So you want to be a teacher. You've completed all your coursework in education, and probably a subject area, and have sat in on enough practicums and observations to fill a journal. And you have journaled, haven't you. A lot. Yes, you look ready.
I'm going to help you survive when you come to the realization that you were never ready at all. Because no one ever is.
The Big Picture
The goal of student teaching is to give you authentic classroom experience. Whatever happens, good or bad, you should seize the opportunity and learn from it. Sometimes the worst experiences are actually the best teachers, so keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to learn and grow, not to get an easy "A."
Before You Begin:
Plan on working 50-60 hours a week, not to mention time at home you'll use to plan, grade papers, and recuperate.
It's true what they say: you want as few outside responsibilities as possible while you're student teaching. If you can avoid taking classes, working, planning weddings, buying houses, and getting pregnant, do so. If you live on your own income, my advice is to work your butt off the summer before and save up enough money so you don't have to work while you're student teaching. If you absolutely must, talk to your employer ahead of time about making a more flexible schedule and make arrangements to lower your workload.
Find a match that works for both of you.
You do have a say in what district and, more importantly, what teacher you're placed with. Before agreeing to any placement, schedule a meeting time with the teacher. Talk about your goals, expectations, and philosophies and get a feel for theirs, too. You should feel comfortable and compatible with him/her.
Establish ground rules and go over your school's policies. If you have to work or fulfill other obligations, let your teacher know up front and make sure they understand. Remember that you are a guest in their classroom and, as such, you should be willing to make sacrifices (within reason). It is perfectly acceptable to say, "I can't stay later than 4 p.m. on Tuesdays because I have a night class." It is not okay to say, "I have to leave by 2 p.m. every day to catch my soaps."
Discuss your responsibilities before you agree to your placement. Some teachers are very understanding; others want you to do an obscene amount of work in very short amounts of time. It is reasonable for you to plan and teach lessons, grade papers, contact parents and perform other regular classroom duties. It is not reasonable for you to wash their car, run copies for next semester, take over their responsibilities to committees, etc. By the same token, it is also not reasonable for you to sit at their desk and observe every day. Remember: you want experience and you're going to work for it. You want a teacher that will let you do more than get your feet wet, but who won't throw you into the deep end, either.
Your life will quickly turn into a tornado once you start student teaching, so make it as organized and neat as possible beforehand. You can't buy enough calendars, planners, highlighters, post-its, and clocks. Drive your route to school and back at different times to get a feel for traffic flow. If you can visit the building before you begin, note where the school's facilities are: copy room, bathrooms, teacher's lounge, office, gymnasium, cafeteria, etc.
Make sure you've got a well-established sleep schedule before you begin. You'll want to clean out your car, your living area, and especially a desk or work space. Any space of clutter and chaos will quickly become a blackhole for student papers and important things like housekeys and shoes.
On the Job:
Remember what you've learned.
This is what you've been leading up to for three years. Remember classroom management, lesson planning techniques, philosophy and methods courses. Go through your notes and past assignments for inspiration and reminders. It's not a bad idea to have a book or two on teacher's survival. It's always easier to start out strict and loosen up; you can never go the other way. Your first few weeks will be a challenge; the students will be exploring their boundaries and getting a feel for you. Don't let them smell your fear!
Do what you can.
You're fresh out of university, so your ideas about teaching and learning may be more modern than your cooperating teacher's. Feel comfortable enough to experiment with your own style, but keep in mind that this is not your classroom. It is not okay to completely change the structure and management style of the class to suit you better. You may be slightly out of your comfort zone, but that's okay. Use what leeway you have, but respect the teacher's format. You might even grow to like it.
Work as a team.
Your cooperating teacher and university supervisor are there for you. They're getting paid to take you under wing--they volunteered for this! Take advantage of their years of experience. Ask questions, accept constructive criticism, share ideas. They should be willing to offer suggestions and council you when you need it.
By the same token, you are a professional. You should be treated like one. If your cooperating teacher is demeaning you, embarassing you in front of students, yelling at you or disrespecting you in any way, report it to your university supervisor immediately. You are not a slave, you are not their toy, and you do not have to stay in any unhealthy or dangerous situation. (If your university supervisor is creating a hostile environment, that should be reported to the dean or the appropriate department chairperson.)
Do yourself a favor.
You will be frustrated. You will be upset. You will cry, you will throw things, you will want to quit. You will also laugh, you will be surprised, you will be enchanted. Student teaching is a long rollercoaster ride full of twists and turns and butterfly-inducing loops. Do yourself a favor and don't take it too seriously. Learn to laugh at yourself.
Give yourself time to relax and be alone. If you have to, schedule it into your day. Don't node, don't watch TV, don't sleep or shower. You want quiet time, alone, to regain your sanity. That being said, give yourself time with your friends and family. Go out, have fun, forget about your students every once in a while. It's good for you!
Eat well, sleep well, live well. Skipping lunch to grade papers, waiting to pee until after school, staying up late to get ready for the next day--these are all bad habits that can hurt you. You're already going to be in an environment where the kids carry enough germs to kill a large horse. You don't want to get sick, do you? Wash your hands, eat right, and take care of yourself.
Let it all out. Journal, journal, journal. Be a reflective practitioner; right about what worked today or didn't work yesterday. Write down questions, comments, concerns. Go back and read what you've already journaled. This helps you to reflect on your progress and offers you insights that you would've otherwise forgotten at the end of a too-long day. When you take your first teaching job, you'll look back on this journal for help. You're paying for this experience with blood, sweat, and tears--might as well get the most bang for your buck.
In the Afterlife:
Hand over the reins.
Congratulations, you made it. You're officially a lame duck, about to leave the classroom and graduate to bigger, better things. Smooth transitions are important for a classroom; you were probably handed control slowly and gradually until one day you were It. We're going to do that again, only in reverse. Slowly but surely, your cooperating teacher will regain control of her classroom. Your last few days you may be right back where you started, making observations and running occasional errands. Use this time to reflect and summarize your experience.
Your students will (hopefully) be sad to see you go. You may be sad, too; it's perfectly natural. You've completed a very emotional period of time with these people, so give yourself closure. Your cooperating teacher will be giving you a final evaluation, during which you'll hear more criticisms and praise than you would've thought possible. Take it all with a grain of salt. Tie up any emotional loose ends and give yourself time to say goodbye.
Don't forget to send a thank-you card to your cooperating teacher and his/her class(es).
Enter the Workforce.
If they have a place for you and were happy with your work, you may be offered a job at the school district where you did your student teaching. More than likely, you've already been to a few job fairs and met with some potential districts. Now's the time to put out your applications, graduate, and get into interview-mode.
Some people, like me, have terrible student teaching experiences. I used my summer to really evaluate what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to give teaching one last shot, and took a part-time job to test the waters. I had to be sure that teaching was for me before I could sign on to a full-time position.
Sometimes teaching really isn't right for you, despite a good experience. If that's the case, consider switching careers. In my case, a bad student teaching experience almost kept me from doing what I love. Had I let student teaching discourage me, I wouldn't be working in a great school district with the most awesome kids on the planet.
The moral of the story is: student teaching is a learning experience and, whether your experience ends well or badly, it need not be in vain. Do what you can to make it the best experience possible but if all else fails, you'll have great horror stories to tell your grandkids.