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.
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.