How I Survived the Practicum Semester
(Hint: I often thought I wouldn’t)
Teaching is tiring, student teaching is tiring, and practicum is tiring—but practicum is tiring in an especially vindictive way. During practicum, you’re doing coursework AND you’re in the schools. Anyone who has spent time with children EVER will tell you that being around them and caring for them and teaching them and tying them—eh, their shoes—is exhausting. And when you go from being around adults who know how to manage their bodily functions and emotions all day (mostly) to being around children who are very dependent on you for a large part of the day, it feels like getting hit by a Mack truck. And after you’ve been hit by that Mack truck and leave at 3 pm, you have to go to the library at 6 o’clock at night to complete assignments for the next day. Somewhere in there, you are also probably working because hi, practicum and student teaching are unpaid. Practicum is also the worst because you’re only there part of the time (at least in my program—I went all day Monday and half-day Wednesday) so having a management structure is tricky, and sometimes the kids view you more as a fun adult who does cool lessons than someone who is actually there to teach them, just like the teacher.
ALL THAT BEING SAID: I survived. In fact, after one lesson post-conference with my professor during that semester, I even cried as I said, “I just love my students so much.” He smiled and said he could tell. So this is what I did to make it more manageable:
- FRONTLOAD THE ISH OUT OF YOUR HOMEWORK.
I got really good—and I mean, really, really good—at taking care of homework like clockwork. Monotonous or routine assignments? Easy. Find a set time of the day and/or week to do them. Knock out a bunch at once. You can start with something small to get your productivity juices flowing, or you can start by taking a bite out of the elephant and working at the impossible seeming task first. Either way, make a list of all of your assignments for the week. Plot when you are going to do them each day, and work ahead. I had Tues/Thurs/Wed/Fri classes during practicum, with the heaviest workload for my Tues/Thur classes. I would stay at least a week ahead at a time with the reading. It meant I was in the library from about 6:00-11:00 pm every night, because hi, I had to work and pay rent too. But make a list, get ahead, and stay ahead. Especially with the monotonous/repeating assignments. Turning those assignments into things you do automatically will free up your brain space for things that take more energy and creativity, like lesson planning and implementation.
- GO THE HECK TO SLEEP.
I mean it. Practicum is busy and exhausting. There is always a lot to do. But please please please, go to sleep. You will be stressed every day, but you will be able to handle your sleep if you are well-rested. Sleep hygiene is the #1 factor in my mental and emotional health. For some people it might be exercising (I can survive without exercise but I CANNOT survive without sleep) or yoga, but just find what makes the biggest difference in your mental and physical health and safeguard that. During practicum I was careful to go to bed around midnight each night and get up at 7 on days I had college classes, and about 6 on days I was at the elementary school. And yes, there were nights where I was so anxious that I would lay in bed for hours feeling my chest tighten at the thought of going to the classroom to the next day. But sleep helps. So get it, girl.
- FIND YOUR STUDY BUDDIES; LOVE ‘EM HARD.
My cohort was pretty small and rather tight-knit. The university I graduated from was small, and the school of education within that university even smaller, so by the time I was in practicum I had been in other classes with pretty much all the members of my cohort. Within my cohort, though, I had two friends who I just happened to get closer to. We would do homework together somewhat often (I am a social butterfly and teachers love to swap stories, good and bad alike, so sometimes working alone was better for me). We always had a running group chat of whatever we needed to be working on for our assignments. I knew I could count on them, and that made all the difference in the world. That being said, **an important caveat**: don’t compare. There will be days where you love your kids and think teaching is the most magical thing ever, and then there will be days where you want to stop and, projected graduate date be darned, switch your major. Sometimes on your worst days, your classmate is having a great day and sends something cute their kids did. Just don’t compare your worst day to someone else’s best, and all will be well.
- SAFEGUARD SATURDAYS AS IF THEY ARE SACRED.
So after a week of frontloading all your assignments, working, going to practicum, and trying to stay sane, you’ve got two days on the weekend. My Sabbath observance meant that I was mostly going to church, spending time with family, and doing peaceful, rejuvenating things on Sundays, so I didn’t want to spend time running errands or doing recreational things. But I also didn’t want to waste my precious Saturdays running errands or doing laundry! Yuck. That meant that I had to get errands done during the week (add it to the list of assignments to frontload) so that I could have fun on Saturdays. And WHOA, what a difference that made. My Foundations of Ed professor would always give us the same homework assignment on Fridays: whatever reading was on the syllabus, and to go DO SOMETHING FUN. “Teachers are terrible at taking care of themselves,” she’d say, “because there is always more to do. But if you don’t take care of yourselves, you will burn out.” So I worked hard during the week, I played hard on Saturday*, and I rested my body and my spirit on Sunday. Taking Saturday to play and Sunday to rest was what allowed me to keep going. Having a clear head come Monday enabled me to enjoy seeing my kids again. It also allowed me to think in more creative ways about what I was teaching.
*I found it especially helpful if my Saturday play involved being outside. I was inside under fluorescent lights all week. Real vitamin D was needed. During the week, if I was especially stressed, I would just go for a walk after class. I’d take a long walk off-campus, away from the university, and I’d leave my phone at home (obvi this was daytime in a very safe location—you could also bring your phone but turn off notifications during your Thoreau time). Get out in nature. Feel that peace. Move your body. You’ll return to your work happier because of it.
- FIND OUT WHAT WORKS FOR ***YOU***
I can say all of these things now because I was very deliberate about figuring out my stress management and work habit strategies. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from a practicum student when I was like halfway through the education program. She said to take the time to figure out your strategies for handling stress. Take the time to get to know yourself. Know what stresses you out or upsets you, and make plans for how you handle that. Those are things you can turn to, almost robotically, when things get tough. Like I said, one of my strategies was taking a walk. I would even do that on the campus after a school day! I realized that once kids left the room, my mentor teacher could go right into planning, but I was SO TIRED. I just told her that I thought I needed about five minutes between kids leaving and us resuming our work, just to decompress. I’d take a walk, go to the bathroom (don’t even get me started on teacher bladder), see the sunshine, and then I’d return and do the million and one things teachers do behind the scenes. That worked for me. Find out what works for you. It’ll come in handy when you are on your own as well.
This is all to say…
Perhaps you’ve been doing all these things. You are very bright, and you are very proactive, and you are not at all new at handling the whole “whoa, life and college are stressful” thing. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, give a few of these things a try. You are going to be fine. Promise. You will make it. This is a very short period of your life. It is intense and it is exhausting, no doubt. But you will make it. Truth be told: student teaching was a lot easier for me than practicum. I felt like my energies were more focused because I didn’t have coursework + lesson plans—all of my energy was just focused on the classroom (that last part isn’t entirely true—I had to complete my analysis of teaching practice, and a bunch of reflections, and put together a portfolio, and present these things…but those are small fries compared to the hefty and hearty work that is teaching little humans). YOU WILL MAKE IT.
And teaching is worth it. I have never loved doing anything as much as I love teaching. So hang in there, dude. You’ve got this.