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.
When deciding where to apply for my teacher education program I only knew two things; I wanted to fix what I thought was wrong with schools and I wanted a concurrent program. I had awful and awesome experiences in both elementary and secondary school and could not fully explain why, but I wanted to. I also knew that my timid nature would benefit from the extra practicum hours and practice present in a concurrent program. This narrowed my view to XXX University, YYY University, and ZZZ University. Amazingly, I had my pick so I turned to my teacher friends to help me make my decision. It honestly came down to a conversation I had with a friend in which she said, “If you want to learn the theories that drive education go to YYY and if you want to learn how to be a teacher, go to ZZZ.” On this conversation alone I decided on YYY because my interest was in educational reform and my mind was far from thinking about the necessity of knowing how to be a teacher.
The program was a one year teacher’s ed program taken part time concurrently with my undergrad program for 3 years. My first year of undergrad and one other year of my choice was to be entirely devoted to undergraduate studies. There were two mandatory courses for all teacher candidates in the first year of the program, Inquiries into Schooling and Inquiries into Learning. There was also a panel specific course. Being in the secondary panel I was required to take The Adolescent and The Teacher, a psychology course about child development from birth to adolescence. Each year of the teaching program there was a year long practicum. The first year is a community education placement that focuses on an education initiative in a community. As an example, in my first year, I collected children from three different elementary schools in the queen west area of Toronto, took them to a bookstore and ran an afterschool literacy program that included reading buddy time between the younger and older students. This year is ended by a one week observation block in a school. The following two years are in school placements that are one day a week for the university’s academic calendar and followed by one month practical block after exams are finished. With the practicums there is a non-credit, once a month class that is aimed at unpacking the experiences in the practicums and gives strategies to help student teachers be successful. They were either held on campus, at the practicum schools, or at a school nearby (I had one of each of these arrangements).
The strengths of the program rest on the amount of time you spend in schools. I found I was very comfortable with school routines and the students by the time I was asked to take over the class in May. It would have been helpful to start the year off with an observation block so student teachers get to know the students and routines very quickly rather than the month or longer that it takes only going once a week. Once you get to know those routines and the students though, the practicum becomes part of your regular week and that is very helpful. It is still one of the better practicum programs in my opinion. There was one professor I had as well who was truly inspiring and a real mentor to me. She truly embodied a constructivist approach as well as knowing her students as a pedagogical tool. She saw how even in my first year of teacher’s college I was highly critical of our education system and showed me how to connect my personal experiences to theories of reform that already existed in education. Her strengths in this area, however, exposed that this was a weakness in the program overall.
Though I had one amazing professor who profoundly affected me as a learner and educator, I cannot say the same for any of my other professors. This leads me into one of the three biggest weaknesses of YYY’s Education program. Through my time in the concurrent system I was the student of 12 different teacher educators. Many of these professors fell into two types. There were many professors who were so well versed in the research and theories of education that they could not make the material accessible to us. Either from a lack of practical or phronetic experience in the classroom, or from the material being too advanced too early, the professors did not have an impact on us. The difficult theoretical readings paired with what seemed to be easy and meaningless reflective papers meant that the courses did not seem appropriate or purposeful. The other problematic teaching style was that of the teacher model. This is where the professor assumes the role of elementary or secondary teacher and treats the student teachers as children and rarely as professionals. The purpose is explicit – to model classroom strategies- but the tone is condescending. These courses also had challenging theoretical readings but they were rarely discussed in class and so the learning from them was left to the individual learning and their ability to access that learning on their own.
Struggling with these professors and the material further highlights another weakness in the program: a lack of a unifying goal. I went into teachers college already knowing that there was a distinct difficulty in education of a defined goal of public education. Before entering university I understood that there was problem with our education system that promoted or at least maintained class distinctions. I could see that the end goal of school varied depending on which economic class the child belonged to (not in theory of course, but in practice). As a new student teacher it only took one or two get-to-know you activities in my classes to understand that we all had different ideas on what the end goal of school should be. Is it to maintain social order, prepare students for jobs, create independent and creative thinkers? It was plain to see that we all had different ideas about what we were really learning to do. What wasn’t plain to see was what the university thought the end goal of public education should be. There was no conversations around it, there were no chances for us to explore our own ideas and have them challenged. There were just professors, with their own ideas, teaching conflicting ideas to young student teachers that didn’t have enough concrete experience with which to ground the multiple theories in. The result was disjointed classes that all used the same philosophers and experts in education to argue different pedagogical approaches to subjects and students. The two different types of professors further show that they didn’t even agree on the end goal of our university experience; one type embodying the academic theory based pedagogical approach, and the other, a concrete and practitioner based approach. Though I think a combination of some sort could be the most beneficial for student teachers, it needs to be far more intentional and clear so that student teachers have a better sense of what they are supposed to be learning. The distinction between the two types of professors was so obvious and opposing that on several occasions I heard other classes and unnamed professors spoken ill of. Only upon later reflection have I realized how this problem I witnessed in my elementary and secondary education was also present in my teacher’s education program.
The final weakness of the YYY program that I will explore, and have already hinted at, is the idea that we had very little control over our own learning. The very thing that drove me to become an educator, what I am the most passionate to learn about, has rarely been addressed. The mandatory courses we were forced to take were problematic in that they were too general, the material was complex, and we didn’t have enough experience to understand the theories. The elective courses were much more specific but often did not take into account the realities of public education (Ie. a technology in education class that will be out of date by the time the school I’m teaching in sees half the technology we were using). Furthermore, there wasn’t an elective course that had anything to do with what I wanted to learn about. There was only one opportunity, my first year of the teacher’s program and my second year in my undergrad where I got to explore a topic that was a key factor in my decision to become a teacher. In that year, our observation and community placement year, we were assigned a community mapping project in which we also had to research and devise a thesis on how education in that community was affected by a particular factor outside the actual school. I mapped my rural hometown and wrote about how the class divide in the community leads to a class divide in the school that is not addressed and causes many of the problems I witnessed when growing up there. I was passionate about the topic, the professor helped my find academic papers that addressed the issues I was writing on, and we talked about our projects in class as we developed them. I learned more in that project than I did in the entirety of my other classes put together because I was in control, I knew the purpose, I was connected to the content with experience and interest, and I was supported in that. In most of my other courses I felt like my voice and opinions were dismissed or there was no space for my thinking. The reflections we did were not enough for me as I am sure they were not enough for many of my peers. I had already done so much reflecting which is what led me to choose teaching as my profession, I wanted more meaningful learning experiences that addressed my individuality as a student teacher.
Though my experience was largely negative, the one professor I had, and the one project that was meaningful had a huge impact on my career as a teacher. It validated my personal perspective on education and when I presented my project (early because I was so interested I finished it months in advance) my professor told me that I should do my masters one day and further explore that topic. I had never considered myself a candidate for anything beyond university (being the first in my family to attend a university) but I ended up pursuing that path based on her acknowledgement of my academic skill and the hope that I could further study the topics that I was interested in.
Ultimately, I feel teacher’s education programs have the reputation that they deserve but that it embodies something that is a much larger problem. In my personal opinion, education is so desperately in need of radical reform to deal with the systematic and institutional problems that studying and reforming on aspects of it, and that includes teacher education programs will only go so far. Until we really take a look at the system as a whole and create a cohesive goal only minor gains will be made.