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.
In June 2011, I graduated from a 2 year Teacher Education Program at the YYY University. Freshly hired by two boards, I felt both the nervous anticipation of one traversing into uncharted waters and the confidence of one for whom the world had suddenly opened. I believed I was entirely prepared. In many ways, I was as prepared as possible after two years of training; there will always be aspects of my chosen profession that can only be learned through experience (for who could ever predict all the potential dilemmas and baffling questions raised by students, colleagues, or parents over a lifetime of teaching?). As a future teacher-educator, I can reflect in retrospect on some programming changes that may have augmented the skills and knowledge I carried with me into my first year of teaching.
Designed to Meet Current Needs
I have many accolades for my two-year teacher education program. The XXX Program was well-designed, with a clear vision to produce teachers who were reflective practitioners. To accomplish this, it had a well-balanced, thoughtful curriculum which seemed to have an equal basis in academic readings, instruction in pedagogy and learning development, courses in Ontario Curriculum subject areas, and four practice teaching blocks. Professors treated student teachers with respect and showed genuine interest for our ideas and experiences. They also drew on their own examples from time in the classroom and did not seem removed from current issues in education.
Over and above our regular courses, we could attend workshops which addressed other current educational needs, such as how to teach to English Language Learners; community-building through TRIBES; and technology in-services. The program also offered the opportunity of conducting our own Master’s Research Project, without which I would not have had the confidence to consider pursuing further graduate studies.
In addition to courses in the various subject areas of the Ontario Curriculum, the XXX Program also had a phenomenal Special Education and Adaptive Instruction course that taught me concepts and strategies I use on a daily basis in my own classroom. Having talked with many colleagues who did not have any special education training in their pre-service training, I feel this was a major boon to the XXX Program. Every teacher will encounter students who learn in different ways and will need to know how to accommodate or modify as needed.
While I have no criticisms of this course, it could easily be extended to two years, to incorporate a greater understanding of the multitude of needs teachers have to support in the classroom. A longer course may also have allowed for more detailed instruction in Individual Education Plans, which all teachers will need to write and should receive training to do so (though many of my classmates and I accomplished this by taking a Special Education Part 1 Additional Qualification offered to us at the end of the program). Then as now, I was proud to be a part of a program that saw special education as an integral part of a pre-service program design. As I return to University YYY in pursuit of my doctorate, I feel discouraged to see no courses available in this important field.
Multiple Placement Opportunities
The XXX Program offered four placements to teacher candidates, which allowed me to observe and practice my burgeoning teaching skills in different settings. Perhaps naively, I hoped I would see the innovative strategies, clear assessment criteria, and classroom community-building I was reading about play out in front of me, but that was not always the case. I was very fortunate that my first Associate Teacher (AT) was exemplary. Not only was she the only AT to teach me how to do assessments, I will never forget watching her teach a lesson that did not go as expected. She turned to me and said, “ZZZ, that’s what happens when a lesson fails. It happens to everyone and it will happen to you. Sometimes, a lesson just won’t work, no matter how much you’ve prepared. Don’t take it personally; just plan it a different way tomorrow.” Of all my practicum experiences, that day had the greatest impact on me. Had she not uttered those words, I might have been afraid to plan creative lessons and to try new approaches; and any failure may have felt like a reflection on my ability. My other practice teaching blocks did not leave the same impression on me; yet I made the most of each and asked to teach up to one-hundred percent of the time, so I could try, and fail, and reflect, and try again, open to as much or as little input as my ATs were willing to give me.
Solely by chance, I was matched with one particular teacher who instilled in me such a significant lesson. While I recognize the ethical murkiness of having a mechanism for screening possible ATs, it is critical that student teachers have the chance to observe and participate in classrooms where teachers are masters of their craft. Every teacher candidate should have the opportunity to learn from an exemplary mentor (and hopefully four). Potential ATs should be screened and offered professional development in being an effective mentor (for example, debriefing with the candidate about their lesson designs and the thought process behind each pedagogical choice, of which the student teacher may be unaware). These powerful examples should show teacher candidates not only best practices but help them to envision the potential of teaching, rather than a reiteration of the rote learning they may have experienced as students going through the system. How can any new teacher feel confident to incorporate more current pedagogical concepts into their classroom without the chance to observe in practice? I consider myself lucky that I had one such placement.
An Enhanced Education
Like most things in life, the XXX Program was what one made of it. For a tenacious person like me, it met my needs beautifully. When I encountered an assignment I felt would be too similar to another, I asked the instructor if I could do it a different way (I even wrote a play exploring educational issues for a course, rather than write another reflection). When I was determined to have a placement in a classroom for children with Autism, I found the classroom and set up the placement myself, politely self-advocating with the placement coordinator. Later, I requested and received an intermediate placement, even though I was primary-junior, because one future goal was to acquire an additional qualification in that level. Throughout my time in the program, I ensured I had opportunities that were in line with my professional goals. Many of my classmates did not know they could be proactive, and went with the flow instead. They often grumbled about assignments they did not like or placements that were not what they wanted.
I wonder whether their experience would have been improved if we had had a pro-seminar course, similar to the one in the PhD program. Such a course could walk student teachers through the program itself, but it could also help students to identify their educational goals and be assertive in taking ownership for their learning; and it could shed light on the behind-the-scenes of teaching that pre-service programs do not have time to teach, such as how to manage difficult conversations with parents, principals, and colleagues. The kids are easy; for me, dealing with the politics of other adults is definitely the hardest part of teaching.
An Emphasis on Personal & Teacher Identities
Unlike other programs, the XXX Program did not gloss over the many realities of being a teacher. My classmates and I had courses where we created our resumes and practiced interview skills; we learned about educational law and the higher standard to which teachers are held (causing us all, no doubt, to secure our Facebook settings). My instructors emphasized work-life balance, and at the time, I believed I could imagine the many long hours and the sheer emotional and physical exhaustion I would later experience. Little did I know then the extent of it; two years ago I decided to adopt my dear cat Gerrie, to help me have something besides my students’ troubles to focus on when I got home! Without those words of encouragement (and reality) from my XX teacher-educators, I may have felt I was not cut out to be a teacher, on one of those difficult days (and thank goodness for Gerrie!).
For me, the XXX Program instilled in me a mindset. One of the most invaluable concepts taught was the importance of developing a teacher identity. By the end of the program, I came to envision myself as a compassionate and reflective practitioner, who believed that all students could succeed if given the chance and supports needed. As an educator today, this identity functions as my North Star, informing all my choices and interactions, to the best of my ability.
All of our courses taught the importance of community and challenged us to collaborate and share insights and strategies. My preference before the XXX Program was to work alone; today, collaboration is the key to my success with students, as I draw on the knowledge of other teachers, parents, and a multi-disciplinary team of psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and social workers, to name a few. I spend hours every week talking with my classroom partner, an incredible child and youth worker, about what worked, what failed to work, what we observed and learned about each student, and what steps to take next for each child going forward. I cannot imagine teaching any other way.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Teacher education programs provide the compass for beginning teachers. While I am satisfied with all that I learned in the XXX Program, I also recognize it is impossible to equip beginning teachers with every tool they will ever need for their journey. Teachers continually adapt to the ebb and flow as children come and go, new policies replace old, curriculum evolves, technology changes, and so on. So too, teacher education needs to reflect the current buzzwords and the shifting seas of the classroom. While teacher education programs are obliged to teach standard subjects, they also should to be flexible enough to address individual needs; teacher candidates may expect different levels of support to map out their professional goals. At present, more attention must be given to special education in teacher education, as general education teachers take on more responsibilities for exceptional students every day and often report feeling unprepared in my discussions with them. Practicum classrooms must be carefully selected to showcase best practices, in order to expose the teacher candidate to new horizons, leaving the bleak landscape of skill and drill classrooms behind them. Perhaps most importantly, teacher educators must allow students to explore and reconceptualise what it means to be a teacher and the qualities they wish to bring to this profession. Without these elements in the XXX Program, I would not have been ready to venture off into those uncharted waters in June 2011.