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Foreign Language Student Teachers' Experiences

by Joseph Raymond - 1952

In the student-teaching courses in foreign languages offered at Teachers College, Columbia University, trainees submit written analytical summaries of their semester's experiences. An analysis of fifty such papers submitted during the three-year period 1949-1952 reveals that these trial experiences fall into a significant pattern of insights.

IN the student-teaching courses in foreign languages offered at Teachers College, Columbia University, trainees submit written analytical summaries of their semester's experiences. An analysis of fifty such papers1 submitted during the three-year period 1949-1952 reveals that these trial experiences fall into a significant pattern of insights. These insights form a mosaic of problems, issues, and situations which the student teacher considers most vital to his growth. The -reactions expressed by these students are methodologically meaningful to the language teacher and valuable to all educators concerned with student-centered, inductive learning. Course designers and leaders who listen to the learner are able to understand better the scope and nature of the learner's problems. Thus, educators may design courses and seminars along realistic lines.


It must be granted that insight evolves principally from experience, even though theory may to some extent telescope the learning process. This is the premise upon which the worth of student teaching rests. Foreign language student teachers' experiences clearly document this thesis.

What insights evolve from a semester of student-teaching experience? Here is one:

What causes the metamorphosis of young starry-eyed teachers full of hopes and ideals into tired, strict, dull disciplinarians?

I found a few answers in my student teaching experiences, for which I am thankful:

First, our hopeful young teacher enters the public school system and quickly finds her incentive bound by years of tradition.

Second, if she still wants to be a good teacher, she must play the part of psychologist, vocational guidance counselor, bookkeeper, and also must assume many of the moral and ethical responsibilities of a parent.

Third, she must teach a certain amount of material by a certain length of time to large groups of students, forsaking realia, field trips, games, and other palatable devices . . . [because of] insufficient time and equipment.

The above thoughtful and thought-provoking observation multiplied fiftyfold affords the educator a wealth of material for content analysis. Although student-teacher supervisors in other fields may discover different elements in term papers, the writer has found that four dominant classifications are given consideration in the student teachers' papers which he has received during the past three years. These classifications are: the teaching environment, the cooperating teacher, foreign language methodology, and the value of student teaching as a phase of training. Representative insights, taken from the student teachers' papers, are presented in the following pages.


Student teachers describe their respective high school situations as everything from "ideal" to "most undesirable." They are urged by the present writer to consider that the latter type of school may ultimately be the most fruitful learning environment; it may develop their resourcefulness; it may vividly demonstrate negative practices, thereby illuminating the need for positive action. An "ideal" situation was described in this way:

I didn't dream I would have such a golden opportunity to proceed on my own. They [the department] accepted me as a mature person; they respected my attempts to find myself. The students were a bit on the vigorous side, but have been a wonderful bunch of youngsters. There was a happy balance of the academic and the extracurricular. Spanish classrooms have am-biente: maps, realia, Hispanic flags, slogans, big blackboards for written explanations. Above all, they didn't straight-jacket me. It was an enlightened environment; I heartily recommend the school for future student teachers.

Another student teacher reported extracurricular and academic conflicts in his school as follows:

There is much school spirit; the students have great pride in their sports, band, dramatic and art associations, but they seem to find little time for anything else. The teachers have a difficult time getting their subjects across. But all this outside activity does keep them alert; I tried to direct this energy toward French. Sometimes I feel I have succeeded; other times I have failed miserably.

Student teachers' negative reactions to their teaching environments are well worth considering also. One such is described below.

There was total apathy [toward foreign languages] on the students' part. Truthfully, I cannot blame them for it; if a language were "fed" to me in such a manner as it is in this school, I, too, would despise it. ... the children were hard to handle, high-strung, with large, and it seems, growing problems stemming partially from their home lives. One child, for example, had such an inferiority complex that when a visitor attended the class, she had to be forewarned because she thought he was a psychiatrist coming to observe her. (Incidentally, she had a bright, aggressive older brother whom her parents set before her as a shining example, and with whom she could not compete because "she is not capable," according to school records!)

This student teacher ultimately recommended that pre-service teachers should not be placed in foreign languages at the school she described, because ". . . it could sour one on teaching; I refuse to believe this school faithfully represents high school foreign language situations." A doctoral candidate explained why she was refused the opportunity to do student teaching in one high school:

The department head told me in a most unkind manner that she would under no circumstances accept a student teacher who was a doctoral candidate, saying: "I had a Ph.D. candidate last year, and I was sick of her the first week. One must decide whether he is to teach seriously or do research; one cannot do both at the same time.”

The same candidate reported on a school to which she finally was assigned:

The chairman and the cooperating teacher [in turn] took me aside and warned me not to let the other one "work me too hard." Each declared that the other one liked to use student teachers for routine drudgeries. Actually, I did so many extra chores (running errands, making stencils, dumping waste-baskets, etc.) that the cooperating teacher offered me a position as head counselor for children in a summer camp. . . .

Another student teacher complained that insufficient experience was afforded in his situation:

My only regret is I didn't have the chance to teach as much as I wanted to. I learned that a teacher spends as much time doing clerical work as he does teaching. As one of the teachers there told me, "If teaching were only teaching, it would be wonderful!"


Student teachers have volunteered considerable information about the cooperating teacher's effectiveness and personality. Above all other characteristics, calm, constructive criticism is found desirable. One student teacher wrote:

I had an excellent teacher, devoted to her work, keenly interested in her pupils' progress. The first lesson I taught for her was a reading assignment. It seemed I did everything wrong; there were nine concrete criticisms: (1) write words on board—class too immature to follow you orally; (2) don't name pupils before asking question; (3) don't spend too much time on isolated word drill; (4) don't ask grammar questions in a reading lesson; (5) don't wait too long for any pupil—call on someone else; (6) ask specific questions rather than seek a resume; (7) you were not consistent —class can't follow you if you change your procedure; (8) don't forget homework; (9) there were errors on the board not corrected.

This student teacher considered the cooperating teacher's association valuable because criticisms were pointed and friendly.

Another student teacher (in French) applauded his cooperating teacher's approach:

Miss —, through her kind and sympathetic efforts, contributed ninety per cent toward making my session particularly rewarding. Even before the end of the first week she had enough confidence in me to [let me] take over classes for short periods, long enough to explain some grammatical point. She increased these periods until I had full charge of the class. The principal did her share and assigned me to regular tutoring duties. I can hardly exaggerate my praise for the teaching staff at this school. Everyone accepted me very readily2, and I owe them all a great deal for the innumerable insights I acquired there.

Still another student teacher reported:

This [cooperating] teacher has a rare combination of gifts: style plus an effective system. First, there is a dictation containing the new points to be stressed that day. For example, when it was desired to teach the preterite of regular -ar verbs, the exercise included four forms: hable, hablo, hablamos, and hablaron. After dictation, errors were corrected at the blackboard immediately. Words were learned in context. Then, there was choral work using hablar in different contexts. The students then were given the opportunity of exercising inferential reasoning with similar verbs like tomar, cantar, bailar. The last step highlighted the lesson, followed by a brief, tempting sample of the next session's work. The teacher incorporates a song or some group pleasantry into each session. I profited enormously from having worked with this cooperating teacher.

On the other hand, let us consider the nature of representatively negative student-teacher reactions. A successful struggle for interpersonal harmony was noted in the following:

Most student teachers worry about their lessons; my trouble was with the chairman. Unfortunately, I was assigned to a school where student teachers are not appreciated. You can imagine how quickly my enthusiasm faded when I saw the unpleasantness on the chairman's face as I told her who I was. ... It took her a week to decide whether she would be able to handle the extra work I would cause; by that time, it was too late to get a transfer.

Happily, I discovered why she disliked student teachers. It seems they had not been helpful in the past, with clerical work, etc. So I began arriving at 8:30 and leaving at 3:00 o'clock. Soon we became the best of friends, so much so that I was invited to become a paid substitute teacher.

Several of the most negative reactions were transcribed as follows:

Mrs. — is a clinical example of the fact that being a native does not make one necessarily a good teacher of that to which she is native. . . .

She gave me the assignment, sat nervously at my side, frequently interrupting with her own remarks to the pupils. She is an excitable woman, and when I answered an incorrect recitation with the statement, "No, that's not quite correct; who can give me the correct answer?" Mrs. -----would interrupt me with a bang of her fist on the desk, and yell, "No! No! No! How many times have I told you to say it this way? . . ."

She offered me no specific criticism, except to say she felt I did not "push" the class enough, adding, "You have to be loud and emphatic or they just don't know what's going on." I thoroughly disagreed.

Although she was of little help to me herself, the observation of her class taught me a world of things about what not to do. She was most kind to me, however, and I felt that her other activities kept her in a constant state of rush and overwork, so that I cannot be too critical of her lack of help in relation to my own situation.

A cooperating teacher is characterized as "sarcastic" and "bitter":

Miss — penalized pupils for volunteering, by making sarcastic remarks such as "Aren't you a genius?" or "A third-year student, and you don't know that!" Usually she called on some pupil and gave him a tongue-lashing if he failed to respond immediately. This harsh attitude was entirely unnecessary in this class, because the pupils were unbelievably bright, studious, cooperative—and they were being penalized for their ability. Instead of motivating students with encouragement, she constantly made remarks like, "Well, I knew this class was dumb, but not this dumb!" or "I know you haven't studied . . . you never do." She also threatened an examination to penalize poor recitations: "You're going to get an exam on this, then you'll be sorry."

It would seem that there is nothing essentially wrong with this cooperating teacher that a miracle could not cure. As the student teacher later remarked, this cooperating teacher had certain effective qualities: "She was thorough and commanded much respect for her undeniable competence in the language; there was much oral practice in French; classes were wide-awake, for sure!"

A portrait of a nervous cooperating teacher is given:

The teacher shouted and pounded the table excitedly; she had a sharp, raspy voice, talked at an irritably high pitch. Although she did use the hear-say-see method, she forced them to recite long groups of words in a dull, sleepy singsong before they had the slightest conception of what they were saying, or why. The classroom reminded me of a strange ritual of some kind, or of a music class of primitive tribal chants.

Another source of laments was the lack of constructive criticism:

I regret my cooperating teacher couldn't give me more advice and more helpful suggestions. I was free to do and try whatever I wished. While such a situation can be excellent, it is so only to the extent that it is accompanied by constructive criticism, of which I received little.

A student teacher describes a welcome practice in one high school. The trainee was not assigned immediately to a specific cooperating teacher in foreign languages. Since the department was large, the student teacher was allowed to spend two weeks visiting all language classes before deciding upon one. Thus, a compatibility of dispositions and the practicality of a given teaching situation guided decisions as to which teacher would cooperate during the semester.


As a result of individual differences and varying conditions, a great variety of methodological points are discussed in the students' papers. The issues most frequently treated during the past three years have been: rapport with students, the lesson plan, attention spans, interest or motivation, discipline, grammar, civilization materials, and exams.

Rapport with students. Student teachers have shown considerable eagerness (at times even anxiety) to attain rapport with students. Typical reports are:

Finally the hour of doom arrived. I walked into the class with as much professional dignity as I could carry; I was tense. As each student entered, it seemed like the passing of jurors to their seats to hear a trial and to pronounce the verdict. At first, they seemed like the toughest, most mature-looking high school freshmen I had ever seen.

It turned out much better than I anticipated. I sought refuge in a dictation from the text; after corrections, we had informal conversational drill. The next thing I knew, the bell had rung and I was safe at last, but I no longer felt that they were little monsters, but just a nice bunch of sweet little "kids."

Initial tension is described in the following excerpt:

I don't know if the class heard the rustling of papers as they shook uncontrollably in my hand, or if they noticed my cracking voice trying to emerge from a dry throat and parched lips; all my confidence had vanished temporarily. The tension was but temporary. Interest in subject matter united us. By the end of the session, and ever thereafter, I had a warm rapport with the class. Nothing can be more important than this.

Another student teacher describes how, through experience, he discovered the value of rapport with the class:

From working with and observing the students, I came to the conclusion that we can get much more done if I am on their side. Feelings were mutual: they accepted me as fully as I accepted them. One can achieve so much more working from a basis of respect and genuine rapport, than from wielding the axe of sanction.

A student teacher underlines the value of rapport with the class:

When Mrs. — criticized me for being too patient with the class, I told her, frankly but respectfully, that I did not feel it was ever necessary to raise my voice in order to put over an idea. What I really meant was, "You don't have to shout at them: can't you see it only makes them more bored and inattentive?" She told me that after I teach twenty years, I'll probably change my mind, to which I replied, "I most definitely will not!" If she could achieve any rapport with the classes, she would not have such vindicative notions.

One student teacher summarized the best means of achieving rapport with her classes:

Learn names at once; if necessary, use a mnemonic system, but do it somehow by the second day. In recitations, give every student a chance; call on less "verbal" ones only after a simple, clearly patterned response has been established by more fluent members. Try to have individual talks with students; discover their tastes, special interests, hobbies, and ambitions. Be sincere; if you err, be the first to acknowledge it.

The last of these points, sincerity, has been mentioned in several reports. One young woman student teacher registers this valuable insight:

Several times I made a mistake in grammar or spelling on the blackboard and was corrected by a student. On one such occasion, I expected fully to lose the class, and was pleasantly surprised when there wasn't even a titter following my admission of error. I learned that even the seemingly "naughtiest" class was very appreciative of my effort to teach seriously and in a reasonably organized manner, being accustomed, as they were, to a scatterbrained, ineffective, although well-informed teacher. Students want order, clear purpose, a fair amount of discipline, seriousness, and the feeling that the teacher is competent. This is the surest avenue to getting rapport with the classes.

The Lesson Plan. Student teachers unanimously favor at least "an unwritten lesson plan." Rigid adherence to it should not destroy varying capacities for improvisation. The consensus of student teachers' opinions is that it is advisable to develop a feeling of freedom within a framework. Representative insights are:

I learned most from those occasions on which my department chairman presented me suddenly with a roll book and told me to take a class that I had never seen before. In the beginning I was rattled, faced with thirty-five students coldly sizing me up. Only as I became accustomed to the idea and gained confidence in my ability to handle the simple class mechanics, did I begin to be capable of thinking on my feet.

Now I have reached the point of being able to try out ideas and variations on a modest scale. I was never required to write a lesson plan, but found it necessary to have a precise idea of materials and procedures in mind.

Another student teacher emphatically favors a written lesson plan:

Having prepared no lesson, I conducted a civilization class on Colombia. I remember the rest of that day in a daze. That is where I learned my first lesson: a lesson plan is invaluable. It is the one thing that will keep one steady under new circumstances; if it is a good plan, one rarely will be at a loss as to how to conduct the class smoothly.

In a similar tone:

Time was my greatest enemy. Often I was left at the end of the period with half the lesson unfinished. Such situations have convinced me that the foreign language teacher must budget time for each facet of the lesson. Time is the frame in which we cover quantity as well as achieve quality. Teaching without a lesson plan, written or unwritten, is like constructing an edifice without a blueprint.

The Attention Span. Student teachers have learned from experience that the pace and manner of presenting foreign language materials must vary in accordance with students' attention spans:

Something was definitely wrong with my Spanish class. I couldn't pin it down at first. Students got bored before the period's end. This was particularly evident when they spent an hour at the blackboard. I tried varying the manner of drill from dictation, question and answer techniques, to blackboard work, the use of some cultural materials, perhaps an oral report in Spanish. Boredom ceased immediately. It dawned on me that there is an attention span; now I know what the psychology texts are trying to explain.

Again, the methodology teacher cannot verbally impress this principle upon the preservice teacher, but through seminar discussions he may bring it to a verbal level, once the insight has been acquired from practice.

Another student teacher becomes aware of the attention span:

Perhaps the biggest problem I encountered is the short attention span of high school students. One really has to be on his toes to keep them interested forty minutes. In this high school, most of the students aren't in the class with a consuming desire to learn Spanish. So the teacher's fundamental task is to obtain and maintain faltering attentions through a variety of ingeniously devised and manipulated approaches. Each device must be employed long enough to produce results, but not so long as to induce sleep.

Interest. Practically all student teachers have cited, in one form or another, the importance of interest in their teaching. For example:

I was shocked at the students' apathy. Yet, they had not learned a song, a light verse, a funny proverb, or had a good healthy laugh. . .. There was little progress in many of the language classes because there was no stimulation, no challenge, no interest.


[My cooperating teacher] not only has a warm, sincere personality, a profound interest in his subject, plus genuine affection for his students, but his presentation of each lesson is so lively that there is no lagging interest among the students. . . . Never has there been the slightest discipline problem. The lesson is vivid; the class moves at an animated clip. Every session is a model in human interest, an ideal I hope to attain when I get a teaching position.

A student teacher reported that pupils were most interested in the language class when they were nearest the grounds of their best information (the apperceptive principle), and that the ordinarily reluctant student was more eager to contribute to the class discussion when he was allowed to be inventive rather than when he was required to follow a totally external motivation.

A different student teacher declared:

Tying in Spanish with everyday life outside of the school stirs students' interests. Words like traganiqueles (juke-box), cierre reldmpago (zipper) and dozens of sports terms arouse more interest and attention than insipid sentences like yo limpio la pizarra con el borrador or mi abuelo esta en el jardin. That is because the jukebox and sports terms are close to the pupils' lives.

Discipline. Some student teachers argue for methodological formulae to be applied in certain disciplinary situations:

I find it disappointing, in retrospect, that little effort is made in methods classes to give the beginning teacher instructions on how to handle disciplinary problems. This problem is very large and real. How are we to meet it?

Other student teachers argue against "attempting to indoctrinate" teachers with preconceived notions concerning discipline:

I have heard it mentioned that some students felt they were not thoroughly instructed in how to cope with discipline problems, or lacked knowledge of formal devices to maintain order. I think these problems of necessity must be handled as they arise; since they depend so much upon common sense and the individual's personality, as well as upon the type of situation involved, I don't see how any formula can be handed out in advance for their solution.

Discipline varies from the strictest kind to the most relaxed and permissive atmosphere imaginable, judging from student teachers' observations:

Each day the cooperating teacher walked into the room and asked: "Who has studied this lesson?" and "Who has not studied?" Sometimes the teacher would command: "Those who have not studied will please leave the room." I inherited one such class. The pupils started off with, "Hey, where's the inspector general today?" They were incredibly sarcastic to me at first. I was discouraged. Time passed. I made some progress with them, to the point that they omitted the verbal class wit, but in the halls they exclaimed as I passed by: "There goes my mademoiselle teacher . . . what a teacher!" It was a not too sublimated means of getting back at the authority which consistently antagonized them. I managed somehow to get along with them. ... It takes courage to teach after such a primitive disciplinarian as I had to work with.

The cheerfully permissive atmosphere is often described:

To call the type of discipline in my school "mild" is an understatement of fact. The girls wear jeans, eat apples and snatches of lunch, chew gum with distracting noise in class. They get up and leave whenever they please; sometimes the class is like a picnic. In spite of it all, quite a bit of learning takes place. But an occasional spark of discipline seems to be in order.

A student teacher assigned to a private school found it necessary to modify considerably her idea of high school discipline:

I was a high school student five years ago. Can times have changed so quickly? This is the question I asked myself at the end of a week in-----school. There was a seething unrest among the students, very little concern for the person in charge of the class. Measures of sanction would have availed little; the teacher must realize (the sooner, the better) that this school takes quite a few problem students. Only a mature, profoundly understanding teacher can hope to maintain poise in such a challenging atmosphere. I cannot imagine a "big-stick" effective control. The secret must lie in making Spanish alive, interesting, and somehow of immediate, personal concern to them. This alone will cope with the huge problem of discipline there.

Grammar. Highlighting a unanimous appeal for functional grammar are the following self-explanatory excerpts:

Why preface each lesson with a formidable remark like "We now take up the imperfect subjunctive, which has caused more failures in Spanish than any other item," or "Today we consider disjunctive pronouns, the redundant construction, as well as the principle of apocopation."? Why not drill until the function of language is unmistakably clear? If the students still insist on a rule, let them formulate it in their own words. Dogmatic learning, the deductive approach, is not only uninviting, it is meaningless and fatal in foreign language teaching.

I discovered that although grammar is omnipresent in foreign language learning, it must be accorded a secondary place in the process. Students profit most from an occasional summary of principles, after they have been immersed in practice, and they understand their own rules better than book rules. (And sometimes they are just as valid and as lucid as those in the text!) [Italics mine]

Still, grammar cannot be neglected, as one student teacher acutely observes:

I learned the necessity of knowing grammar and rules absolutely cold, because, even if students do not want to learn rules, they fully expect the teacher to be able to quote them in her sleep, and they can question a teacher into fiendish pickles if she doesn't know them.

Civilization. Many student teachers appeal for more cultural materials in foreign language classes. Two typical reports follow:

French cultural materials, literature of any kind, folkways and customs, are practically neglected. At the beginning of the semester, the students are given a mimeographed sheet containing sixty-six cultural facts—names of rivers, mountains, cities, famous monuments—and students are expected to memorize them. This is not teaching civilization. Isolated facts do not spell out the spirit of a nation.

If this school only had maps, slides, projectors, musical recordings, a piano available, occasional foreign language assembly programs to dramatize Hispanic life. I was able to start several groups making maps; a pupil brought a serape; the cooperating teacher supplied a sombrero. These were only small steps toward incorporating cultural materials into classroom procedures. I hope the program will be amplified next year.

Exams. Combined recommendations from two representative term papers epitomize insights accumulated concerning exams:

Exams are most effective when they are short and administered at regular intervals, rather than when they are long and given but, say, once a semester. ... I think tests should be (1) graduated in difficulty, (2) used as tools to inform the teacher of what progress he is making, rather than solely as punitive instruments, (3) evaluated shortly after their administration, (4) easily evaluated, (5) varied, (6) interesting, (7) announced in advance, and their nature described, so as to insure specific preparation on the pupil's part.


Student teachers were urged to give a free, honest opinion of the value of their semester's experience. Reactions in the following vein could be multiplied until no opinions remained undisclosed:

The observation and participation in classes during this semester has been an extremely rewarding experience. I had not realized that it was possible to learn so much not only by teaching, but by sitting and observing a real classroom situation. It has given me much more confidence in my own teaching, has helped me to avoid making the same mistakes these teachers have made, because while printed words may not be remembered, methodology which is observed every day over a period of time cannot ... be forgotten.

My experience in student teaching was fruitful beyond all expectation. This was due to two important factors: (1) ---- is a private school, and (2) the cooperating teacher is a very exceptional, patient, understanding, and competent person.

Even this experience in the classroom has not left me with a rigid pattern to be followed, but it has enabled me to eliminate mistakes I might have made later, to the disadvantage of students. I certainly feel better equipped to assume full responsibility of a future class.

All told, it was an invaluable and most stimulating experience, and one which I consider absolutely essential in teacher education, regardless of city requirements.

I was struck by the vast difference between the methods we are brought up to use at Teachers College and those actually in vogue in the high school. . . . There is little in the way of an oral-aural oriented approach and inductive method, and even less in the way of interesting cultural teaching and audio-visual materials. The average class is not bright enough to profit from the Cleveland Plan sort of thing. Students condemn a teacher if he doesn't "make them learn" vocabulary, grammar, rules, verbs, as though they were sacred entities in themselves. Perhaps in our methods classes we learn what the ideal is, but the gap is enormous between what is most desired and what actually is. Student teaching reveals to us the significant chasm between these two areas.

Until I began student teaching, I had never had a position of "authority." What a vast difference between that which the student sees with a group of twenty or so in the same situation as he is in, and that which the teacher, standing alone facing them, sees. The value of this experience far surpasses all the theory and silver-platter pedagogical cliches the most inventive methodologist can ever devise.


The threads of these students' observations may be drawn together neatly and summarized in the Spanish proverb, Mas vale una onza de practica que una libra de gramatica "Better an ounce of practice than a pound of grammar." This is another way of reaffirming the undeniably sound formula: insight follows experience.

1 Public and private schools in the New York and New Jersey areas are represented in the papers. Identities of schools are not disclosed.

2 This student teacher was a Negro, assigned to an exclusive all-white private school.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 54 Number 2, 1952, p. 83-92
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4916, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 9:44:13 AM

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