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