Honest Advice About Being an Education Major From Someone Who Was “Recently” There
There are hundreds of books, articles, and stories from your Uncle Jim giving you advice about college. Some are geared toward freshman, others seniors, some are specific to students with learning disabilities, but I don’t remember the last time I saw one about being an education major. I started college in the fall of 2006 and before going I read one or two chapters of a book my mom got me called, How to Be Successful in College. At the time I was more concerned with “How to Be Successful in Making This the Best Four Years of My Life.” I was a little nervous about the academics, but went in enrolled as an education major, so I figured I was already ahead of the game. There are certain things all the college advice books talk about (time-management, getting involved, dealing with new pressures), but the book I wish I had read was How to Survive as An Education Major. Unfortunately, that book didn't exist.
The following is advice, tips, and suggestions about how to make it through college as an education major, and come out the other side with a degree, certificate, and great experience.
1. Take Advantage of Special Programs/Opportunities
I attended Illinois State which has a very heavy emphasis on their Teacher Education program. Many schools are beginning to offer special programs or workshops for students who have declared themselves as education majors when enrolling. ISU offered a program where we, as freshman, would be bussed to local school districts every Tuesday for a semester to spend an hour and half observing and interacting in a classroom. The idea was to integrate us right away into being a part of a classroom so we would be comfortable when we started clinicals later on. Did I mention this wonderful opportunity meant getting on a school bus at 6:45am and then riding an hour to get to the assigned district? I wasn’t too amped about the idea of the early start time and long commute, but my parents thought it was a good idea and a couple of the girls sitting with me during scheduling decided to sign up so I thought, “This could be beneficial,” and signed up. In all honesty, it was a grind to honor that commitment every Tuesday.
In addition to attending every Tuesday, we had homework, projects, and whole group meetings to discuss our experiences. I was basically taking a class and getting no credit for it. I missed two Tuesday trips during the semester. Once, I honestly overslept and woke up too late to make the bus. The other time, I honestly had too much fun watching the Packers kill it during Monday Night Football, and couldn’t get out of bed the next morning. In spite of all the time commitment, and doing so much work for no credit, I am so glad I decided to take advantage of the opportunity offered to me. It was a great initiation to the type of commitment I would need down the road as I moved into clinicals, student teaching, and my professional teaching career. It also got me comfortable being in the classroom environment as an observer, helper, and co-teacher. This helped me avoid a lot of the uncertainty and nervousness some of my peers felt later on. Bottom Line: These programs/opportunities are really there to help you. Taking advantage of them and sticking with it through completion will usually pay you back ten-fold down the line. Listen to the people who say, “Man I wish they had that when I was there.”
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Admit You’re Overwhelmed
All the advice books are right; it can be a struggle your first semester of college. You’re adjusting to a lot. It can be very overwhelming. Sometimes you’re feeling that way for an hour, day, or week. But if you’re constantly overwhelmed and stressed to the point that it’s detrimental, don’t be afraid to admit it and make some changes. My first semester, I was taking the typical 5 classes plus doing my Tuesday morning program. I was having trouble figuring out how to manage my time and feeling really overwhelmed and stressed. I wanted to do well in my classes, but I felt like some areas were slipping. I saw a poster announcing the next Monday was the last day to drop a class, receive a refund, and a “Withdrawal” grade that wouldn’t affect your G.P.A.. I called my parents that afternoon and told them I thought I needed to drop a class. My parents’ response, “Hannah, it’s only a month or so in and you need to drop a class? Are you doing okay there? Do you not like the school? And you want to drop Intro to Ed.? Do you not want that as your major anymore? ” These were typical responses from concerned parents. My feeling was that I loved being here at school, and I wanted to do well.
I just needed to drop a class to get a better handle on things. I could always make up the missed credits during another semester or summer school. Intro to Ed. wasn’t a general ed. class so it made sense to drop that one. They agreed and I withdrew from the class. BEST DECISION EVER. In college, it’s actually pretty common to withdraw from classes. People I knew and were friends with were doing it up through our senior year. It doesn’t make you a bad student, or predict that you’ll be a college drop-out. One of my best friends dropped many classes and she graduated with a nursing degree and 4.0 G.P.A.. If something is not working for you whether it’s a class, volunteer position, club or organization it’s okay to make a responsible decision to rearrange things to help you be more successful. I made up those credits and ended up graduating with more hours than I needed, because I took extra classes that I was interested in. One semester I had a class that was known to be pretty light so I added another one and took 6 classes that semester. After junior year I took 3 summer classes to lighten my load for senior year. Bottom Line: If you’re feeling constantly and seriously overwhelmed, it usually means you need to adjust something. Don’t be afraid to make choices that will help you be more successful in the long run, even if it means giving something up now.
3. Observations Will Make You Want to Pull Your Hair Out
Ahh, observations. You’re getting into the classroom, seeing what it takes to be a teacher, learning all the tricks of the trade . . . in reality you are staring at the clock, doodling on your paper, and begging the powers that be to decide that you certainly don’t need to fulfill all these observation hours! One of my observation hours included sitting in a 90 degree weight room while teenage boys stared at me and pumped iron. However observations are a necessary, and helpful, tool for education majors. It gets you into the classroom to see how teachers work, the techniques and strategies they use, the classroom environment, etc. Trust me, those first fifteen or so hours really are interesting and you fill up a lot of paper writing down all the things you see. Around hour twenty you start to think, “I will NEVER make it to hour one hundred!!!” The following is some advice to help you cross the one hundred hour finish line feeling slightly less catatonic:
- Have a plan. Many times you will be assigned a specific topic to observe on such as classroom management, the classroom environment, etc. If not, have your own plan to help you gain useful knowledge while you pass the time. Pick a topic you’re going to focus on and spend the time making all the notes, observations, and reflections you can about it. Doing this will help you begin to realize your own teaching style and preferences. It can also help show you what areas your weaknesses and strengths lay in.
- Use the teacher, students, and classroom as your lab rat. Make notes of things you like or don’t like about what you observe and why. Do you like how the room is set-up? What works and what doesn’t? What would you do differently? Do you agree with how the teacher handled a situation? What was good about it and what would you have done? What grabs and holds the students attention and what doesn’t? Putting these things in writing will help you when you student teach and become a professional teacher. The more you know about yourself, your preferences, student preferences, good classroom set-ups, etc. the better prepared you are to be a successful teacher.
- Ask for a bigger role. Look, most of these teachers have been through the observation stage before and know it can be a drag. If you’re with the same teacher repeatedly (and they seem like a nice person), try asking before class if you can do anything else. Can you help grade papers, set something up for later, decorate a bulletin board, be a roving helper for the students during their work time, etc.? If they say no, oh well at least you tried, but chances are they’ll jump at the offer for you to help them out. It’s a win-win situation. The teacher gets some (usually) much needed help, and you get to putdown your pen and get some hands on experience.
- If all else fails, crosswords and Sudoku pages are usually small and fit right in your notebook.
Bottom Line: The experience of observation is what you make of it. Use the time to understand more about yourself as a future educator, and it will help you avoid mistakes in the long run.
4. Be a Well-Rounded Educator
Generally everyone will tell you that there is always a need for math and science teachers. And that’s true, partly because not a lot of education majors are willing to specialize, or be endorsed in, math and science. When I was in college (and they seem to change the requirements every year) an endorsement required 18 hours in that subject area. There are a lot of things you can get endorsed in. Most people go by what their interests are. Almost everyone had a language arts endorsement, because a lot of the classes were built in with all the literacy requirements. I also took a lot of extra classes in reading to qualify as a reading teacher which can only help you. I picked up a social sciences endorsement as well, because I loved everything social studies in school. We were also required to have 12 hours of science, which was right behind math on my list of most hated subjects. Looking back, I really wish I would have taken the rest of the hours needed to have a science endorsement too. You cannot be endorsed in enough things! This includes ELL, LBSI, etc. It may not seem important at the time, but having at least three endorsements will really help you out in the job hunt after you graduate. It makes you well-rounded and more employable. Even if science is not your favorite, being qualified to teach it may just get you a job over someone else who can’t. You may even surprise yourself and find, like me, that one of the subjects you disliked most in school is your favorite to teach!! Bottom Line: When deciding what endorsements to go for, or extra qualifications to have, try viewing yourself as an employer would. What is in demand, and who can I get the most out of?
5. Don’t Feel Pressure to Join, Join, Join!
There are so many clubs, organizations, and associations in the college culture. Everyone tells you to get involved when you’re in college, and it’s true that you can gain great benefits from joining up. Specifically, there are a lot of great teaching organizations in college. These can be helpful for many reasons. They often invite speakers to come and you can gain insight and knowledge from attending these sessions. You can also forge lots of professional connections that will be helpful later in your career. Additionally, you can develop a sense of community and bond with other students who are going through the same things and have the same goals as you. Not to mention, it never hurts to have listed on your resume. All of these are great reasons to join an education organization while in college if you want to. It won’t crush your future career to not have been in one. You won’t be the only education major on campus who isn’t a member.
You won’t graduate as a lesser or unqualified teacher either. The Student Education Association was the big group when I was in college and lots of people were in it. Some were actually very involved in it, and others just joined, paid the dues, and fulfilled the minimum requirements so they could list it on their resume. There’s nothing wrong with either of those scenarios or not joining at all. I was in Student Foundations (raises money for student scholarships) because two of my best friends/roomies were and asked me to join because they needed bodies. It consisted of helping out a couple of events per year which I was happy to do. I volunteered to be in Partners in Reading which was going to the library once a week to help a young student with their reading. I had great experiences with these because I wanted, and was able, to do them. I had friends that were miserable because they joined every group proposed to them and had no homework time, or free time, because of all the group commitments. Not being in an education organization didn’t collapse my future as an educator. I just never ended up joining. Bottom Line: Joining organizations while in college can be fun and beneficial to you now and in the future, but don’t feel pressured to join. Only join if it’s really something you want to be a part of and can commit to.
6. Clinicals Are Your Dress Rehearsal, Take Advantage!
Clinicals are your clinical experience while pursuing a degree in education. Different schools have different ways of doing this and have different requirements to fulfill. Generally, during your sophomore year you will start working with a student, or students, through one or more of your classes. This may mean it’s once during the semester, or every class period. Clinical experiences are extremely helpful so take advantage of them. Many times you’ll have assignments to fulfill (such as tutoring a student, presenting a topic to a class, working with small groups, etc.) Take these seriously and don’t be afraid to try out different strategies and techniques to see what you feel comfortable with. This is your chance to “play teacher” in a safe environment where your professor will help you with your strengths and weaknesses. Also collaborate with your peers who are in the same boat. As a profession, teaching is all about collaboration and sharing. What doesn’t work for your student, may work for one of theirs. Your fellow teacher’s great idea can help you too. This is a period of exploration and experimentation for all of you. Bottom Line: Taking your clinicals seriously and using them as a time to research, experiment, and explore your own teaching style will better prepare you for your student teaching.
7. Take Initiative!
One of the biggest (and toughest) lessons I learned during my clinical experience was to take initiative. It was tough, but I’m glad I went through it because I gained a lot. I was assigned to my final clinical experience before I would begin student teaching in November. I was to spend three weeks in a fourth grade classroom, fulfill some requirements and then I would be clear for student teaching in January. I had been in hundreds of classrooms by this point observing, tutoring, and working with small groups. I was ready to get these three weeks over with and become a big shot student teacher. Things were fine that first week. I hung out, got to know the kids, observed, graded a lot of papers, etc. On Friday, the other four students doing clinicals there and I were asked to attend a meeting with the principal welcoming us to the school. One of the papers on the table in front of him caught my eye. It was an e-mail from my cooperating teacher to him about me. From quick glances at the e-mail I picked up that she was not happy with me or the other clinical students. She talked about how I “didn’t even stand for the pledge” the first day, didn’t “take initiative or get involved beyond what [was] asked of [me],” etc.
A feeling of hot shame and fear spread through me. On my way back to the room I ducked into an empty hallway and sat down to think. Was she right in the things she had said? To be fair, I didn’t stand the first day for the pledge because I was squeezed into a tiny corner and would have had to move several desks to get up, and by then it would have been over. As far as not getting involved, I was grading all her papers wasn’t I?! I was helping kids during the day. In that moment I made a choice that I would do better. I would take more initiative, get more involved, prove to her that she was wrong about me, and that’s what I did. Starting when I got back to that classroom I began asking her if I could do things. Could I read the book during story time? Could I take the kids to gym? Could I decorate the bulletin board? The next week I asked for more responsibilities. Could I do the morning routine? Teach that lesson? I also started coming earlier and staying later than was required. The change was amazing. She became warmer toward me, more helpful, more sharing and giving and I felt like I had more of a purpose in her room. I carried this lesson with me to student teaching and when I received my first evaluation and it was marked “Outstanding” in “Takes Initiative” I was redeemed! Teachers really appreciate you taking initiative and getting involved. Bottom Line: Take initiative! It shows the people around you that you’re serious, care, and are eager to learn. Ask for responsibilities that you feel ready for and don’t just do the bare minimum. Show up earlier and stay later than is required. It will give you a richer experience and the respect of your cooperating teacher.
8. Working With Cruella
I was blessed beyond blessed to have the cooperating teacher I did for my student teaching. She was exactly who I wanted and needed to learn from and I will be forever grateful for having her. So what happens if that isn’t what you get? Being stuck in a clinical or student teaching situation with a cooperating teacher you can’t stand is not fun. Maybe they are everything you do not want to be in a teacher, or maybe they treat you with irritation or indifference. It could happen that your teaching philosophies and styles are polar opposites. Work with it. Respect that this person is the teacher and you are the student. That you are stuck with them for “X” amount of weeks, and try to make the best of it. Don’t be disrespectful or critical of them. Instead learn from them, even if that means learning all the things you won’t do when you’re teaching. Also, speak to your experience supervisor about it. Let them know how you feel and what the situation is. That way they’ll be aware of what’s going on when they come to do their evaluations of you. They may be able to give you some advice as to how to handle things. Bottom Line: Try to make the best of it and don’t let it distract you from being successful. Be respectful and ask for help and advice from those around you. And remember, you won’t be stuck with them forever!
9. Hello Trial and Error and Welcome Failure
Don’t be afraid to try and fail. Fail, fail, and fail again. Teaching is all about trying new things to see what works and what doesn’t. What works for you, the students, your classroom, etc? Your clinical experiences and student teaching are the perfect environments to work these things out. Even teachers who have been teaching for 35 years still fail at some things. That’s the nature of the game. Only through trial and error, success and failures, will you learn what works. Just because something doesn’t work doesn’t mean you’ll be a bad teacher. I planned this elaborate lesson during student teaching that failed dismally. Afterwards I said to my co-op teacher, “Man that one really bombed, huh?” Her response? “Oh well. Now you know.” Negative feedback doesn’t mean you’re a failure either. If you’re marked “needs improvement” in one area, then ask how you can improve it. Criticism and failure can be your best friends because they can be your best teachers. Bottom Line: You don’t have to be perfect 100% of the time to be a teacher. Use this time to experiment, and chalk up any failures to learning experiences.
10. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .”: Student Teaching
Student teaching is hard. You will have moments where you want to mass e-mail the College of Ed saying, “I QUIT!” You’ll cry, be more tired than ever before in your life, want to run in the opposite direction from every child you see, and think “I will NEVER be able to do this.” Guess what? You can. I had many meltdowns, 12 hour days at school, sleepless nights, moments of self-doubt, and feelings of hopelessness, but I made it and so can you. Even with all the hard work, uncertainty, feelings of failure, fear, and wishing you could be at $4 pitcher night with your friends it’s worth it. To borrow from Eisenhower, “You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.” You’ll be gutting it out those 16 or 18 weeks, but in the end you’ll be a TEACHER! All the work you’ve put in for so many years will pay off when on that last day you can say “Yes!! I did it!! I’m a teacher!”
The hard work and tears will be a distant memory compared to the great stories you’ll have, the knowledge and confidence you’ll have gained, and the love you’ll feel for your students. I still think of my student teaching experience with so much joy and satisfaction. A little student teaching advice: get involved, take initiative, show up early and stay late, don’t be afraid to fail, give it your very best effort, lean on other student teachers, ask questions and ask for help, learn from your cooperating teacher (they’ve done this before), AND be open and honest with your coop. teacher about how you’re feeling and what you can handle. They did this once too, and they are understanding and sympathetic to what you’re going through. Above all remember that you’re a student teacher. No one is expecting you to be perfect. They know this is your time to learn and make mistakes. Bottom Line: Take an active and above the requirements role to your student teaching in order to be the best teacher you can, and gain the respect of your cooperating teacher. No matter how down you get, know that you have been trained to do this. Just gut it out!!
Bottom Line: Being an education major is hard work and full of failures and self-doubt. But it’s also full of laughter, love, and incredibly rewarding experiences that only TEACHERS know. Being responsible for shaping the lives of students and helping them grow into successful learners and people makes it all worth it.
About Hannah T
I am a 2010 graduate with a degree and certification in Elementary Ed., and I have worked with students from birth to junior high. I believe that one of the most important qualities to surviving a teaching career is a sense of humor. I also strongly feel that students are most successful when they are active and hands-on learners. My Mom was a Special Ed. teacher for almost 30 years, and my Dad was an English major, so I enjoy bouncing blog ideas off the two of them. This usually results in an exchange of great stories with my Mom, and a correction in my writing from my Dad. When they're not available, the job falls to my rescue dog, Coozie.