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Student Teaching at Falk Laboratory School

"The best teachers are the ones who are always growing and learning": Student Teaching at Falk Laboratory School

Since its founding in 1931, part of the mission of Falk Laboratory School has been to serve as a demonstration school: a place where teachers learn to teach. Each year, approximately 20 students from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education complete their student teaching under the mentorship of Falk teachers.

While most of those aspiring teachers go on to careers in other schools, a number of Falk student teachers have come back to Allequippa Street. We spoke with four Falk teachers who completed their training at Falk and the student teachers they are now mentoring:

Kindergarten: Christa Cooke and Mary Borkoski

Second Grade: Katie Spence and Kyra Rettew

Middle School Science: Alex Dragon and Jeffrey Kim

Middle School Math: Christina Graham and Claire Kennedy


"I want them to try things that might make them a bit uncomfortable"


Kindergarten teacher Christa Cooke completed her student teaching under Chelsea Butela, who now teaches yoga. This term, Cooke has had Mary Borkoski, a fourth-year student in the School of Education’s Combined Accelerated Studies in Education (CASE) program, in the classroom where she co-teaches with Colleen Lataille.

Borkoski started out observing and taking notes, then began doing read-alouds with the Kindergarteners and helping to run the morning meeting. Cooke has tasked her with teaching handwriting lessons, and recently had Borkoski and fellow student teacher Rylie Sano perform a puppet show for the class.

“I push them a little,” says Cooke. “Puppets were a stretch for Mary and Rylie. I want them to try things that might make them a bit uncomfortable. Being in that moment of discomfort often leads to growth. My hope is that they’ll always challenge themselves in this way and know that their risk-taking is an excellent model for children.”

One of the key lessons Cooke has drawn from her own student teaching experience, she says, is the memory of being nervous when standing in front of Ms. Butela’s classroom. Those first experiences can be particularly nerve-wracking when you’re being observed by your Pitt faculty supervisor, Cooke says, or when a tour of prospective parents stops into the classroom.

After the Kindergarteners were completely silent during her and Sano’s puppet show, Borkoski asked Cooke, “Is that a bad thing?”

“I said, ‘No, that’s a great thing!’” Cooke says. “They were completely engrossed.”

Cooke gives feedback informally throughout the day, sharing observations about what’s working well and answering any questions Borkoski may have. Students are also observed four times over the course of their assignment, and have the opportunity to discuss their teaching practice and progress with a faculty member from the School of Education.

For Cooke, who graduated from the School of Education’s Primary Plus program, one of the benefits of doing her student teaching at Falk is having a record of what songs and books worked with that earlier class of Kindergarteners (who are now sixth-graders at Falk).

Borkoski cites the experience of classroom management, learning to respond to students in the moment, as one of the most valuable aspects of her student teaching assignment.

“It’s been such a good learning experience,” she says. “You learn a lot in [School of Education] classes but you won’t learn as much as being in an actual classroom.” She mentions the practice of redirecting student behavior, guiding them to take a moment to collect themselves.

For Cooke, having student teachers in the classroom is invaluable for spurring her to keep examining her own teaching practice.

“It reminds me that you don’t have to be perfect as a teacher,” says Cooke. “And in my opinion, the best teachers are the ones who are always growing and learning, who are open and are constantly modeling that for children.

“Seeing it through Mary’s perspective makes me emphasize the importance of relationships in the classroom and being a reflective teacher,” Cooke adds. “The children in front of me this year are different from the children last year and that’s reflected in all aspects of the classroom. My hope is to guide Mary (and future interns) through weaving together aspects of child development while also knowing, valuing, and listening to the children in front of us.”

And sometimes, during lighter moments in the classroom, Cooke says, “You just say thank goodness another adult is here in the classroom to witness this and share the moment with you. There’s no shortage of laughter!”

"Another brain full of ideas"

Second Grade

Like Christa Cooke, first- and second-grade teacher Katie Spence did her student teaching under Chelsea Butela. This year, Spence has CASE student Kyra Rettew with her in the classroom. (Under Falk’s looping model, Spence began working with this class last year, when they were first-graders. Next year, she’ll welcome a new cohort that will be with her through first and second grade.)

“This is my first time having a student teacher,” Spence says. “So I was nervous. ‘Now I have to be a mentor to this person.’ Feeling young myself, I was worried I wasn’t going to be a good mentor.”

But being close in age has helped Spence put herself in Rettew’s shoes, remembering what was helpful when she was in Butela’s classroom.

“It’s important to have a good relationship with your teacher and I’m grateful that I do,” says Rettew. “I feel like that makes the experience so much better and easier.”

Spence has organized Rettew’s time in the classroom the same way Butela structured hers when Spence was a student teacher, easing Rettew in little by little. Early on, Kyra helped run the morning meeting, then took the lead in preparing and delivering a math lesson.

As Rettew’s responsibilities have increased, she has had ample time to observe and learn from Spence’s teaching, build a rapport with Room 122’s second-graders, and help out with group work and classroom management.

“I’ve learned so much in these past few weeks that you can’t really teach in a classroom,” says Rettew.

That gradual ramping up of Rettew’s responsibilities has also allowed Spence to alternate lessons with her, just as Butela did when Spence was a student teacher. Rettew might run a morning meeting one morning, then watch the next day as Spence takes the lead. That gives the student teacher a chance to run the lesson themselves and also to observe how their mentor does it.

“This morning I ran the meeting,” says Rettew, “and Katie interjected when she saw that something wasn’t going the right way. It was something I hadn’t even noticed.”

“The beauty of having two people and it being more of a partnership is that I can say, ‘Let me check in real quick because I’m noticing that something is happening with these three friends over here,’” Spence says. “Or the other day, Kyra said, ‘This is a lot like this other thing that we did the other day,’ and it was a great connection that I hadn’t even thought about.”

Over the course of the term, Rettew gained experience with each part of the curriculum until November, when Spence left the classroom altogether. On a day in early December, Spence is seated in the hall outside the classroom while Rettew, inside, guides students through a language arts lesson. She’s still available for assistance—and when a student heading to the bathroom runs through the hall, she reminds him to walk—but inside room 122, it’s Rettew’s show.

Having a student teacher in the classroom is much more than a second set of hands, Spence says:

“I have another set of eyes, another brain full of ideas. Kyra brings so many things to the table. When I’m reflecting on a lesson plan and I say that I just don’t know what to do with this, Kyra will have ideas. It’s not just, ‘Oh, good, she can help me laminate this.’”

Among the most important things that Spence has tried to communicate to Rettew, she says, is the importance of taking chances and trying new things. It’s part of what she calls the “extra layer” to the experience of student teaching at Falk.

“I think student teaching really gives you that permission to try something and reflect in a teachable way instead of saying, ‘Oh no, the world is over because now I have to teach the letter E tomorrow because we didn’t have time today,’” Spence says.

“I told Kyra, ‘Give it a try and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,’” she continues. “I have lessons where I say, ‘We will try this again tomorrow.’ It’s important to be OK with that, knowing we’re human and we’ll try it tomorrow.”

"What could go wrong?"

Middle School Science

“What could go wrong?”

That’s the question Jeffrey Kim asks the seventh-graders seated at lab tables here in Alex Dragon’s science classroom. The class is completing a unit called Properties of Matter and today is their first time using lab equipment.

That means it’s also their first time using lab equipment at Falk, and so Kim’s question isn’t hypothetical: he’s asking the students to anticipate mistakes and problems that could lead to unsafe conditions or inaccurate measurements as a way to avoid them. Students suggest possible problems: spilling water, breaking equipment, or using the wrong unit of measurement when recording their results.

Kim, enrolled in Pitt’s School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching Science program, is a student teacher working under the mentorship of Dragon, who completed his own student teaching at Falk under the guidance of Eileen Coughlin.

“I remember from my student teaching absorbing the general way class is run so that it’s not just the teacher up front,” Dragon says. He recalls learning ways to engage students, how to signal what he wanted from them, and how to hold them to high expectations while still being warm. Other highlights include Coughlin’s traditional eighth-grade roller-coaster project, which required helping students work with power tools, and Falk Middle School’s overnight trip to McKeever Environmental Center in Sandy Lake, Pa.

What surprised Dragon during his student-teaching days was how much of the teacher’s job is not just about the academic content but about academic skills that apply to far more than a particular lesson or unit. That includes everything from the lab safety techniques he and Kim have been teaching students to writing lab reports that are clear and succinct: these are all skills students will continue to use and develop during their time at Falk, and beyond.

For Kim, Falk’s approach to teaching and to training student teachers has been exhilarating. He reports being pleasantly surprised at how engaged the students are.

“I love Falk’s philosophy and the teaching environment,” Kim says. “When I think back on my middle school experience, science classes weren’t discussion-based.”

Kim’s student teaching experience began with observing Dragon teach, helping with small-group activities, and assisting Dragon in some grading. As he has grown more comfortable in the classroom, Kim has taken on greater responsibility, building up to taking over one of Dragon’s seventh-grade sections in February.

Today is one of the first lessons Kim is leading. Students are tasked with measuring and observing the characteristics of six different rocks, using their observations to identify each of the specimens on the worksheets that Kim handed out. The lesson supports the overarching goals of this unit, relating to the properties of matter, while also giving students a chance to practice the lab techniques that Dragon has been introducing over the last few weeks.

Kim walks around, checking in with various groups as they place rocks in graduated cylinders that contain water. The groups have measured the mass of each sample, and will now use changes in the water level to find the volume; combining these two measurements, they will calculate the density of each rock using the formula of density = mass/volume.

“Be careful,” Kim says as he makes his rounds. “This is just water, but still be careful.”

Dragon hangs back, observing Kim so as to give feedback later. He also steps in when groups have questions, or he notices a teachable moment. The graduated cylinders that students are using have both metric and English measurements, and Dragon encourages students to double-check which measurement they are recording on their worksheets.

One group’s rock becomes stuck in the narrow neck of the cylinder and a bit of water splashes out as they try to extricate it. Kim helps them think through what to do next: if they simply try again, will they still get an accurate measurement? What can they do to follow the lab procedures that he and Mr. Dragon have been discussing over the last several weeks?

After talking it over, the group refills the water to match its previous level, then very carefully drops the rock into the cylinder.

“You don’t want to continue in that situation because the errors are just going to compound,” Kim says later, reflecting on the day’s lesson. “These are important lab skills for them to learn.”

"How do you make changes and move forward?"

Middle School Math

Student teacher Claire Kennedy presents the students in Chris Graham’s eighth-grade math class with a choice: would they prefer the five-dollar bill hidden behind her back, or would they rather take one penny doubled every day for one month?

As the students mull this over, a few think ahead, suggesting the calculations they’d need to make to figure out how much that penny, doubled over and over again, would turn into.

“It’s an exponent problem,” one says.

“Hold on,” says Kennedy, a student in the Pitt School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Mathematics program who is interning at Falk this year. “Let’s think this through.”

Instead of heading right to formulas, Kennedy has the students break into groups to create tables of the penny’s increasing value, then graph those numbers. As the students think aloud together, both Kennedy and Graham, her mentor this year, caution students not to leap ahead.

“The idea was to show the key relationships that we wanted them to pick up on,” says Kennedy later, reflecting on the lesson.

Tables and graphs provide powerful visual representations of those relationships, allowing students to build toward using exponents.

Today’s lesson is the first that Kennedy has led this year, following several weeks of assisting in small groups and observing Graham, who also did her student teaching at Falk while completing the MAT program.

“I was able to see where students were with their thinking and discuss any errors that they made,” says Kennedy. “In math you build upon what you did before, so it was useful to be able to see the little errors and the big conceptual errors that students may have been making.”

It would be easy to minimize the work Kennedy was doing prior to leading today’s lesson, Graham says, but getting to know these students as learners, and letting them get accustomed to Kennedy as a teacher, is critical.

“As you take a more active role,” she tells Kennedy, “that familiarity is really important.”

For this first lesson, Kennedy drew on one that Graham has used in the past.

“I have my repertoire of materials that they’re welcome to,” Graham says, “but they’re also welcome to say, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’ They have the freedom and flexibility to do that. The benefit for me is that if I see something cool, I’m going to use that next year, thank you very much.”

Over time, Graham says, the goal is for Kennedy to develop lesson plans on a daily basis, preparing her for the classroom and the experience of daily preparation. It’s one of the benefits of Kennedy teaching at Falk for the full year.

After the lesson, mentor and intern discuss how it went and Graham gives feedback for Kennedy’s next lesson.

“It was definitely a little nerve-wracking, but for my first time it went well,” Kennedy says. The students were engaged in the activity, and she gained some valuable insights about the questions she asked students to spur their thinking.

Graham draws on her experience in the MAT program in her approach to mentoring Kennedy. What was helpful to her in her growth as a teacher, and what types of feedback were most helpful? She’s tried to strike a balance, she says, between too much feedback and not enough.

As with other Falk Lab School teachers who are now serving as mentors, working with a teacher in training has provided Graham an opportunity to reflect on her own teaching practice.

“There are days where things don’t go as you hoped,” Graham says. “It’s hard when someone who’s learning to be a teacher is in the room, learning with you. But that’s part of what teaching is like on a daily basis. It’s important to talk about it, and for her to see that reflection process. How do you make changes and move forward? I might wish she’d seen that particular lesson implemented more successfully, but that’s an important part of the learning process.”

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Student Teaching at Falk Laboratory School