The multitude of change working its way through Wales’ education system is daunting for even the most experienced teacher – so imagine what negotiating curriculum reform will be like for new entrants to the profession. Here, Elaine Sharpling encourages open and honest conversation between educators at all levels to ready everyone for the challenges that lie ahead…
Many years ago, I eagerly began my training as a State Registered Nurse at the now demolished Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham.
Thinking back, the training mirrored many aspects of the journey of a student-teacher with periods of time spent in the School of Nursing, housed in the somewhat daunting part of the hospital that had been the former workhouse, followed by a number of experiences on different wards.
There were no mentors as such, or certainly no formal understanding of that role, but there was one very visible sign that I was a new and inexperienced nurse who might not know the answers. This sign took the place of a single, wide red stripe on our caps. Other more experienced students had one, two or three dark blue stripes reflecting their levels of study.
Colleagues, patients and visitors called us ‘red stripes’ and knew that our skills were in the early stages of development. I remember very clearly being able to take temperatures, make beds with pristine hospital corners but being completely daunted by the request to take someone’s blood-pressure!
Of course, over a period of time my knowledge and skills became more developed and I was able to care for the patient in a holistic way that looked to the person and beyond the required medical techniques. This development was always informed by the expertise of another nurse and ‘red-stripes’ were closely supervised before achieving independence.
In contrast, student-teachers are not in the position of wearing some sort of ‘L’ plate – in fact it might not be a helpful sign to the learners whom they teach. But for those of us involved in teacher education we must recognise that this is the very position in which they find themselves in the classroom.
In the book Beginner Teachers’ Learning (2014), the authors encourage us to recognise the complexity of teaching and its challenges for student-teachers. From the very first day in the classroom, our very new student-teachers need an understanding of the exhausting enactment of:
- Differentiating for numerous pupils
- Providing effective feedback
- Forming meaningful relationships
Whilst I just took the patient’s temperature and turned to another nurse to record the blood-pressure, the student-teacher cannot simply choose to do only of the above aspects when teaching a lesson; all have to be juggled into some coherent journey of learning with the support of more experienced colleagues.
A further challenge is that the experienced teacher who is seemingly able to take of these aspects into account at one time is often doing so implicitly in a way that can be invisible or unexplained to the student-teacher. This lack of visibility and explanation leaves students at risk of not understanding the ‘why’ of teachers’ decision-making.
Without this depth of understanding, student-teachers’ practice may be based on misconceptions or even on mimicking the experienced classroom teacher. Neither of these approaches will serve them well in developing their own teacher identity.
This problem calls for us as teacher-educators to reflect on our approaches in supporting student-teachers’ learning. For example, we often use observation as a tool for understanding the complex world of the classroom and dispatch students to watch a whole variety of different teachers noted as being experts in aspects of practice.
Yet we recognise the impossible task of observing the implicit and complex nature of teaching and at best students will be left with making inadequate guesses about what went on.
We need to be much more robust in asking ourselves – ‘how are we helping our student-teachers learn about the nature of teaching?’
One helpful approach is for student-teachers to have conversations with experienced teachers about decisions made in the classroom. It’s not an easy task as sharing and talking about expertise is actually quite difficult when reflecting on the fast-paced and complex nature of the classroom.
This is compounded further by the current state of flux in implementing the new curriculum. Sharing expertise with students is difficult enough in a well-established curriculum with well-trodden paths of how things are planned, taught and assessed; in a landscape of reform, it becomes even trickier.
In essence in order to learn how to teach, student-teachers need to have ongoing meaningful conversations with experienced teachers about how decisions are made in the classroom. Yet this is a time where the whole profession may be feeling very uncertain about the new world.
A way forward is for all levels of the system – from student-teacher to those in leadership – to be confident in opening up discussions about pedagogical choices and to endorse the unique identity of educators as being both learner and teacher.
The mantra of ‘we are all learning and always learning’ is very encouraging to student-teachers and indeed espouses the qualities of both capability and ambition.
Such conversations should not be ad-hoc and need to be built into discussions about future curricula practices in a systematic way. Planned opportunities for teachers and student–teachers to share and reflect on ideas is indeed a worthwhile venture.
Whilst student-teachers will always be ‘red-stripes’ with experienced teachers having a wealth of experience on which to draw, there has never been a more crucial time for encouraging honest conversations about the curriculum and how its enactment can bring benefit to all.
- Elaine Sharpling is Director of Initial Teacher Education at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David