6 lessons I learned as a student teacher
Heather Sinclair Wood thought she was ready for the classroom, but, she writes, "I'm not sure anyone can truly be prepared."
June 17th, 2013
11:35 AM ET

6 lessons I learned as a student teacher

By Heather Sinclair Wood, CNN

Editor’s note: Heather Sinclair Wood is a writer-producer for the CNN Newsroom. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge, and a master’s degree in education from Mercer University in Georgia.

(CNN) - I’m a newswoman, tried and true. Journalist, news junkie, news hound, call me what you like. So when I decided three years ago to pursue a master’s degree in education, family and friends thought I was crazy. Having an advanced degree was something I had always wanted, so I figured why not earn a degree in a profession that I could possibly see myself doing one day? Two years of night classes and a few months as a student teacher seemed easy enough, and then I would have another career option under my belt. I thought of teacher and journalist as practically the same job - just a different audience.

So I embarked on the amazing journey, and a journey it was. But what I didn’t realize were the things I learned during my time as a student teacher in a suburban Atlanta middle school were eye-opening, humbling, and little did I know, would truly change my life and my job as a journalist forever. The way I see the world has changed dramatically, and I have a whole new appreciation for the profession that many take for granted.

Here are six lessons I learned when I jumped from one career to the classroom:

No matter how prepared you think you are, you’re not prepared
I was raised in the classroom of Mrs. Sinclair; my mother, a career educator, taught me everything I needed to know about life right from the realms of her school. My aunt is a teacher, my cousins and my sister. The love of teaching practically runs through my veins. So when graduate school required me to complete a four-month stint as a student teacher, I thought I was so ready. Years of papers, classroom observations and some of the best professors and peers a student could ask for equipped me for life in the classroom. But in reality, I’m not sure anyone can truly be prepared for what an actual classroom is like. I would have never considered myself a novice, but walking into that seventh-grade classroom in January was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

Befriend the people who (really) matter
After nearly a decade in the news business, my first day at school came with all the nervous feelings any new job would have. Only this time, I actually had the petrifying power to alter a child’s life permanently. As I stuck my yellow visitor badge to my freshly ironed blouse, I was greeted with smiling faces and inquisitive looks. I know running through their minds were questions about why the “CNN lady” would want to be a teacher. They would soon find out that my passion for news carried over to my time as a teacher, too. I discovered almost instantly that the lunch ladies, custodians, secretaries, resource officers and librarians are the ones who keep a school running. Unlike CNN, where oftentimes you must look up the corporate ladder for help, schools operate as families in which every member, no matter his or her job status, plays a pivotal role in the operation of the school.

Middle schools can be war zones, as I found out, and you’re going to need some people in the trenches with you. Within my first two weeks, there was a broken nose incident, a chocolate pudding explosion and an index-card shortage that had me knocking on doors. I probably talked to the school principal only two or three times while I was there, but the men and women on staff became my heroes.

Always have a contingency plan
A few weeks into my student teaching, as my time as the sole teacher grew imminent, I decided to incorporate some new online tools into my social studies lesson plans. In graduate school, teacher candidates were encouraged to use technology in every way we could. Prezis, Weeblys and Wikis were drilled into our heads, and since computers had been an active part of my own education from an early age, I felt comfortable jumping right in.

But just as I was getting into the core of my material one afternoon, the Internet crashed. As the seconds ticked by and I tried to resurrect the lesson, students began to lose focus, and I felt myself losing them. This became one of my greatest lessons of the experience. No matter how fabulous or indestructible you think your lesson plan is, you should always have a Plan B. The schools of tomorrow are going to be equipped with state-of-the-art technology that fits the lifestyle and social culture of your students. But none of that helps when the technology doesn’t work at the exact moment 30 kids are staring at you. You may hear book-free schools are the wave of the future, but in reality, old-fashioned textbooks work just fine in a pinch.

There will never be enough time
Teaching is the most-exhausting job I’ve ever done. I learned immediately that comfortable shoes are worth their weight in gold. A busy day in the newsroom, for example, is hour after hour of breaking news: I worked a 16-hour day during the 2008 presidential election. Last year, we learned of Whitney Houston’s death five minutes before my show started. It’s unpredictable and intense.

But in the education world, it’s like breaking news happens every day. I arrived at school most days at 7:30 a.m. For the next nine hours, my cooperating teacher - the woman kind enough to let me student teach in her classroom - and I ran from one thing to the next; making copies, returning parent phone calls and e-mails, department meetings, discipline issues, maintaining order in the classroom and hallway, bus duty, assemblies and food fights. That doesn’t even include my No. 1 job - actually teaching students the required material for those intimidating high-stakes standardized tests. And don’t even think about using the restroom anytime you want. Nope. That too has to be planned, and usually that means holding it.

We think about the unthinkable
We’ve all had the tedious experience of being part of a fire drill. Growing up in California, I even had the privilege of earthquake drills. But I was in no way prepared the first time the announcement came across my classroom intercom: “We are now in lockdown.” A flood of thoughts and emotions ran through my mind. What do we do? Is this real? Is this a drill? Luckily, my cooperating teacher had been through this many times before. The door was locked, the lights turned off and the students gathered in the corner opposite the windows. Twenty-five young faces looked at me for reassurance, and I struggled to give any.

Once, it was drug dogs checking the lockers. Another time, it was a gunman on the loose at a nearby grocery store. A third time was simply a drill. There’s something very normal about preparing for an act of Mother Nature, but how do you even begin to prepare for a gunman in your school? This is the new reality in schools, and it still gives me the chills.

It is the most rewarding job you will ever do
In recent months, the world has seen some of the ways educators go above and beyond what they are asked to do. From the brave teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary who died trying to shield their students from a gunman to the Oklahoma teachers who quite literally stared down a tornado, teachers are no longer men and women who stand in front of a chalkboard. They’re counselors, mentors, nurses and first responders. So despite the sore feet and uphill battles, it was all worth it.

On my last day of school, three of my students serenaded the class with a song written for me. I cried because I knew I had changed my life and theirs. To every teacher out there, thank you for letting me be a part of your world for a short time. It has inspired me to be a better person in all aspects of my life.

Sinclair Wood's student decorated the classroom to say good-bye.

My mother still comes home each and every day with white chalkboard dust on her clothes. Her passion for what she does is evident, and I can only hope to have that passion in my career at CNN. I’m not sure where the road of life will take me, but if it does steer me toward teaching one day, I’ll know I’ll be more than a glorified baby sitter with summers off. I’ll be one of the lucky ones who see the change in the world I’ve helped to create.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Heather Sinclair Wood.

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soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. ed dugan

    Finally a small breakthrough over the functional illiterates we are turning out, taught by even worse functional illiterates. Get rid of teachers colleges and the educational bottom feeders that attend them and start hiring teachers with discipline specific degrees and things will get better. They would have enough sense to stay as professionals and not choose to be union hacks.

    June 25, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • NY teacher

      Again, spoken like a person who has never attempted the job of teaching. To be able to carry out the responsibilities and tasks of a profession and to successfully teach that same discipline to teenagers are two ENTIRELY different skill sets. Just like this journalist, she found out that teaching is a whole different world when it comes to a job. Something else to keep in mind, K-12 education is not about job training and job-specific skill sets, that is what college, internships, and vocational training are.

      June 27, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
    • Recently Retired Teacher

      Do you remember the commercials where business people were urged to become teachers? My wife urged me to transition to teaching to have more time with our family. My pay as a teacher started at less than half of what I had been earning. At the end of my career I had endured 7 years of no raises and 6 years of pay cuts and reduced benefits. As a master teacher I had seen the quality of my student teachers decline and the number of those teachers dropping the program increase. With the current problems in education I would hesitate to call teaching a profession.

      II enjoyed the students and every time I considered quitting a former student would contact me and tell me I had made a difference. While I derived a lot of satisfaction from that it didn't help pay my bills or provide a lifestyle commensurate with my education or efforts. The education programs at our local university said their enrollment was down thirty percent which should be unsurprising. America needs to re-prioritize education and for starters stop pretending that everyone should go to college and train students for a broader spectrum of careers.

      June 27, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
  2. Leopard

    Did my first year teaching this year after 20 years in military and time at the university. It was a real let down, the problem was not the students, but administrators, fellow teachers and bureaucracy. The students and their situations are understandable but not insurmountable. The pressure on teachers and students of state mandated student testing and teacher evaluations where the new teacher is required to be on par with other teachers who have years of experience is ridiculous. The whole atmosphere in the school was CYA, regardless of whether anything worked or not, reminded me alot of career officers in the military. Instead of looking for what was effective, everyone was looking to do whatever was necessary to keep their jobs, also understandable but unconscionable. Loved the teaching portion of the job, the kids and did really good on the state tests, but way too many people in the vocation are just there to increase their retirement pay. Any kind of questioning of the way things are done and you are not a "team player", prisoner/warden mentality dominates and the one size fits all and the every student goes to college environment requires that teachers pass students or justify every detail of their dysfunction, like grades, attendance and disciplinary actions are not enough to explain why a student is failing. Still it is the teacher's fault for not finding a way to teach those students unwilling to learn, when they know how to "game the system". I thought maybe I could change some things for students, but it won't be as a teacher. Best example I can set is to get out of the classroom and try to change things some other way. Very difficult, but as a teacher the powers that be make the profession too stifling.

    June 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • Proud teacher

      I get it. It was too hard so you quit. Many of us did not.

      June 27, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  3. Sabapete

    Bill Cosby as an Ed.D. but he didn't that to be funny. But it didn't hurt. There are individuals who work in School District offices who have PhDs in nothing of importance, but they get paid six figure salaries and generally are fire-proof. PhDs and Ed.Ds give people credibility, and that in turn gives them the respect from parents that they deserve. Most teachers don't have Ed.Ds or PhDs. They have no credibility, and receive little to no respect from parents. Yet these are the people that are teaching the future leaders of our country, future Ed.Ds and PhDs, doctors, lawyers and so on. When I retired two years ago, after 46 years in the system, I did not shed a single tear. No one asked my opinion and no one cared what I thought. I was insulted by students, by their parents, by the Principal of our school and so on. Not me personally, but all of us in the profession. Now, if I had completed my PhD, in any field, including Education, I would have had an unlimited soapbox from which to pontificate. So the young lady wanted a second career. May I suggest that she remain a journalist, because in today's world she has far more influence than she ever would as a teacher, not to mention a higher salary and so on.

    June 19, 2013 at 8:43 am |
  4. doughnuts

    The best lesson I learned while student-teaching is that I was not cut out to be a teacher.

    June 19, 2013 at 7:33 am |
  5. C

    I'm very happy that this person had a good experience with their cooperating teacher. In 2006, I had experienced the exact opposite. My cooperating teacher did not want me in the classroom and gave me horrible reviews. I did work as hard as expected. I sometimes came to school at 5:30 am to complete lesson preperations which were ridiculed infront of my fourth grade elementary school class. I do agree that teachers are very important and influential, but this experience very much hurt me, ruined my confidence, and my potential career. I hope teachers realize that their relations with all of their students (including their adult student teachers) will have an effect on them. I know that teachers get stressed at times, but it goes to show that there are horrible people in every position of employment. I have been having a hard time putting teachers on pedestals since my experience.

    June 18, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
    • pattysboi

      While most teachers are great, I remember a sixth grade teacher who should have NEVER been allowed to teach. V decided to publicly humiliate me in front of the class when I asked her a question. I lost all respect for her and a couple of others after that.

      June 19, 2013 at 5:15 am |
  6. Desert1

    Some of the greatest people I have ever known were and are teachers, with the patience of Jobe they work everyday to educate children to become something, its not easy at all.

    June 18, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
  7. Jenn S

    I have been teaching for 9 years. This article is very true. College did very little to prepare me for the classroom. Student teaching was a challenge however my real education came from my first years of teaching. The students are rarely the problem. It's the adults. Parents, administrators, and politicians make our job very hard. I teach at a school that 25% of the student population is homeless. Those are just the families that we have been able to identify. Do you think those students come to school ready to learn or take a standardized test? I have days that I spend more time being a parent to my students because their parents are in a situation that makes it hard to take care of them. People ask me why I am in education. It took me a few years to figure that out. I want to do my part to break the cycle of poverty and help kids become responsible adults. Plus where else can I go everyday where I have a room that's full of people happy to see me? Thank you so much for writing this article.

    June 18, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  8. GT

    I finished a 28 year career in the Army and am now embarking on the Troops to Teachers program. Same sense of service, different battlefield.

    June 18, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
    • Jenn S

      I just saw this post after I posted my comment. My dad is retired Army. When I graduated from college he told me I didn't have to be in the military to serve my country. I believe with my whole heart that is what teachers do. Thank you for your service.

      June 18, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
      • karrie_PGH

        To GT, what Jenn S said, x10. And to Jenn S, brava.

        June 19, 2013 at 10:07 am |
      • smccla1

        What a wonderful sentiment from your dad. I became a teacher six years ago after working in a men's prison. I wanted to make a difference. I have no idea if I have but I like the thought that teachers are serving their country. Thank you!

        June 19, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  9. Mike Berke

    Your post reminds me of a bumper sticker I had on a 1976 VW Beetle: "I touch the future; I teach".

    June 18, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
  10. Kathy

    Beautiful article. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I, too, have a mother who is a teacher, and I had never understood or respected what goes into her job until I started teaching myself 5 years ago. It is the most difficult job I have ever had, but also absolutely the most rewarding. Just seeing the light bulbs go off when my students understand a new concept, or when on the last day of school this year, I found a note on the board written by my students saying thank you and that they would miss me when they move off to high school next year, makes all of the hard work worth it.

    June 18, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  11. aaabbb

    Master's in Education = Too bright to cut hair, too dim to get a PhD in a proper field.

    June 18, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
    • Dcook

      Just curious...do you have a degree?

      June 18, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Jan

      Obviously, you've no idea what you are talking about or trying to refer your words to.

      Maybe you could try to get some education and that might help you to come up with a better line.

      June 18, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • Teacher but a realist also

      I'm a teacher and I tend to agree. I have a bachelor's in biochemistry and then did a one year bachelor's in education. I wanted to actually become a teacher and was deeply offended at how little intelligence was required to actually earn a bachelor's degree in education. To keep myself sane, I actually got myself a job while completing my bachelor's in education because everyone got an A. No matter what you did. I used to complete my homework in half an hour on a Sunday morning and I got As. This is unheard of in any other degree I have ever obtained. The people that surround me in my job have very little knowledge about the actual material. Kids in high school deserve teachers who are well educated and know the subject matter well. The people who get the pHD in the education....well they go on to become administrators....and well they are just the worst kind.......so I tend to agree with your assessment 🙂

      June 18, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
      • Greg

        I agree I am a career switcher and my time in private industry benefited me coming into education. Teachers work themselves up over minor things, as I am in elementary school as a specialist , not everything has to be fair among 3 different classrooms. Kids learn from those experiences. Nothing personal but anyone who has done nothing but teach all their life does not have a clue about what employers look for or when to strict and when to be loose. Is the job hard yes, there are many times it is made more difficult than necessary.

        June 18, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
      • Jan

        Speak for yourself.

        Not everyone went through the same experience as you did to get that education degree. You could have chosen a different school with a tougher education program but instead you stayed with the school "...everyone got an A. No matter what you did...". This just shows what kind of "realist" are you.

        I went to Columbia university for masters in science education and nothing was easy there.

        June 19, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • Gut21

      :-)silly, you obviously have NO clue what goes on in school these days.

      June 18, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • Cashawk

      Teachers educate even the PhDs....

      June 19, 2013 at 5:26 am |
  12. Nancy C

    Oops. Pressed the wrong key before I was finished. You also get to spend afternoons and nights taking up tickets for sporting events.

    During your "free time", known to teachers as planning time, you have grade-level meetings and parent conferences.. On other days you are busy planning and developing lessons to meet the needs of EACH of your 100 plus students. You spend time copying and grading papers. All of this is NOT completed during the required hours of your job. You stay over late, you come in early, or you take it home.

    In closing, I know that teaching was the right career for me. I have gained so much from my "job". I hope this next year I will build a relationship with my new group of students where they will know that I am their math teacher, and I will be there for them at any time.

    June 18, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  13. katherine

    Thank you to all of the truly dedicated, hardworking, caring teachers that are preparing our kids for life after school – I only wish they were compensated in accord with the incredibly important jobs they do!

    June 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Karen

      Yes, THANK YOU. Teaching is one of the toughest, most demanding jobs around, and one of the most important. Sadly we pay people more to take care of our cars than we do to take care of our children.

      June 18, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  14. Nancy C

    I am an elementary math teacher.. I love the children I teach, and my desire is for each student to reach or exceed his or her ability in math. I try to develop a positive relationship with each child and let them know I am there for them.

    Several years ago I had a student come to class without a math book, paper, or pencil.. I asked where his things were. His response, "Things went down at my house last night.". A few minutes later I took the class to lunch. When my coworker left the lunch table, and I was alone I called the student over and asked him if he wanted to talk about happened. He told me that his sister had gotten in trouble at her school; therefore his father made him beat her. He said his father put it on him because he did not want to be arrested. Well, the sister ended up and called the law. This young boy ran to his grandmother's and hid out all night. My heart was broken. I would have never imagined a child having to do this. When we returned to the classroom, I immediately gave him what he needed for class. I reported this and the required steps were followed.

    The hardest thing to experience in teaching is the death of one of your eleven or twelve-year old students. Several years ago the same class of students lost two classmates in two separate accidents.

    Some people think teachers have the easiest jobs-off at least two months during the summer, work so few hours (HA), and have "free time" during the work day. Our required time on the job is 7 hours and 54 minutes. Additional times required when you have morning bus duty.

    June 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  15. bs1

    "There’s something very normal about preparing for an act of Mother Nature, but how do you even begin to prepare for a gunman in your school? This is the new reality in schools, and it still gives me the chills." – You prepare the same way as for tornadoes and earthquakes, by recognizing that the world is an inherently unsafe place and recognizing that "gun free school zone" laws can no more prevent someone from bringing a gun into a school than a "tornado free school zone" law could prevent a tornado from hitting a school.

    June 18, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  16. Daren Smith

    I have just completed my 34th year of teaching Special Education . I find that being a single woman with two cats is very helpful ! I also have only two loads of laundry a week. I am reminded that many famous people were teachers. I kept a picture of Col. Joshua Chamberlain over my desk this year. Hero at Little Round Top, Gettysburg 1863. He had to hold the line and he did that to help the North win that Civil War battle. Teachers have to hold the line every day !

    June 18, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Tarmac

      I graduated from Gettysburg College. Your comment brought me back to studying there.

      June 18, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  17. Tarmac

    I'm glad she brought up the issue of lockdown. It seems lately that the only time teachers get any respect in the United States is when they put their lives on the line. That's the only time. After that has passed, they go back to being targets for parents who don't want to put effort into raising a child but expect him/ her to be on high honors each marking period (and stumble into an Ivy League school).

    June 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  18. Teacher in Maine

    One of the things that gets me is that so many people, administrators included, only seem to count face time with students as the time that a teacher works (and many think of that time as play time). I teach six high-school classes to about 120 students. When I assign a one-page writing assignment in my various classes I have (potentially) 120+ pages of correcting and editing to do. Somehow, people just seem to think that those papers just magically get graded. And the reality is, few of my assignments are one-page. They are often more.

    Even the people that realize that assessing student work takes time fail to grasp the third component (which comes first), planning the classes. I listen to people who seem to think that planning just means re-using last year's plans. Assuming last year's plans worked they still seldom fit the group in front of me.

    Finally there is reform. Every year has been some movement for reform, some magic silver bullet that will save education and 'git dem kidz lernin!' Half of what is being thrown out at you (the teacher) is so counter to your own teaching experience (and learning experience too) that you have to make a tremendous effort to wrap your mind around how it's supposed to work that you're left with no energy for anything else. And then, after you've objected, protested, conformed, or even bought in, the powers that be come in and tell you that the reform is no good but they have some other method that's guaranteed....

    June 18, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  19. tim h

    Despite what you may have heard or seen in movies, I get plenty of respect from the kids and the community. The kids are never the problem. Mainly we are fighting enormous budget cuts. My state, AZ is down 18.something percent in funding. At my school we have cut 20 percent of our teaching staff and we have had significantly increased work and new requirements. Not to mention mind-numbing paperwork, and ludicrous rules from every layer of gov't (example – low IQ SPED students forced into my classroom. I have to modify – often recraft- lessons and assignments for their level of cognition so that these students may be in the "least restrictive environment). My classes are high school English and my numbers are over 30 in all of my sections – that's over 150 per day. Ever since I've been in teaching, it's always been the same problem. In every class you have some that could tackle college-level courses and some that cannot write a complete sentence to save their lives. So we shoot for the middle. The smart kids are ignored, as usual. The low kids struggle and sometimes fail. One thing the author says that is 100 percent true, teaching is the most exhausting job I have ever had. Yes there are good things, but right now I am just exhausted.

    June 18, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • Tarmac

      My students' last day was yesterday, and I can tell you I am more exhausted from this school year than after my marathon. That's the truth.

      June 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  20. Eli Cabelly

    Here in the United States we treat our teachers and educators with the same contempt and derision that we hold for our future and the the future of our children.

    June 18, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  21. Kay

    Your column bought tears in my eyes!I was a teacher in a country where respect for teachers is a given and never do they have to struggle as they do here in the USA. I have not had the opportunity to teach in this country but I have seen firsthand what dedicated and amazing teachers do everyday in my boys' lives. I have also seen those who have brought shame on this noble profession. It is with great respect I view those who lay down every waking hour they have to molding our future generation and kudos to them....I am not brave or capable enough to do the same.

    June 18, 2013 at 11:34 am |