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.
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