Musings on Initial Teacher Education provoked by a Twitter conversation (Part 1)

“The evolution of social media into a robust mechanism for social transformation is already visible. Despite many adamant critics who insist that tools like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are little more than faddish distractions useful only to exchange trivial information, these critics are being proven wrong time and again. ”
– Attributed to Simon Mainwaring

The @EduTweetOz Twitter account describes itself as “RoCur for Aussie educators to share ideas, experiences, q’s & passion. Building community. New host each wk”  and is a very worthwhile Twitter account to follow. Each host brings with  them a new topic and their own perspective on that topic to the table for discussion, and each host is also given an introductory interview blog on the EduTweetOz blog site which allows the accounts followers to gain an insight into the week’s host.

The beauty of the account is that it is open to nominations from educators from any sector of the industry, which keeps the discussion topics from the account fresh and interesting. You can nominate yourself to be a guest host by clicking here.

Recently, the account was hosted by Mark Johnson (@seminyaksunset) and I stumbled onto a conversation regarding pre-service teachers partway through the weekend, and joined in, as you can see below:

Screenshot from Twitter conversation with the @EduTweetOz account being controlled by @seminyaksunset on June 6, 2015
Screenshot from Twitter conversation with the @EduTweetOz account being controlled by @seminyaksunset on June 6, 2015
Screenshot from Twitter conversation with the @EduTweetOz account being controlled by @seminyaksunset on June 6, 2015
Screenshot from Twitter conversation with the @EduTweetOz account being controlled by @seminyaksunset on June 6, 2015

There are a few thoughts that arose from this conversation which I believe are important to discuss and if I provoke some constructive dialogue, whether it be in comments to this article here on WordPress, or alternatively, on Twitter or Google+, I believe that I will be happy. There were six main ideas or topics that I drew from the conversation with Mark, and this article will address the first of them, with others emerging over the course of the next week.

  1. Entry into Pre-Service Teacher Training / Initial Teacher Education (ITE) courses
  2. Pre-Service Teacher Training / Initial Teacher Education (ITE) structure and content
  3. The value of teachers and teaching as perceived in the public sphere
  4. The role of the Education minister and his/her (currently his) stance towards education and teachers and the way the Education Minister is perceived by teachers.
  5. The integration of graduate teachers into the profession
  6. The rate of graduation vs the available number of employment opportunities

I certainly do not believe that I hold the answers to any of these issues, though I certainly have some opinion, however rigorous discussion around some of these issues appears to be sparse in their occurrence, despite the level of importance to which society as a rule attaches to education. The above issues are all, to a certain degree, inter-related, so their may be some topic-jumping, however I will do my best to keep this series of articles on topic.

  1. Entry into Pre-Service Teacher Training / Initial Teacher Education (ITE) courses

This topic was my initial entry-point into the conversation, on the back of the below Tweets:

I do not disagree with the premise, that increasing the entry score for ITE courses will necessarily equate to a raising in teacher standards. I strongly believe that there are too many variables in play, as with any sort of standardised testing regime for the overall mark awarded at the end of a students secondary education when they are either seventeen or eighteen to be any indication of the kind of teacher they will be later in life. I pointed out that as a secondary student, I performed poorly in my final secondary education exams, receiving a University Admission Index (UAI, currently known as the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) in NSW) score of only 55.55.

There were a number of potential reasons for my low score, which are ultimately irrelevant in this  conversation, but I entered university as a mature age student, put in much more effort than I ever did in my secondary education, and came away with Honours Class I, the Education Faculty Medal and will be the Graduate Speaker at my cohort’s graduation ceremony in July of this year. My UAI was no indication of what kind of tertiary student I would be, and my tertiary academic results are no indication of what kind of teacher I will be.

So I do not believe that relying solely on an arbitrary ITE entrance score would necessarily have any real impact on the quality of teachers that graduate. My initial response, that ITE should move towards an entrance model akin to the medicine entrance model that combines entry score requirements with an interview and personality test would only help to a degree. For someone who wished to enter the teaching profession immediately out of high school in their late teens, the interview process would serve well to weed out those who only want to enter the ITE courses as they see them as an easy option. This may sound a little silly, but I distinctly recall hearing two classmates during my undergraduate state that they were only doing the course because their parents said they had to go to university after high school and teaching was easy to get into. However this alone would serve to reduce the number of disinterested teachers entering into the profession and that reason on its own, to me, seems to make introducing entrance interviews worth examining further.

Another measure that I believe could be added into the entry process is perhaps more controversial. I am aware from conversations with a number of my classmates that many of us feel that nothing in our ITE properly prepared us for what teaching is actually like. I was not offered a permanent position under the NSW Department of Education and Communities  Targeted Graduate Program (TGR), and to be quite frank, I am rather thankful for that fact. I picked up some casual days early this year at a local school where one of my classmates received a permanent position under the TGR and when I asked how she was finding the position, she commented to me that, and I’m paraphrasing from memory here, “…[she] was not ready for a full-time spot straight out. There is so much stuff that was not covered [in our ITE]; even just the admin requirements alone, forget the need to interact with parents.”

This is a sentiment that I can sympathise with. I do agree that there was a lack of understanding imparted to us as to the way in which teaching can consume you if you do not take steps to prepare yourself, and the requirements outside of the purely teaching that are placed on teachers. A teacher friend of mine, who is currently in an Executive position, commented to me during a conversation one afternoon that “…teaching is a twenty-four hour job.” A sentiment which my classmate, and myself, are only just starting to properly grasp to truth of.

This knowledge, this understanding needs to be made more explicit somehow during the admission process. Whilst it may scare off some who would in fact be excellent teachers, it would also scare off those who think that teaching is a nine-to-three job, and allow prospective teachers to go in with, if not eyes wide-open, than at least somewhat aware of the enormity of the role which they are undertaking. There are a few ways in which this could be done, such as requiring prospective teachers to spend time with a teacher, not just in the classroom, but attending staff meetings, professional development session, report writing, planning and programming in an attempt to understand the workload that is placed on teachers. However, something such as I have just described could not realistically be expected to occur before the commencement of the ITE.

I am not sure what measures, other than introducing an interview process or perhaps some sort of requirement to spend time in a classroom prior to commencement of the ITE, could be introduced to the front-end of the ITE the system that would actually enhance the quality of teachers that graduate at the back-end. I would very much like to hear from anyone who has ideas to achieve this, either in the comment section here or alternatively on Twitter or Google+.

Thank you for reading my semi-organised thoughts on ITE today. The next article, which will be published on Monday, will discuss the structure and content of ITE courses in general, and mine specifically.

Put your best foot forward

As tomorrow marks the beginning of the new school year for many students here in Australia, so it is also the first day of their new career for many graduate teachers, whom, having completed their teaching degree and having attained full time appointments straight out, seek to start out the new, and for them, first, year on a positive note.

There are many sources of advice and tips on how to approach your first day in your classroom available on the internet (for example, here, here, here or here) and of course you will be regaled advice, tips and secrets used in the past by your new colleagues and  you will hear how they survived their first days in the classroom.

Without getting into the debate about the value, quality or nature of advice found on the internet (I would like to think that we are all aware of the fact that just because something is on the internet does not make it so (as made all too clear in this example from 2012). Further to this, just because an experienced teacher told you about a strategy that worked for them, it does not necessarily that it will translate into your classroom.

I would like to point out that I am not saying that all advice you are given by experienced teachers is suspect, irrelevant or out of date. Indeed, you will likely receive a lot of valuable advice, particularly from those teachers within your new school, which brings me to the point of this short article.

You are going to be teaching within a particular context this year. That context will be different to the one in which you will teach next year, the year after that and every year until you retire, or move into a non-teaching position within the education hierarchy. This is because you have students this year who have lived certain experiences. Those experiences are different to those experiences they had lived last year, and so the students’ themselves are different.

A teacher may explain to you how they survived their first day of teaching ten years ago, and there will be some nuggets of usefulness within what you are told. However, those strategies worked for that teacher, with those students, in that year. The nature of children, the education system, technology and teaching means that you may not be able to use the same strategies as that teacher did (unless by some freak of Whovian time-travel you end up in that exact same classroom, physically and temporally) because the context is different.

Unless you happen to know the current Doctor you will have to make adjustments to any advice you are given to suit your specific context. The children you teach this year have lived through their own particular experiences, as have you. The technology, and to some degree the pedagogy and curriculum, are also different, and you need to factor that into any strategy you are given as ‘advice for surviving your first day.’

Listen carefully to the advice you are given. It is offered freely, based on experience, and well-intended. You do not have to use the advice. You also should not reject it out of hand, even if you wholeheartedly disagree with it – you do not have to use it just because it has been offered. You may have come to teaching with particular ideals of what education is for, how classrooms and schools should be run, and what learning means. Ultimately, you will teach in a way that fits who you are, within the context of your classroom. Your students will change over the course of this year, and so the way you teach may also change, as you and your students grow and develop in your separate but conjoined pathway of learning.

This of course is all advice, and so although I feel that it is useful, you do not have to use it, and that is perfectly legitimate. It is, after all, only advice.

Good luck for the year to all teachers, but particularly to those of you whom are new to the profession.