, some of whom taught her something she didn’t know about their country.
I was sitting in the back of the room taking notes. My impression was that this seemed to be pretty much par for the course for a teacher who was getting her feet wet, but I decided I needed to talk to her about her monitoring strategies. In our meeting, I asked her what had gone well, but all she wanted to talk about was what hadn’t. I assured her that she was on the right track and this kind of hiccough was to be expected at this stage.
When I asked her what the group in the far corner had been doing when she started the activity, she admitted that she didn’t know, and that’s when the light bulb went on. She asked me how she could do a better job of monitoring each group, and I reminded her of what she had learned about monitoring while keeping an overview of the room, and how to get close enough to get the information she needed without interfering with the group. She mentioned that this had been so different in the TESL class, when her classmates were pretending to be English as a Second Language (ESL) students—they all understood what to do and simply did it.
The next activity she led, she did a much better job of monitoring, but the instructions weren’t as good, and so it went from day to day—some days were better and more satisfying than others, but there was always growth, even amid the setbacks.
For me, watching a practicum student learn from her own mistakes and slowly evolve into a teacher is one of the most satisfying parts of my job. Although I am not required to take on practicum students, I do it as often as I can because I feel that I have something I can give them, and because I love to watch them take it and grow.
The hardest part is finding that fulcrum where the perfect balance exists between giving enough help to ensure that the student teacher continues to evolve, but not so much that s/he loses confidence or feels overwhelmed. It’s also a constant learning process for me in my many roles—as English Language Teaching (ELT) professional, practicum sponsor teacher, practicum supervisor, TESL instructor, and TESL coordinator—and person.
Are there ever difficulties? Of course there are: the practicum student may be someone who is simply not well suited to the role of language teacher because of a lack of empathy, skill, or the ability to understand language learners’ difficulties. The sponsor teacher and the practicum student may not be the best match in terms of personality, and one or both may be unable to see past these differences. The teaching environment may not be conducive to the student teacher’s growth for a myriad of reasons.
For the most part, though, practicums are positive experiences for all concerned. The practicum student grows and learns in a gentle, supportive environment. The sponsor teacher has a chance to reflect on classroom practice in general and maybe even to learn some new techniques, and the students get a fresh face in the classroom—one who is learning the ropes and appreciates their struggles all the more acutely.
In order to get a different perspective on the process, I interviewed Justin Majta. Justin is a very important person to me, as he is a graduate of our TESL program who has continued on to become a head teacher at a private ESL school in Vancouver, as well as being a sponsor teacher for our practicum students, and encouraging other teachers to do so as well.
Q: How many practicum students have you sponsored so far?
Q: What do you like about sponsoring a practicum student?
A: It reaffirms what you already know, and you have to be on your game. It’s a new challenge, something different every time. Seeing somebody succeed at what they want to do is really gratifying too. You also learn new things—a new warmer, a new approach, it’s a way to stay current.
Q: Why do you think some teachers don’t want to do it?
A: Because they don’t want to feel responsible for another person’s success or failure.
Q: So it’s like a confidence thing?
A: Yes, I would say so. They also ask if there’s pay. I tell them you get a letter, and you can put it on your resume. Also, if we ever open up a TESL program, that’s another skill that you have.
Q: You’ve been very helpful to me in getting placements for my practicum students. Why do you try to get your co-workers to sponsor practicum students?
A: I want them to challenge themselves and mentor somebody—I think that’s a great thing to do. I think people get stuck in a rut and when you get a little uncomfortable and you don’t know what’s going happen, that’s when you grow. I would encourage everybody to try it at least once—that way at least you’ve tried, right?
Q: I know that your academic director has been very supportive in this process. Why do you think she likes you guys to sponsor practicum students?
A: Number one, for every five [practicum] students, we get a professional development day [from Douglas College], so that’s good because we can always have a session like that. We always can learn, upgrade our skills, and I think also some private schools now, they want like a pathways program. So I think I’m kind of doing my part for the director as a head teacher to kind of strengthen that relationship.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is considering sponsoring a practicum student?
A: I would say just do it!
From the Spring 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter: Laura Blumenthal has been teaching ESL/EAP since 1988, and educating ESL teachers since 2000. Since fall 2013, she has also been the coordinator of the TESL Certificate Program, at Douglas College, a public college in New Westminster, BC.
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Original reference information:
Blumenthal, L. (2016, Spring). Sponsoring a practicum student in the classroom. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-Teal-Newsletter-Spring-2016-FINAL.pdf