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.

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