Student teachers are arrogant jerks and it’s our fault

Why are student teachers so awkward?

Because they’re not safe. 

Same with substitutes, and teachers on terms. 

All this makes it hard to train good teachers, to give them enough practice to build their craft.

And yet, “high quality teaching is what the system relies on.”

And yet, the system creates and maintains these barriers to success. 

We constantly remind new staff, “You don’t belong here.”

The barriers come from the way we treat student teachers, and these other non-permanent people in schools. In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle says in order for people in groups (a.k.a. all of us) to have success, they need to feel they belong. We know we belong (or don’t) because we pick up belonging cues from our environments.

Three types of belonging cues:

  1. The other person investing energy in the relationship
  2. Being treated as a unique individual
  3. References to how the relationship will continue in the future

These signals provide a clear message that lights up the unconscious brain: Here is a safe place to give effort.

Daniel Coyle

Cues we send to the non-permanent staff:

  • We emphasize the terms of the contract. The relationship is going to last 2 days or 6 weeks or 4 months, and few people invest time in extending it. You are not permanent. You do not belong here.
  • We say things like “Oh, what’s this one like?” As in, many have come before you, many will come after, and I’m not going to bother even learning your name. You are not unique. You do not belong.
  • Staff and students alike talk about past student teachers and subs. Even if it is positive, the non-permanent staff get the same underlying signal: you too will be judged in this harsh light one day. You are not safe here. You do not belong.

Arrogance as a survival strategy for student teachers

The other thing essential for group belonging is vulnerability. Ever heard of the 36 questions that will make you fall in love with anyone? Vulnerability is the glue of group building.

Who is the most vulnerable in a school (not including students)? The outsiders, the ones that are only there for the day or the week or a month, maybe. Everyone else seems to know what to do, except them, trying to teach for the first time.

That’s why student teachers are often such arrogant know-it-alls — because they have to be to survive. There’s this pressure that everyone else knows what’s going on, so you better act like you know what’s going on too.

Even though it’s your first time doing this.

Even though it takes years to master a skill like teaching.

Even though “everyone is there to help you”.

No they aren’t. And they’re sending you hundreds of cues every day telling you just that.

You are not safe. You are not in our group. We are not connected.

In order to learn, you need to be able to mess up

Remember, student teachers, subs, and term teachers are often the newest teachers. They know the least and have the most to learn. But in order to learn, you need to be able to practice and mess up. And in order to mess up, you need to feel like you aren’t going to be laughed at and judged for it. And based on the signals they’re receiving, this is not how these people are made to feel. 

Take the barriers down

Reach out to new teachers and make them feel supported. Make them feel safe to try and fail and ask for help. Celebrate your school as a place where new staff can grow and learn, instead of be ranked. And if you think you already do this, do more. Do it over and over, because we constantly need cues reinforced and refreshed.

Bombard them with your enthusiasm about having them there, about the unique skills they are bringing, and about how you hope their relationship with the school will continue after their contract ends.

You belong! You are safe! We are connected!

And then watch how people open up and excel.