During the last semester of their senior year, many education majors head back to the classroom. No, they haven’t been skipping class for the last four years. They’re heading to elementary, middle and high schools for two placements as a student teacher. They’ll spend time observing students and faculty before they take over the class for certain lessons, or even entire days, to get some hands on experience in a classroom.

For many education majors, this isn’t their first visit to the classroom. Early on in the program, students do shorter placements alone or in pairs in different grade levels to get that first glance of what being a teacher of those grades would be like. This helps them decide if they want to stick with that level or move to older or younger students.

Student teaching placements are much longer than these initial placements, lasting seven weeks—almost a full quarter. Students are placed in two types of classrooms to get different kinds of experience. The placements are decided by the student’s focus or the grade level that they want to eventually teach. Kerry Smigielski, a senior early childhood/special education major, spent her first placement at the Barber National Institute before moving to a second grade classroom at Emerson-Gridley Elementary School.

At the Barber National Institute, Smigielski worked in a classroom with small children, mostly 4-year olds, who were all autistic and mostly nonverbal. This presented a unique challenge, as communication is not particularly easy when your students can’t respond to you. However, through much one-on-one work, Smigielski was able to form close bonds with her students and help them learn through interactive games and the use of some basic sign language.

At her second placement, Smigielski is responsible for things that were vastly different from her first placement. Instead of spending a lot of time one-on-one with a small class, she is now responsible for 28 students. Smigielski first worked on creating a behavior management program for the class before taking over certain classes from the full-time teacher. Now, she plans lessons for almost half a day’s worth of classes, including activities for the students, tests and homework.

Student teaching is not something that can be taken lightly. You’re responsible for the education of these students, you’re not just “playing” teacher. Though student teachers don’t take many other credits, if any, while they’re teaching, the workload of preparing for student teaching easily replaces any homework that they might have had.

Though the environment is challenging, the rewards of a successful student-teaching placement are irreplaceable. You’re making a positive difference in the lives of students for the first time as a teacher and for many, that’s what makes the hard work worth it.