One year into his teaching career, a recent graduate reflects on the value – and limitations – of his BEd program.
It’s the spring of 2013 and I’m sitting down with my supervisor in my co-operating teacher’s office. On the last day of my first field experience, I’m incredibly anxious to receive my evaluation. My supervisor starts with something like, “How do you think you’ve done this week?” I begin by explaining how professionalism is one of my core values but she immediately cuts me off. “And that’s the key: professionalism. And you haven’t acted very professional thus far.” Due to a misunderstanding on my part (more on that later), I was absent from first period and had not notified the school. In an instant, all my accomplishments from my placement are disregarded and reduced to this single incident.
I believe my supervisor’s reaction is a fair example of how many, not necessarily most, student teachers are treated during their teacher training program. While my perspective is that of only one person, I believe it is valuable to share as it can be very difficult to obtain a forthright account of student-teacher placements. After five years in the education department, and a year as a classroom teacher, my assessment of teacher preparation programs is that there are a number of areas that may be improved in the course work and practicum components.
A course on how to teach a course
A number of teachers will proclaim that the classes in teacher training programs are useless. In truth, like any class at any level of education, you get what you put in; if you have a genuine interest in the subject and bring passion to your projects, then you will learn much from the course. However, even the most riveting topics may seem a waste of time if the course format is the traditional lecture/note-taking session. It is unfortunate that professors are choosing to transmit content in this way, when they should be acting as models for the latest, and most effective, practices in teaching. Unfortunately, this is still the case, in part or whole, for many of the undergraduate courses in education departments.
For instance, one of my first methods courses was on Canadian history. This was a course offered by the Education Department and the instructor was a professor of Education. As such, one might expect a model for high quality social sciences teaching. This was not the case; the professor literally read slides to the class while we took notes. That’s all it was: no skill building, no pedagogical practice, just learn this stuff and repeat it back on a test. Since I could read on my laptop in 30 minutes what the instructor covered in 60, and since the syllabus specified that attendance was not marked, I simply stopped attending, coming only for the three required exams.
Of course, actions have consequences, and I was prepared to face them. The professor asked to meet with me regarding my attendance and he explained to me how, as a teacher, I’ll often have to do things I don’t like and attend meetings which I would rather not attend. I’m not sure that this was meant to encourage me to go into the teaching profession.
Why can’t we be constructivists?
To my professor, I posed the question, “May I speak to something constructive? What if, in future years, the course would have more class discussions, team projects, or interactive segments?” The response was that students would probably just fool around or have side conversations during any non-lecture time. Of course, this is precisely what our professors of education must coach us on: how we may engage our students in a fun and interactive way, while holding their attention and keeping them on task. It is unfortunate that the professor did not feel comfortable modeling these strategies with the next generation of teachers.
Is it fair to take my experience from a single class and generalize it across all education courses? Of course not. However, the experience made me think of three takeaways. I would hope that, even if viewed in a vacuum, the recommendations seem reasonable and proactive as a way of enhancing teacher preparation:
- Education professors should embrace pedagogical practices grounded in the research of their peers.
- Professors should be open to feedback from their students and allow them to have more control over their course (in keeping with constructivist frameworks).
- Teacher training courses should be challenging and used to develop pedagogical skills.
The fly in the ointment
A field experience should be the best part of every teacher training program; it’s a chance to be in the classroom and practice doing the job that you’ve been training for. I remember being incredibly excited for my first placement; every morning I would get up early, choose a stellar tie, and have breakfast at the café near my host school. It was a cool experience because all the science teachers were doing their practicum at the same time, at the same school. This meant we could go out for lunch together and talk about our experiences.
While the first placement is meant to be strictly observation, my co-operating teacher (CT) let me teach a couple of lessons. At this point, I was learning super basic teacher stuff (wait time after asking a question, choosing high-quality photos for lessons, etc.). I felt quite accomplished by the end of the week.
On the last day, the schedule worked out that I did not have a class to observe. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to get some planning done as I had volunteered to teach another lesson that day. At this point in my training, it never even occurred to me that I should be in the school even if I didn’t have a class; I thought nothing of taking time to plan my lesson from home.
I arrived at school for second period and went to my CT’s class. She asked me where I had been during first period. From her tone, I knew that something was wrong. I offered the truth: that I was planning today’s lesson from home. She scolded me and I was a bit down for the rest of the day – particularly because my supervisor would be there that afternoon for my evaluation.
Unfortunately, my lesson didn’t count in my evaluation as this was an observation placement. Essentially, the entire meeting for my evaluation was criticism of the non-constructive variety. Without hyperbole, not a single positive aspect of my field experience was mentioned. Nevertheless, I was moving on to the next practicum.
Why was my placement considered a success rather than a failure? After comparing notes with my colleagues, it became apparent to me that the evaluation was scored arbitrarily. The numbers didn’t seem to match what was said in the meeting nor the comments written in the report; this seemed to be the case with my colleagues’ evaluations as well.
Professors… should be acting as models for the latest, and most effective, practices in teaching.
A field experience is extremely challenging to judge because it is so personal to the student teacher. It is even more complicated to judge the student-teaching system as a whole because each supervisor and CT are as unique as their own personality. I have had wonderful supervisors and CTs, but I chose the story of my first placement to showcase the incredible power that the supervisor has in the system. Unlike in coursework, where a student is judged on strict criteria, my university allows supervisors and CTs near-absolute discretion to pass or fail a student teacher. I was fortunate that my supervisor decided on a pass. However, I know many of my former colleagues were not so fortunate. In one incident, a supervisor wanted the student teacher to pass their practicum but the CT refused.
Why is the evaluation of the student teacher so reliant on the discretion of the supervisor and CT? As a current teacher, I wouldn’t be able to use my discretion to decide whether a student passes a class or not; I would be obliged to consider that student’s marks and the criteria for a pass.
Having said this, the expectations held by the CTs are not their fault because no one has trained them how to be CTs. Program coordinators may assume that, because CTs are teachers, they do not need any training to train others. Unfortunately, all they are provided with is a piece of paper with what to look for in a good student teacher. This means that there are often hidden expectations which may not come to light until your CT has already written your evaluation. Sometimes, those expectations are quite unreasonable. For instance, the experience of a number of my colleagues has been that, by the final placement, some CTs consider that a student teacher’s role as a learner is essentially over. Instead, they expect that the student teacher is there to show what they can do as an independent teacher; requests for guidance or advice may be met with scorn or the idea that, if you have to ask, maybe you’re not ready to be a teacher.
Lessons from Year One
On my first day as a full-time teacher in a small, rural high school, I stood in front of about 20 twelve-year-olds, ready to introduce myself as their Math and Science teacher. I thought about what I’d learned during four years of preparation, and there was no doubt in my mind that the most important place to start was by building a relationship with my students. We did talk a bit about what we would learn that year and classroom expectations. Yet most of the time was spent discussing what students did over the summer, what books they read, what video games they played. As I was new to the school, I let them ask questions about me on a personal level (with discretion).
As the weeks and months went on, I realized that I was fairly competent with the soft skills required of teaching: relationship building, classroom management, lesson planning, etc. The greatest learning curve seemed to be keeping up with the course itself, and those nitty-gritty things like pacing a chapter, the best way to engage students in certain topics, the amount of time explaining concepts compared to the time when students are working independently or in teams.
There were several instances in the Math and Science courses where I felt that I was learning the material the day before I was meant to teach it. This was not because the subjects were overly complicated; they were simply facets which I had not explored when I was in secondary school myself. This made lesson planning, particularly, more challenging and stressful at times.
Moreover, at university, it was understood that the provincial curriculum documents were the bible for teachers. In fact, the end-of-year exam tends to line up more with the textbooks, and workbooks, which are chosen by the school board. In many ways, this makes sense; students’ class work should prepare them for what to expect on the exam. For instance, the curriculum may say that a student must be able to construct a histogram by the end of Grade 8, but it is actually evaluated at the end of Grade 7; the only way to know this is if a teacher is familiar with the workbook being used for that course. This may be a critical piece missing from teacher training programs: to provide future teachers with the opportunity to work with authentic classroom tools that their students are expected to use. This is a practice which should extend beyond field placements.
A new direction for teacher induction
Having been a full-time teacher for a year, I am a big fan of the Western Quebec School Board (WQSB)’s Teacher Induction Program (TIP). The program is provided to all teachers who are new to the school board, regardless of how many years of experience each teacher comes with. This is a great opportunity for teachers of varying levels of experience to learn from each other while reinforcing the mantra that teachers are lifelong learners.
Part of what makes this program worthwhile for me is that I am able to develop professional skills of my choosing with the aid of a mentor-coach who helps me synthesize SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely). In addition, I don’t have to worry about being a burden on my mentor-coach, because they are given additional compensation for their time.
Drawing on the experience from my placements and from my school board’s TIP:
- Student teachers should be able to set their own goals and define what success will look like for themselves. This will allow student-teachers to target what they personally believe will make them better as professionals and feel that their training is valuable.
- Universities must prioritize the student aspect of the student-teacher role by emphasizing growth over achievement. By doing this, student-teachers won’t be afraid to ask questions and seek support from others. As a result, they will emerge from a much richer training experience and continue their profession as life-long learners.
- Provide training to CTs so that they may better support their student teachers, and provide compensation to CTs in consideration of their efforts. This would be a fundamental shift in how people view teacher training; if the training is important it is worth an investment of quality trainers. Teaching teachers is not the same as teaching children; by giving CTs training, their best practices are more readily passed down to the student teacher. As well, paying them would reinforce the premise that what they are doing is important and not simply an extra task tacked on to their existing job.
Every future teacher deserves a meaningful preparation program – one that allows those who are new to the profession to feel empowered and ready to lead a classroom of students on an adventure of discovery. Ultimately, as research-focused institutions, universities are well aware of what the best practices in education are. Now, the key is to implement those best practices in creating the teachers of the future.
First published in Education Canada, September 2018