Monthly Archives: October 2015

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Reflections on my TESL Program

I (Clare) am currently teaching a graduate course Current Issues in Teacher Education. The first assignment asks students to:

Write a reflection paper on your experiences in a professional program (teacher education, Teaching English as a Second Language ….). Provide a very brief description of the program. Some questions to consider are: What were the strengths/weaknesses of the program? How well did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher? What were the limitations of the program? Have your views of the program changed since graduation? How could the program have been improved? Did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher (or other position)? Do NOT respond to all of these questions. Select one or two and respond to them. In the fourth class of the course, you will work in small groups and share your paper with your fellow students.

Since all of the students in the course are teachers they have a good perspective on their program. Their assignments were so stellar I felt these would be of great value to share with other teacher educators. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing these papers. I learned much and I suspect you will too. I have changed the name of the university so that no school of education is identified.

Teaching has always been an endeavor to me and it has confronted me with great many challenges in the past. The experiences, shortcomings, lack of resources that once posed nightmares to me, now stand at a distance flickering to remind me that each and every one of them had the worth and significance to go through and that they all became part of a journal that I can flip through to account for just those glitches in my teaching career. Accordingly, I would be able to say that the learning and teaching matters that took place within the learning environment should never be neglected and there should always be something, like the roll call sheet from those classes, to bring back, at least, just some of those memories; not romantic ones but academic to see how much one has improved through course of time.

It was some years back that I had just gone through TESL classes and I was almost equipped to face the challenges of ESL courses. I must confess that I was quite intimidated by the new things I had to apply to my new teaching experience and at times I remember I would recoil at the thought that a mistake in the class would mean a collapse and demoralization in my part. The fear of doing something wrong kept me on my toes and it made me prepare everything so profoundly with good plans and timing, responding to every instinct of panic in my awareness.

The threshold came when the institute I was teaching at, proposed a class of adult engineers out of site, to be taught twice a week on regular basis for 6 months. The students were part of the staff at XXX Ministry who were well-known to have a good background in ESL and associated academics. My involvement in teaching ESL was good enough to take up the class and go through the challenges it could impose and the picture I had made in my mind was strictly academic one for highly educated people. However, I did not consider one thing that was purely non-academic; the students were very conservative and religious. Since the trend of government and policies are based on socio-religious matters, and most employees have been selected by interviews to certain positions in almost most ministries, the atmosphere of these offices are strictly run by codes of behavior that normally would not fit within the curriculums of teaching, mainly TESL.

To begin with, we have always been imparted as teachers, in many workshops, that part of a learning autonomy is the recognition of the individual in cultural, racial, sexual, and religious levels and that each person’s identity should be taken into account when selecting materials and even teaching style. Moreover, I was not equipped enough to deal with such class of this kind and almost failed to relate to the students to communicate the materials to them. In fact, every part of the curriculum had to be redesigned to adapt it and make it digestible to the norm of the class. I am not sure if anyone could make a malleable course for such sporadic class.

The level of the class, based on the placement tests (OPT) stood at an intermediate level with both sexes, from ages of 34-45. brickwallThe first thing I realized about the students was the they were not there at their own will and that their related departments had obliged them to take this course for their prospective trips to various Gulf or European countries for the purposes of seminars, negotiations etc. Naturally, the students’ attention was not always on the lessons I was giving and most of the time there were many people who did not attend class. They often failed to do their homework and their lack of participation hindered the class to a halt. My own failure as an ESL teacher was, that I had not realized, that I was the one who had to switch to different activities or change the syllabus to divert the class to a livelier, flexible course, to make the student want to attend class and feel excited about the activities. I just kept on my hard headed approach and went along the lesson plan I thought was adequate.

The worst part was when the class coordinator reported the students’ dissatisfaction and criticized me for the deficiency of management in the course and also the negative feedback he had received. This really accosted me to thinking that I should quit the class or find another teacher to fill in my position. I had never experienced such disgrace and denouncement through my teaching career, still thinking that they were to be blamed for their behavior and actions.

globeLater that same month, half way through the course, as there was a religious holiday coming up, I decided to take in a reading task with the subject of “Religious festivals”, to change the mood and tone of the students and give them something diverse for a change. I was desperate to get them to talk and react. I made up the task and also planned many activities with a short clip to teach. As I was handing out the copies, I suddenly realized that the students were strangely starting to read the text and were almost half way to the end which brought a big surprise to me. This was the first time in this class the students were engaged in a unison activity they were not even instructed for. To my amazement, the reading lesson went extremely well and the students were so involved in the lesson that I had not realized that the class was nearing its end. The students would not leave the class and carried on the discussion on the festivals, expressing their personal ideas. I was not sure what had happened.

When the class came to an end and most of the students had left, I sat down reflecting on what grabbed such diverse class to be so attracted to the activities that were just like the other activities we had done and what changed the stubbornness in them. It was very obvious that the subject matter and the way I had treated it-with respect-won me the objective. The students were thrilled to see a teacher who actually communicated with them through their own mode of thought, in this case religious history, and to know the issue well enough to elaborate it and blow it so wide to make a class activity out of it. I had simply overlooked the cultural and socio-economic atmosphere of my class and the bias these people had on western media, which simply brought it to a standstill. My teacher trainer had never brought up the issue of difference in a neutral way; the trend was that the Eurocentric notion of teaching and its subject matter was always the norm and the purpose of the course is creating a learning environment. This was the pitfall I fell into: “Eurocentrism”.

Further, classes may have many biases and principles that are outright for their own culture and traditions where the Eurocentric trend of thought would not be suitable and so when approaching such classes, their ethnicity and their background should never be ignored. That is the reason why publishers of many text books today take into account the hijab or Islamic hair cover in their books, not for mere respect, but for making the text more palatable to the students. There are also many other instances as such in ESL course books, specifically for Gulf region countries, that avoid blatant boy and girl relationships, women without a scarf, and food and drinks that average Muslims refrain from eating as their faith restricts them.

As an ESL instructor, I was heavily diluted by common stereotype misconceptions and fell prey to common western models in choosing the right material. When teaching such class, I should have remembered that I was neither a policy maker nor an authority. I cannot generalize the fact that every and each class is subject to some kind of idiosyncrasy that abides by certain cultural rules and codes. What might be an appropriate material, might turn out to be horrendous to the next class. Where customs and religion is dominant, democratic attitudes are not necessarily civilized or precise.

Besides the consideration above, this is part of the implicit curricula that needs to be addressed by ESL trainers who are certified teacher educators. It is true that most materials that TESL trainers use are based on most of the research universities in their countries, which are located mostly in Europe and it is ostensible that they do have materials that denote cultural differences to teacher students. What was ignored by my teacher educator, was that the students should always remain obedient to the teacher’s instructions and materials as it would not make a great deal of difference what is taught compared to what quality it is delivered at. I practiced what I learned from my educators and never realized that somethings were not left to me to determine or manipulate. The “Religious Festival” text was my savior then and I came to realize my failure very randomly by chance. I could have walked out of that class for good and never to return as a teacher, as I was completely demoralized by what was happening.

One day my educator would hopefully read this and realize that when we teach, we do not merely deliver the subject matter, but also we deliver respect, harmony and love that is the most essential part of any communication.

Reflections on Teacher Education

I (Clare) am currently teaching a graduate course Current Issues in Teacher Education. The first assignment asks students to:

Write a reflection paper on your experiences in a professional program (teacher education, Teaching English as a Second Language ….). Provide a very brief description of the program. Some questions to consider are: What were the strengths/weaknesses of the program? How well did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher? What were the limitations of the program? Have your views of the program changed since graduation? How could the program have been improved? Did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher (or other position)? Do NOT respond to all of these questions. Select one or two and respond to them. In the fourth class of the course, you will work in small groups and share your paper with your fellow students.

Since all of the students in the course are teachers they have a good perspective on their program. Their assignments were so stellar I felt these would be of great value to share with other teacher educators. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing these papers. I learned much and I suspect you will too. I have changed the name of the university so that no school of education is identified.

Introduction:

Education is a fundamental pillar of our global society, one that is highly valued and is widely perceived to be a gateway to knowledge and opportunity. However, despite our shared interest and investment in education, there are also marked global differences in prescribed content, and program structures. These are some of the factors that serve to characterise specific programs or educational systems, and they are key components in the education of teachers themselves. The discussion and debate surrounding education is ongoing around the world, with trends in thinking and practice constantly evolving and shifting amongst policymakers and practitioners. Scientific analysis of teacher education however, is still in its infancy, and the exploration of international variation between programs is an issue that warrants our attention and research.

There is a misconstrued belief, which has pervaded public perception for centuries and continues unabated in many domains today, that anyone can automatically teach, a claim that is seemly justified because of the time we have spent in a formal school environment (Lortie, 1975). However, research refutes this myth and states that “the special knowledge, skills, and orientations that underlie and enable the work of teaching are not typically mere by-products of intelligence” (Ball and Forzani, 2009, p. 500). This prompts us to reflect on teacher education and the importance of delivering programs that are designed to harness our existing knowledge and skills and enable us to become effective teachers. Global approaches to teacher education are as complex as they are diverse, each creating unique learning experiences for student teachers. The variations in approaches give rise to questions surrounding the potential impact these may have on the efficacy of teacher education programs, the focal point for this reflection.

Method:

Below, I compare and contrast the account of one teacher’s experiences in an education program in the United States with my own personal experience of Irish teacher education. This comparative exercise highlights some key similarities and differences between these two experiences, and while I do not attempt to generalise from the findings, they nonetheless provide valuable insight into the impact of the different approaches adopted in each country, and the potential implications for teacher effectiveness.

I began by interviewing a friend of mine, XXX, who completed a four year program at the University of YYY in the United States, after which she taught for a further four years as a classroom teacher at a charter school in Connecticut. Over the course of two hours I sat down with XXX, inviting her to share her thoughts surrounding her program. Through careful questioning, I encouraged her to reflect upon its structure and delivery, including the duration and relative success of the practicum and level of preparation for life as a practicing teacher. We also addressed the hidden challenges of teaching and the level of support that is available for recent graduates. Eager to share what she believed to be the core strengths and the inherent weaknesses that called out for improvement, XXX succeeded in providing me with an in-depth look at one instance of teacher education in America.

Below, I present my key findings from the interview, taking care to highlight some of the core strengths as well as the material flaws that XXX highlighted as being noteworthy aspects for consideration. Alongside this summary interpretation of XXX’s program, I provide a contrasting analysis using my own experiences of teacher education in Ireland. Finally, I begin to reflect upon how our exploration of specific examples of teacher education programs enables us to further our understanding of their overall effectiveness.

Findings: From YYY University to County Clare: Cross-Atlantic comparisons

When I asked XXX to highlight a positive aspect of her program she did not hesitate in saying that “without a doubt, I learned the most about teaching from my four practicums, more so than any other aspect of my program”. Spanning from an initial period of one or two days a week to a final three month long role as a classroom teacher, she describes the practicum’s structure as ‘graduated’ and ‘supportive’. Explaining further, she noted that a teacher begins by teaching small groups of children with different abilities, and must be deemed ‘competent’ before the teaching supervisor “let you anywhere near the bigger classes, because if you couldn’t handle five children, how could you ever manage seven times that’. In comparison, over 3,000 miles away, I began what would be the first of three years in my own teacher education program. Similar in many ways to XXX’s description of her program, practicums, or ‘teaching practices’, were also a core element of our degree, and were weighted more heavily than other course subjects. Like XXX, I also felt that these were well structured, with increasing levels of responsibility as we became more experienced. With strict guidelines to adhere to and assessment that was both rigorous and continuous, we were observed and evaluated several times during each placement by an external supervisor. Overall, we both agreed that these experiences, however challenging, were ultimately invaluable learning opportunities.

This level of intensity was also carried over into other aspects of XXX’s program, including the mandatory 3.0 GPA that students were required to hold in order to progress at the end of each year. Balancing such a demanding workload was something that XXXh describes as being ‘challenging at best, exhausting at worst’, acknowledging however, that the emphasis on achievement challenged students and succeeded in identifying those who were not truly committed to the program. Conversely, while I believe that there was an overall strong work ethic amongst the majority of students in my own university, this intense focus on academic success was less visible. Rather, certain areas were clearly valued over others, namely our practicum placements. With such a competitive job market, students were anxious to excel in this area in order to stand the best chance when applying for jobs upon graduation.

While there were definite strengths to XXX’s program, there were also undeniable weaknesses, namely the ‘surface-level’ attention paid to special needs education within the program and the ‘non-existent’ emphasis on differentiation. XXX felt that her courses were insufficient to equip aspiring teachers with the necessary tools to survive in diverse classrooms that would not be as ‘homogenously average’ as the lecture halls in teacher education. In this regard, I believe that my course offered more in terms of content and pedagogical courses. Unlike XXX, I was required to complete special needs education and educational and developmental psychology courses specifically tailored for assessment and differentiation. While I believe that the time commitment is still inadequate, it appears to be more than what is mandated in other programs, begging the question as to why this is not always a priority?

Another aspect of teacher education that XXX identifies as warranting immediate review is the quality of mentoring offered by the supervisors assigned to assess students on their practicum. She found that supervisors ranged from being ‘encouraging’ and ‘fair’, to ‘too traditional and rigid’ and ‘out of touch with reality’. Listening to XXX recall these experiences, I reflected on my own supervisors, each of whom I believe was fair, yet remarkably different in their approach to teaching and in their own views on what ‘good teaching’ constituted. Overall, my supervisor visits were positive and encouraging, though there were certainly times when I felt more unsupported due to a difference in teaching style.

This partnership between novice and expert teachers is something that also exists outside the realms of the formal teacher education. Indeed, many countries facilitate a mentor program designed to alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty that new teachers face as they are paired with another, more experienced teacher in their school whose role is to provide guidance and answer concerns. However, XXX describes her own experience of the mentor system as “a farce, she was always too busy to help me”. This was an attitude that she felt was mirrored in “a school-wide culture that was quite discouraging and hierarchal”. This mentor system offered to beginning teachers is a key distinction between our countries’ approach to education. Despite its flaws, this well-intentioned service of support has not been introduced in Ireland. Consequently, I would argue that, despite the possibility of mentors shirking their responsibilities, the very existence of such a system is encouraging and well-intentioned.

Finally, when I asked XXX to rate her program on a scale of one to ten based on how well she believed it prepared her for the reality of being a teacher, she responded: “It depends. If you had asked me immediately after I graduated I would have given it an 8, but after being in the classroom and seeing how little I knew, I would say a 6, maybe even a 5”. This lack of faith in her own knowledge opened her eyes to the unpreparedness she felt, despite four years of teacher education. I would answer this question with a score of seven, justifying the deduction of points for the lack of support after graduation and the rushed pace of the program that left students an intense workload. Overall, it seems we agreed that each of our programs had merit, yet were flawed in certain areas that left gaps in our knowledge and preparedness, prompting me to reflect on whether or not one can ever truly be ‘ready’ or prepared for teaching in a classroom.

Discussion:

Interviewing XXX and reflecting upon my own experience of teacher education reaffirmed my belief that a truly effective teacher education program succeeds in providing a balance between both theory and practice, enabling us to not only learn how to ‘think like a teacher’, but also to ‘act like a teacher’” (Darling-Hammond, 2006, p. 35). It is this opportunity to practice acting like a teacher that is so imperative to teacher education. While I believe that the notion of ‘practice makes perfect’ is unrealistic and unattainable in relation to education, the fact remains that the provision of adequate and effective opportunities to practice teaching is a fundamental component of all teacher education programs.

Conversely, there are other more contentious aspects, one of these being the level of intense focus that is placed on academic success, something that may lead to a conflict in priorities. Cochran-Smith (2001, p. 4) captures this chasm between “personal integrity and human sensitivity” and “intellectually rigorous, discipline-based training” as the driving concern in determining “what should teachers know and be able to do?” Certainly, I would argue that an over-emphasis on academia carries its own risk. Indeed, Kozol (2000, p. xi) cautions against teachers obsessing “about scripted journeys where there is no room for whimsical discoveries and unexpected learnings”, and achievement is seen as the “exclusive or commanding goal”.

Another pressing issue relates to the provision, or lack thereof, effective special needs education within teacher education programs. This deficit is especially worrying given that many students who traditionally would have been segregated from other students, are now placed in general education classrooms, resulting in a wider span of both ability and experience levels (Banks et. al., 2005; Hargreaves and Fullan, 2000).

Finally, I believe that even controlling for differences in quality of our programs, there is very little that can truly prepare you for the reality and challenges of being a new teacher. Adjusting to the role of a beginning teacher can be a daunting prospect and often leaves new teachers floundering (Schulman, 2005). I question whether one can ever feel truly ‘prepared’ for teaching, even after formal teacher education. However it is imperative that we endeavour to strive towards this goal, however challenging the prospect may seem.

Conclusion:

The task of teaching teachers is no less complex than the education of our younger students who are only embarking on their educational journey. Like any form of education there are differences in beliefs and practices, some of these more significant than others. This reflection has enabled me to explore some of these differences by contrasting my own personal experiences of teacher education with another, first-hand account of an American program.

This comparative exercise succeeded in confirming some of my pre-existing beliefs while simultaneously challenging others. I began by weighing the relative strengths and weaknesses of XXX’s program, taking care to compare these experiences with my own recollection of teacher education in Ireland. I investigated positive aspects such as how the graduated approach to practicums and the encouragement of academic achievement while also noting the worrying lack of special needs education courses. I then discussed life as a beginning teacher, and the uncertainty and challenges that this entails. Finally, I began to assess the broader implications of these similarities and differences in values held by each program and how they might affect our understanding of effective teacher education.

I believe that international variation in education is both inevitable and beneficial. However, the act of reflecting upon our own teacher education presents us with an invaluable opportunity to greater appreciate the strengths of our existing practices, while also evaluating the areas in need of improvement. Learning from one another is essential in going forward, and as we continue to search for ways to improve teacher education, it is of the utmost importance that we collaborate and strive for success, not only for ourselves, but also for our future pupils.

References

Ball, D., & Forzani, F. (2009). The work of teaching and the challenge for teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(5), 497-511.

Banks, J. et. al. (2005). Teaching diverse learners. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford. Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 232-274). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cochran-Smith, M. (2001). Constructing outcomes in teacher education: Policy, practice and pitfalls. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 9(11).

Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (Eds.) (1999). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Powerful teacher education: Lessons from exemplary programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2000). Mentoring in the new Millennium. Theory into Practice, 39(1), 50-56.

Korthagen, F., Loughran, J., & Russell, T. (2006). Developing fundamental principles for teacher education programs and practices. Teaching & Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 22(8), 1020-1041.

Kozol, J. (2000). In Meier, D. Will standards save public education? Boston: Beacon Press.

Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Schulman, L. “The Signature Pedagogies of the Professions of Law, Medicine, Engineering, and the Clergy: Potential Lessons for the Education of Teachers”. Math Science Partnerships (MSP) Workshop: “Teacher Education for Effective Teaching and Learning”. California. February 6-8. 2005.

A Tale of Teacher Education: Bridging theory with practice

I (Yiola) am forever thinking about how to make the material in my courses accessible to my student teachers. How does one connect theory and research to practice in a way that is accessible for student teachers? It is not uncommon to have student teachers feel skeptical about what their Professors share in class because they are not seeing the connections in their placements. In spite of what the research states, practice is often not clear. Last week I documented what I believe to be a remarkable process for doing just that.  In this post I will share the value of the relationship between teacher education course instructor and classroom teachers who supervise student teachers in the classroom.

On this particular day, my class was  exploring “classroom management”. We know that classroom management is one of the most, if not the most, challenging aspects of classroom practice for beginning teachers. To add to the complexity, I embedded thinking of classroom management through the lens of culturally relevant pedagogy. For this class, I did not intend to provide a bag full of tricks for managing a classroom. No, this class was intended to spark critical thinking about equity and how the learning environment influences classroom management.

The first thing I did was clarify and highlight key considerations from the article that was read for class and invite discussion about it. For example:

“The ultimate goal of classroom management is not to achieve compliance or control but to provide all students with equitable opportunities for learning” (Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke, Curran, 2004, 27). Framing what “classroom management is for” needed to be the start of the conversation.

We then reviewed Weinstein’s, Tominlinson-Clarke and Curran’s components of culturally relevant classroom management (see link to article below):

1 Recognition of one’s own ethnocentrism and biases

2. Knowledge of students’ cultural background

3. Awareness of the broader social, economic and political context

4. Ability and willingness to use culturally appropriate management strategies

5. Commitment to building caring classroom communities

These components are powerful and make such good sense to me, an experienced classroom teacher, researcher and teacher educator who approaches teaching with a critical lens. However, to a student teacher, the components may not be so clear. It seemed the theoretical ideas were understood, but how they were enacted in a classroom was harder to pinpoint.

I then shared Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion?language=en) and afterwards I invited everyone to share their understandings of what Pierson expressed to the theory. The student teachers shared thoughtful insights, asked big questions; I sensed they were thinking hard about the messages. Ultimately, student teachers were able to connect Pierson’s talk to components 3 and 5 of the culturally relevant classroom management framework.

Following our discussion, I shared examples of how culturally relevant classroom management may play out in classrooms. I shared specific strategies and we spent time thinking about the language we use in our classrooms; we discussed tone and approach (Brice-Heath) and we talked about praise ~ what research says about the praise and what to do instead. It seemed to me that the class went well in that students were talking about classroom management and its relationship to culturally relevant pedagogy and thinking of how to employ some of the thinking in their classrooms. And yet, it still seemed to me that the understandings were surface at best.

The next part of the class involved classroom teachers. Supervising teachers Ben and Zoe came to visit my class to discuss their thoughts and suggestions for effective classroom management. This is where we turned a corner in our learning. Ben and Zoe sat down and talked to the students.  They talked about what they felt was important, gave examples, and advice. Their talk was specific and embedded in daily practice. My role as course instructor was to listen. It was also my role to work with the teachers by making connections between what they shared and what I shared earlier in class, to make the connections explicit for the students. Let me give an example:

Ben talked about the role of the teacher in relation to classroom management. He shared the idea that relationships were central to good classroom management. We know that the literature on classroom management states the same. He talked about how important it was to be your authentic self; your true self because students know when you are being fake. Ben also talked about going to class being the best version of yourself.  Thinking of the role and responsibility of the teacher in relation to building relationships as good classroom management was shared.

Ben’s point made me think about the first component of the culturally relevant classroom management, “Recognition of one’s own ethnocentrism and biases” and when their was a pause in the sharing I joined the talk and made the connection for students. I explained that what Ben was sharing was closely connected to our culturally relevant frame in that being your best self includes being in touch with your biases. I shared that in order to be your authentic self, that you must really know yourself and so stepping back, reflecting and questioning your views, perspectives and biases is central to being authentic. Further to this, I connected Ben’s point of bringing your best self to class everyday with Pierson’s point that you may not like all of your students, but the students can never know.  This emphasizes the point of building relationships with all students and reinforces the power that we have as educators.

Zoe then shared how this was closely connected to building community and that community is not something that happens by itself. A student teacher then asked, “How exactly do we do this? We have talked about community but how do we do that?” So here I saw that the student teacher understand the concept but was now looking for ways to bring it to life, to somehow make sense of it in practice.  I appreciated how at this moment the intersection of researcher/course instructor, student-teacher, and experienced teacher came together in the most effective way.   Zoe began by providing suggestions clear and practical suggestions. These included:

1 Talking to the children, asking questions, and getting students to talk about themselves.

2. Reaching out to parents in the summer or soon into the new school year, asking questions and seeking information about the family and their child.

3. Scheduling the day for smooth transitions. For example, have the first 15 minutes in the morning be about settling in, having individualized tasks so those who come in late are not anxious, and parents who may want a quick word have your attention while students inside the classroom have a purpose/task that is accessible to them. Scheduling the day so their is ease in how children move about and learn is central to a safe, inclusive environment.

I then took the opportunity to reinforce the critical perspective:

4.  Where Zoe noted talking to students to learn about who they (component #2), I added the same message but through a different lens: Listen and listen carefully to students: their words, their values, and language. Take note of the broader community setting and what is going on outside your classroom. Put yourself in the role of learner and deeply investigate your surroundings in order to better understand who are your students.

I also made connections to previous classes and guest speakers:

5. Do you remember in our Assessment course where the school principal noted that “Sunshine calls” (a welcome call at the beginning of the year) were important for developing relationships, trust and knowing your learners? This is another reason why they are important. Sunshine calls not only set up communication patterns for reporting, they also help build classroom management.

The student teachers seemed to respond to this kind of teacher education design. Questions were asked, heads were nodding, there seemed to be a strong sense of listening and engagement in the class.

The partnership between teacher education course instructor and supervising classroom teachers can be powerful. In this scenario I can see:

  • voices shared
  • a demonstrated shared understanding of teaching and learning between what we read and what we do
  • explicit connections made between theory and practice
  • embedding the layer of critical theory to practice
  • collaboratively shaping best practice
  • big picture thinking while sharing the nuanced work of teachers
  • giving value to supervising classroom teachers
  • validating information at the university

The meeting place of theory and practice in teacher education is often hard to find. This particular relationship between myself and the teachers at the Dr. Eric Jackman Laboratory School seems to benefit all involved:  the student teachers gain rich and meaningful connected information in one central location, the course instructor listens and learns from the classroom teachers, and the classroom teachers gain insights to perspectives that connect to their work.

http://studysites.sagepub.com/eis2study/articles/Weinstein%20Tomlinson-Clarke%20and%20Curran.pdf

Jackman Lab School teachers Zoe and Ben sharing their practice in my teacher education class.
Jackman Lab School teachers Zoe and Ben sharing their practice in my teacher education class.

Reflections on My Teacher Education Program

I (Clare) am currently teaching a graduate course Current Issues in Teacher Education. The first assignment asks students to:

Write a reflection paper on your experiences in a professional program (teacher education, Teaching English as a Second Language ….). Provide a very brief description of the program. Some questions to consider are: What were the strengths/weaknesses of the program? How well did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher? What were the limitations of the program? Have your views of the program changed since graduation? How could the program have been improved? Did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher (or other position)? Do NOT respond to all of these questions. Select one or two and respond to them. In the fourth class of the course, you will work in small groups and share your paper with your fellow students.

Since all of the students in the course are teachers they have a good perspective on their program. Their assignments were so stellar I felt these would be of great value to share with other teacher educators. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing these papers. I learned much and I suspect you will too. I have changed the name of the university so that no school of education is identified.

I obtained my Bachelor of Education at XXX in 2012, a program I applied to because of its reputation in teacher education. My cohort was a new cohort, to the best of my knowledge, whereby sixty students met daily at a site in North YYY, rather than driving downtown to campus every day. The professors mostly came to this site, although we did go downtown once per week for other courses.

How well did the program prepare me to assume the duties of a teacher?

The XXX program consisted of several subject-specific courses and three practicums of one-month length. I will first discuss the effectiveness of the courses as preparation for teaching, then analyze each practice teaching experience.

Courses:

Although I only graduated from XXX four years ago, I do not hold a great memory of much course material, rather I hold a memory of how engaging the individual professors were. Similar to the article WHY TEACHER EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT, my assessment of the extent to which the courses prepared me for teaching is highly dependent on the individual course and the professor teaching it. Professors that relayed advice and shared knowledge in a manner that was relatable and relevant for my certification were most effective in helping me acquire the skills I needed. As I reflect, I realize that my memories and perceptions lie more with the professors than the course material itself. Professors such as AAA, BBB and CCC left me feeling content with the program, as I had a lot of priceless learnings from our time together.

The professors who were most effective in preparing me were the ones that presented scenarios that could be used in everyday classrooms. For example, BBB impressed me each week with different ways to engage students in mathematics, as did AAA for history. I have since used many of both their ideas quite successfully in my own classroom. In fact, I still refer back to my notes from my time with them, in search of useful ideas and ways in which I can improve my lessons. I hold them both in high regard because their ability to give me practical, subject-specific tools to use in the classroom helped not only to prepare me to teach, but continues to impact my teaching today.

Another individual professor that helped prepare me to teach was CCC. I highly enjoyed the Teacher Education Seminar course, because she was engaging, realistic, and down-to-earth. She told stories of her experiences as a principal, and how she dealt with challenging situations. I am confident I can speak on the behalf of our entire cohort, who immediately felt like we could relate to her and learn from her. She taught us very important practical lessons for the classroom; her anecdotal discussions served as eye-openers to some strategies on dealing with behavioural students. My colleagues’ appreciation for her was universal; she had a lot to share, and we knew that our time with her was valuable.

On the other hand, I recall professors that taught courses that I dreaded attending. One in particular I remember vividly. The main reason I feel that she was ineffective was that I could not use her strategies or relate to them. She seemed to have such a vast experience in the kindergarten/primary grades, so much so that all her ideas and resources were geared towards teachers who were attaining their primary/junior (K-6) certification. Because my group was junior/intermediate grade 4-10), we would listen and walk away knowing we could never use her strategies, as they were not appropriate for older grades. So, that particular course did nothing to prepare me for my upcoming career. As a result, when I began teaching grade 7 subject JJJ, I had no idea where to start. How do I engage my readers? How do I teach them how to write? All this knowledge I then learned from the famous Internet and from my peers. I walked away from that language course with minimal knowledge and confidence on how to teach language to intermediate students.

Practicums

I consider myself very lucky as I had wonderful supervisory teachers for two of my practicums. I will discuss the three experiences separately.

Practicum 1

In my very first practicum, I was paired with a grade 7 teacher in a Catholic school. I instantly noticed that although she was stern with the students, and demanded respect and good behaviour from them, she was also very well-liked. I realized that although these intermediate students need strict boundaries and structure, they also need to feel that they can relate to their teacher; it is such a fine balance. This particular practicum taught me about the teacher-student relationship, as well it prepared me to deal with the wide range of student abilities in one the classroom, as it was my first time working with students with learning disabilities and IEPs. My experience at this school taught me about the socioeconomics in the classroom, and that each and every student has a story, many heartbreaking. These learning experiences were priceless and definitely shaped my empathy for students and my knowledge that each student’s individual needs must be identified and met, which absolutely helped prepare me for the duties of a teacher.

Practicum 2

My second practicum was with an equally talented teacher with a lot to offer. She was highly respected in the school, and in fact, by the last week of my practicum, had been promoted to vice principal. She took teaching very seriously and strived to optimize her students’ learning. Although she did not have the bond with the students that my first supervisor did, she gave me endless, practical classroom advice that I apply to this day. For instance, I am a quick-thinker; I do not need time to process things, however that does not mean that students think the same way. It was her that brought to my attention that when I ask a question from the class, I need to wait to give all students the time to process the question. By opening up the doors for everyone to think, and I then optimize participation and opportunities for all students. This was a huge learning experience for me, because it made me realize that I was not being equitable by rushing and calling on the first student. She taught me other invaluable lessons such that boys tend to be more dominant than girls, and teachers tend to choose boys more often to respond to questions, so one must be conscious to balance the opportunities. Amongst other reasons, I believe that I am a more effective teacher because of my experience with her.

Overall, my experiences are consistent with The Limits of Socialization findings that my teaching was definitely influenced by my practice teaching supervisors, and I do hold them in special regard.

Practicum 3

My third practicum was one of my choice. I chose to return to the school of my first practicum as I was given the advice that to optimize job opportunities, it is best to get better acquainted by one principal, who could then influence the hiring process. My third practicum was in May, which was just prior to the dreaded EQAO testing (standardized math/literacy test). So for that month, I rotated between a grade 5/6 classroom and a grade 2/3 classroom. While the homeroom teachers taught the 5s and 2s respectively, I spent time with the 6s and 3s, helping them prepare for EQAOs. Yes, the preparation for EQAO defeats the purpose of the testing, but I had a job to fulfill.

My experience in the 2/3 classroom was quite eye-opening. Unlike my other practicums, where I witnessed the strengths of my supervisors and internalized their approaches, in this situation, I saw the weaknesses of the classroom teacher, but equally learned from this experience what I do NOT wish to emulate. This teacher spoke of students as ‘dumb’ and ‘clueless’; she labelled some as ‘lost causes’, and instead of offering them support and trying to learn how best to teach them according to their needs, she degraded them. I walked away each day thinking that she did not deserve her job, and that there were so many patient teachers looking for a job, that it is unfair that she should keep hers.

Similar to the other practicums, this experience also helped prepare me to be a teacher. I recall learning an invaluable lesson on test anxiety. While the grade 3 students were writing a test, I noticed one boy kept looking around the room; he seemed concerned with the speed that others were going and looked overwhelmed. So I went over to him, and I covered up every question on his paper except the one he was working on. I told him to read it carefully, and take his time. Each time he completed one question, I uncovered another, until we were done. Unlike all his other assessments, he performed phenomenally on this one. I did not give him any advantage; I did not read the questions or give him clues when he was right or wrong. I simply asked if he was ready to move on each time. When I told the classroom teacher about his success, she said he was “low” and that I would have to write on his paper that he achieved that mark with teacher support. My only support was recognizing his anxiety and helping him work through it. This was so upsetting to me that she could not see that he had a simple need that could be easily met. Suffice it to say that this experience in her classroom was invaluable to me, as I will never forget how she treated those wonderful young children and I vowed never to do the same.

How the program could be improved

There are only minor suggestions I would have to make the program more effective.

With respect to the course component of teacher education, I recommend that the university continue to have the student teachers evaluate their professors, so that the professors can reflect on this feedback and do their best to improve their practice. I do recognize though, that one cannot please everyone, but still feel it is a beneficial exercise.

As for the practicums, I suggest that the practicums should be longer in duration and/or more frequent, and that supervisory teachers be given some sort of duty release, so they could spend more time mentoring the student teachers. One of the challenges of my practicums involved the limited time the supervising teachers had to spend with me when the students were not present. This is also mentioned in The Limits of Socialization article: supervisory teachers are not given any reduction in workload or compensation for their role. I am a person who is full of questions, and there was so much I wanted to know, yet so little time! We were so busy during the day with teaching and lesson planning that there was no time for discussion. So, although my practice teaching experiences were invaluable, had the supervisory teachers been given some relief from duties, I would have benefitted from more one-on-one ‘pick your brain’ time together. I also think that the supervisory teachers should be carefully chosen to be exceptional teachers, to ensure an optimal experience.

Conclusion

Overall, the extent to which my program prepared me to assume the duties of a teacher rested greatly on the specific expertise and teaching styles of the individual professors and supervisory teachers, independent of the course material.

I must include that I was not the typical teacher education student, as this is not my first career. My experience and corporate training in preparation for teaching/training roles outside of education helped make the transition to teaching seamless, and definitely played a role in preparing me. However, I recognize that most young students do not have those experiences to call upon, and must rely solely on teacher education to prepare them.   So my evaluation of my teacher education program would probably vary drastically from that of a twenty year old.

I feel it is important to mention that the same aspects that I liked about my program would often be the subject of the complaints of others in my program, which leads me to conclude that teachers’ appreciation of any program stems from their own perceived needs as learners, and whether or not the program meets those individual needs. However, I must add that until reading about the Curry School of Education, I did not think a universally effective system could exist. Now, I find myself thinking that that article was either the best sales pitch I have ever read for a teaching university, or the Curry School truly has managed to achieve all that a program should embody!

 

 

 

Caring through Social Media

Recently, a friend of mine (Cathy) started blog site (using blogspot.com) for a colleague that is being treated for cancer.  It is called Art for Adrienne (pseudonym).   This is a use of social media I had not encountered until now.  As an invited participant, I am encouraged to contribute artifacts of anything in my everyday life that strikes me as artistic and/or meaningful:  photos, quotes, poetry (found or created) film clips, pod casts, youtube videos, snippets of conversations, photos from trips, art projects, family stories, ect.  I love to look at the posts.  They are a brilliant demonstration of insight, caring, beauty, humor, wit, meaning, and joy.  The variations are enormous.  Some posts are long, some complicated, some simply a thought or a word.

Occasionally our stricken colleague comments, but that is not expected.  We know she is weak and tired.  The purpose of the blog is to let her know she is on our minds.  Unlike flowers, the posts never wilt, and the “visits” are not taxing on her. She chooses when to go on the site, day or night.  Her few comments indicate she loves the site.  With permission, I am sharing some of the posts below:

Dear Adrienne, Greetings again from my beach in Nicaragua.  I’ve embarked on an art project I thought you might like.  Before I left, I was given candles that look like pebbles.  I brought them with me.  I have been photographing them at dawn and dusk.  I hope you like them.  Sam

candle experiement 6candle in hand 5candle in driftwood

 

Hi Adrienne, we have arrived in Corsica , France.  It’s beautiful here.  Thinking of you.  Jason

cave for Adelle

 

Dear Adrienne,

One of my friends that I met in Banff hosted a “Visioning Board Party” recently. 

The idea was to collage a collection of images that speak to what you vision for your future. Some people choose very literally, some people just choose images that attracted them without too much interpretation in the process and then they looked at the final product for meaning. I ripped out enough images to cover at least three big bristol board pages and so had much to select from when filling up just one. 

Here is what I created. What do you see in my vision?

Hugs, Nicky

big pic

Do you have a stricken or needy friend (with internet access) who may benefit from such a blog?  It costs nothing to set up, but may have very meaningful results.

Reflections on My Teacher Education Program

I (Clare) am currently teaching a graduate course Current Issues in Teacher Education. The first assignment asks students to:

Write a reflection paper on your experiences in a professional program (teacher education, Teaching English as a Second Language ….). Provide a very brief description of the program. Some questions to consider are: What were the strengths/weaknesses of the program? How well did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher? What were the limitations of the program? Have your views of the program changed since graduation? How could the program have been improved? Did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher (or other position)? Do NOT respond to all of these questions. Select one or two and respond to them. In the fourth class of the course, you will work in small groups and share your paper with your fellow students.

Since all of the students in the course are teachers they have a good perspective on their teacher education programs. Their assignments were so stellar I felt these would be of great value to share with other teacher educators. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing these papers. I learned much and I suspect you will too. I have changed the name of the university so that no school of education is identified.

Teacher Education Reflection Paper

 Reflecting on how I feel about teacher education… and the act of reflecting itself…

I think it’s funny (and perhaps fitting) that this assignment asks us to reflect on our teacher education experience when, as I reflect on it, the sheer number of reflections my classmates and I were required to do exasperated us to no end. But, as I reflect on my experience I also understand that I may have been learning more than I thought at the time… hopefully this is reflected in my reflection below…

Description of the Program:

I graduated with a B.Ed. from the Business and Technical Studies Senior cohort of the University XXXX in the spring of 2010. The program was approximately nine months in length and was structured with core classes relating to pedagogy and instructional methods occurring in a cohort of approximately 35 students, while individual subject classes in History and Business Studies were taken outside of the cohort. In addition to the classroom instruction, I participated in two month-long practicum at YYY Collegiate and ZZZ Collegiate in the fall and spring terms as well as a month-long internship in May which I completed at the educational NGO Northern Youth Abroad in Ottawa. Because Business Studies was one of my two subject areas (along with History) I was automatically placed in the Business and Vocational Studies cohort. This cohort was unique from other cohorts at XXX in that all of the students had come from previous careers and the average age of the class was probably in the late 30s to early 40s. There was a mix of academic levels in the cohort –approximately three quarters of the class had university degrees some students had completed MBAs or other graduate degrees, while others had college or high school degrees. For some this was the first time they had been in an academic setting for over 20 years.

Strengths of the Program:

Based on my experience I found a key strength of XXX teacher education program to be its cohort structure. Although the XXX behemoth seemed (and continues to seem!) overwhelming, cold and distinctly lacking in community, the small size and unique make-up of the cohort allowed us to build a community of trust and openness with incredible speed. Considering the divergent ages, backgrounds and philosophies in our group this was important; our cohort had a lot to learn and in some ways even more to “un learn,” and we had a lot of personal and professional concerns that we could help and support each other with and relate to. Another of the program’s strengths was the quality of my teacher educator in the History subject area – she was a fabulous teacher who was very demanding and rigorous. She modelled numerous active learning strategies over the course of the year and worked hard to ensure that while we were learning we were also building practical tools to for later use. For example, our summative project involved using “backward design” and developing a unit with completed lesson plans for a secondary school History course; at the end of the project these were pooled and shared with the rest of the class to ensure that we would have a drawer full of unit and lesson options for a variety of classes. She was also an “assessment guru” – I think I would never have truly grasped the concepts of formative and summative assessment without her.

Weaknesses and Limitations of the Program:

What I find interesting are the ways in which my perception of the teacher education program at XXX have changed and evolved over the past five years. This is especially true when I reflect on the weaknesses of the program. And, without sounding too pessimistic or critical, there were many. At the time I think my biggest critique would have been that although our cohort consisted of adults who were entering teaching as a second (or sometimes third) career we were never treated as adult students, but rather as students who also happened to be adults. Although in class we learned about Freire’s “banking” theory of education and we were warned of the pitfalls of traditional transmission models of teaching, my classmates and I really felt like our previous experiences were not valued and we were being “worked on” rather than “worked with.” It seemed contradictory and problematic to me at the time that while we were constantly being taught that students learned in a multitude of different ways we were also implicitly and explicitly reminded that there was only one proper way to teach. This “proper way” is what Mary Kennedy calls the “teacher educator collective vision,” or TE. Like Kennedy notes I really did feel like our teacher educator was trying to proselytise us rather than impart knowledge and help us construct our own idea of what constitutes teaching and learning. In hindsight, I think I was troubled with the failure of the teacher education program to address needs outside of TE, particularly the notions of sustainability and competing ideas. There seemed to be few honest discussions around what would be possible for us to accomplish in a sustainable way in our first years of teaching, as well as the fact that with multiple competing demands and ideals there could be other “truths” other than the one proposed by TE and we would not be able to prioritize every good idea or initiative simultaneously.

However, in hindsight I also realize just how difficult it must have been to teach our cohort. A large number of students, if not the majority – probably myself included – had very traditional views of teaching and were initially deeply skeptical of many of the concepts and philosophies introduced. I can remember our arguments and protests with the teacher:

“What do you mean that there are no marks taken away for late work?

“How are students going to learn if don’t at least give them some content to work with?”

“These ideas sound nice in a classroom but these students have to be prepared for the expectations of the real world.”

As I reflect back I realize just how much we had to unlearn… and how much we did NOT unlearn over the course of the year. I think this is largely in part due to the disjointed nature of the program. By disjointed I do not mean academically disjointed; in fact, I feel like the classes fit together and complemented each other and were well organized. Rather by disjointed I mean the large gap between theory and practice, which was exemplified and deepened by the isolation of the classroom instruction and the teaching placement elements of the program. At the time, I felt isolated and “thrown in the deep end” a bit during my first placement and to be honest I did what most people do in an emergency or moment of crisis – I forgot everything. I lost my head. I just aimed for survival, not “personal growth” or “social justice” or developing my skills or applying what I learned in class… I just wanted to get out of there in one piece! After our first placement my classmates and I came back and had the world’s biggest debriefing session ever. We vented and laughed and shared funny, sad, happy, uplifting, terrifying, embarrassing stories and came together as a group. We reflected as well, we reflected a lot, but when I think back on this experience now it seems to me that all of this discussion and group therapy and reflecting was shallow and not inquiry-driven. It was definitely good for our mental health and social emotional well-being, but I don’t think we learned through our experiences. Our reflections were linked to our feelings rather than the concepts and theories we had learned months before. If, as we learned this week, that experience on its own is not learning and that inquiry needs to be added to experience for true understanding and learning to happen, then clearly a glaring weakness of the OISE program is that the “chunks” of classroom learning and placement are too big and distant from each other. There was not time to reflect on the theories we learned in the classroom or for us to assess their appropriateness. To put it another way, the episteme and phronisis did not interact to create new knowledge and understanding.

This weakness was compounded by another key problem – both of the associate teachers that I taught with during my placements did not share the same philosophy as OISE (or the TE as Kennedy calls it). While both of my associate teachers were very pleasant and open to me experimenting with different techniques in the classroom, they both had very traditional conceptualizations of teaching and were critical of OISE and much of its approach to teaching and pedagogy. In practice this meant that I was trying to navigate a world of competing philosophies and understandings to map and guide my teaching practice, which at the time I found confusing and disorientating. In all honestly, while I tried to test out some of the more concrete activities and skills I learned at OISE for the most part I deferred to the teaching philosophies and approaches of my associate teachers. I felt that I was not teaching effectively, I felt that I was “failing” and I felt conflicted, but there was not an opportunity to really discuss this with other classmates or my teacher educators. Although both of my placement schools included other students from OISE they were not in my department or from my cohort, and although my content teachers visited me briefly in each term they were both very busy and did not manage to give me much feedback (they were focused primarily on students that were experiencing more trouble in their placements).Thus, the chasm between my placement school and the OISE infrastructure seemed large indeed, which meant that my teacher experience did not benefit as much as it could have from many of theories and approaches discussed in class, and vice versa.

Interestingly, I first thought a weakness of the program was that we didn’t spend enough time in the classroom – I conceptualized experience as learning. I thought that if I had of had better associate teachers and more time I would have learned more. Now, after considering some of the things I have read and discussed in the class I am realizing that this is not necessarily true. Experience is not (necessarily) learning – but learning should be centred in experience.

Epilogue

In closing, upon reflection it seems that my view of reflecting and how I view the act of reflection has evolved. I think that if you understand why you are reflecting (i.e. the rationale for undertaking in the act of reflection), and if it is timely and linked to both your actions and for better understanding the implicit or explicit assumptions behind those actions, it can be effective. When you can understand how the act of reflecting can lead to real change and improvement for your teaching and the learning of students, then it can be effective and truly “owned.” However, when you are forced to do 7 reflections a month for reasons that are not clear to you, and when your own teacher educator does not seem to reflect on their practice the importance of the activity might not seem evident. Looking back, in some ways I’m more positive and more negative about my teacher education experience.

On the one hand I have a much better understanding of why we were doing the things we did – reflections, learning about learning theory rather than focusing on skills and a “bag of tricks, ” etc. But on the other hand I am more negative because I see even more clearly the missed opportunities for linking theory and practice and joining tacit, experiential knowledge with the theories and ideas we learned in the classroom; I have a deeper understanding of why I felt unsatisfied and disappointed by my teacher education experience. I guess my takeaway is that I need to continue to reflect on how I learn and how this continues to affect my learning and teaching.

Secret Teacher

The Guardian has an ongoing column titled Secret Teacher. It is a series of blogs by anonymous teacher-insiders revealing what really goes on in schools. This week the anonymous contributor wrote a short yet powerful piece on returning to the classroom after years in administration and remembering how tough  teaching is. An excerpt from the essay on the contributor’s move from admin back into the classroom:

I was certain that my move would buy me more time; no more endless piles of admin, no more mind-numbing meetings until 7pm, no more grim governors’ reports to write, no more dour disciplinary panels to attend. But I had forgotten that the windows in the ivory tower are obscured by pot plants so tall that you can’t see the stressed faces of the teachers as they race past. If you do chance to look up from your paperwork, your rose-tinted glasses made their lives look quite romantic. Oh, how the students adored them! How much fun they had together in their teams! I remembered those days …

I had forgotten that my multitudinous leadership tasks were generously accommodated by my timetable. Yes, I had a lot to do, but I was given a lot of time to do it. How did I forget that it’s impossible to plan adequate lessons in five non-contact periods a week? How did I forget that as I reluctantly sat in meetings, angry that I had failed to see any daylight for the majority of winter, my main-scale colleagues were marking and planning in their classrooms or at their dining tables? How did I think that I had it harder than them?

To read this essay or others from the Secret Teacher series, click here: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/oct/17/secret-teacher-school-leaders-quickly-forget-how-tough-teaching-is

Congratulations to all the participants in the Toronto marathon

Competitive athletes work so hard. I (Clare) have much admiration for them.

Congratulations to my brother Tony for an amazing marathon. His time was 3:09.53. An incredible time. And he came 10th in his age group.
Weather was ghastly for the fans – it was -3 at the start of the race. You can see that I am all bundled up!

IMG_0785IMG_0783IMG_0786