Before the moment is lost, staff and student-teachers from the Athrofa: Centre for Teacher Education capture a positive development in practice…

Imagine being a student-teacher in a global pandemic.  Whatever was expected about life on an Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programme has well and truly been re-imagined and re-invented – sometimes with very little notice and limited time for preparation.

For student-teachers, with their unique position of being both learner and teacher, this has been a challenging time. One moment, they are learning how to learn for themselves in this world of synchronous and asynchronous experiences, the next they are trying to use what they have learnt as teachers of children and young people. It is not an easy task.

At the same time, in our mostly online campus, the ITE team has been working out how to deliver the programmes whilst maintaining some semblance of order that instils confidence to students and lecturers alike. Another difficult task.

And yet, in the midst of constant flux and uncertainty, there are some valuable practices beginning to emerge and it is important to capture these before the moment is lost. One example worthy of some closer exploration is around role of the student-teacher representative known as the ‘group rep’.

The role of the group rep is an important one and not to be undertaken lightly. It holds great appeal for many: the opportunity to build relationships with peers and to have a seat at the table in influencing decision-making processes; the chance to develop crucial life skills, including leadership and teamwork; and it’s a great addition to a CV.

Nevertheless, the role is not for the faint-hearted: it requires a degree of mettle to stand up for your peers and represent diverse perspectives, even when they conflict with your own. It requires time, tact and tenacity, but who could have anticipated just how vital such dispositions would be when we started our ITE journey together in the thick of a global pandemic?

Conventionally, formal staff/student meetings take place three times a year, and whilst these meetings have always been collegiate and generally positive, they are based on a transmission model of dialogue; you tell us what is and isn’t working, and we’ll tell you what we can and can’t do better.

Despite our best efforts at moving towards a more collaborative dialogue where the programmes could be more jointly-shaped, historically we never quite achieved this in our staff/student meetings – we were not in the right intellectual, professional or indeed social space for this to happen.

When in March 2020 the switch to online learning was flicked with startling immediacy, we knew that the thrice-yearly meetings would not be enough and something different was needed to sustain meaningful communication with our cohorts. And so additional informal meetings with group reps were scheduled in the evenings taking place once a fortnight. These meetings were the beginning of our journey into a new more collaborative space…

The journey: moving from feedback to collaborator

No doubt the reps have played a vital role in providing a window into the lived experiences of our student-teachers and acted as spokespersons for the individuals that they represent. But their function has become so much more than that; as we continued to meet during those early weeks, something fundamentally changed. It’s impossible to pinpoint when the transformation happened; there’s no epiphany moment where we could claim that the shift had occurred, but things undoubtedly altered.

Firstly, it can be perceived that, all too often, group rep meetings can result in a platform for students to complain. That’s not to deny the importance of complaining – it allows for expression of moments of crisis and a need to feel heard, and this can be hugely cathartic. After all, taking on the barrage of challenges that have come our way as we adapted to the world with Covid and new ways of working has given us all cause to complain.  

However, a key aspect of the new informal reps’ meetings is the underlying premise that all ‘problems’ brought to the table require a potential ‘solution’ too; this allows us to engage with often complex issues in a more productive way. For example, a significant issue that was raised early on was the students’ experiences of learning online. They relayed the difficulties of engaging with lengthy synchronous sessions, and the problems they encountered with processing content that might have been delivered too quickly to learn effectively, with insufficient time away from the screen. 

Our student-teachers gave us an insight into the challenges of engaging with lecture content, often with competing demands from family members and unreliable Wi-Fi. But crucially, they posed solutions too: more asynchronous sessions to allow flexibility, slower pace in delivery and more frequent breaks away from the screen – indicators of effective online pedagogy that we can all now appreciate.

The response from the Athrofa teaching team was rapid but we tipped the balance too much the other way; we were confronted with the complaint of too much asynchronous content at the next meeting. It was a funny moment – there was much laughter from staff and students alike when the student raising the issue realised she was complaining about the very thing that had been requested only two weeks previously. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ we quipped.

All jokes aside, this flux in opinion has played an essential part in the process of responding to our students. On this occasion it provided vital guidance to academic staff in establishing an appropriate balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning, but it has allowed us to be highly responsive to other issues surrounding the student experience as well, both within the university and on placement.

Most importantly, it was visible evidence that our students were being heard and responded to by members of the whole team and not just the staff at the reps’ meetings. It signalled a clear message that their experiences mattered, and this was to become critical in the months that followed when our student-teachers faced the challenges of online teaching and learning in their placement schools.

A new space – the online meeting

There is no doubt that the more regular informal meetings have played an important part in building stronger relationships, developing trust and heading off problems at the pass. But there is an interesting question around whether the online environment has been an enabler in itself.

As we all recognise, a traditional staff/student meeting does not generally generate lengthy discussion – the Chair guides the contributions and usually the conversation follows the ‘initiate- respond-feedback’ pattern of dialogue. The Chair invites a contribution from a group rep, the rep responds and the Chair offers some kind of follow-up.

Interestingly, we saw that this pattern of dialogue is not replicated in the same way in the online environment and a different way of communication was beginning to emerge. Largely, this seemed to be related to the use of the ‘chat’ function that runs alongside the verbal conversation on screen.  This written exchange added another dimension to that of the spoken word and provides a unique opportunity for a written dialogue to take place that does not exist in traditional meetings; for the first time, communication between participants has the duality of both verbal and written dialogue.

Looking back through the ‘chat’ of the informal reps’ meetings, the conversation seems to fulfil these functions:

  • affirming an individual’s contribution
  • banter – using humour often in a quick-fire exchange
  • making suggestions without waiting to be chosen through the on-screen ‘hands-up’ function
  • wellbeing – asking how people are
  • achieving consensus
  • posting links to useful documents/websites

Furthermore, each of these functions is typically supported by yet another layer of communication – the symbolic use of emojis. Often we see the use of , ‘thumbs-up’ and ‘smiley’ faces for affirmation, and ‘hearts’ and ‘sad’ faces to express compassion and empathy. For those involved in the meeting, moving between the verbal and written conversation happens in a seamless and seemingly effortless way.

The written chat has a life of its own and any member of the meeting can participate. Gone is the traditional role of the Chair with its monopoly of initiate-respond-feedback. The chat is more inclusive with the majority of reps participating, and some might say is more democratic with its option of ‘thumbs-up’ voting expressing a consensus.

In our experience, this has led to the creation of a new space, one which combines the elements of on-screen verbal exchanges with the fast-paced written and symbolic aspect of the chat. We would like to suggest that this ‘new’ space provides the right social environment for genuine collaboration to flourish between staff and student-teachers.

Covid has thrown up more challenges than we could ever dare to imagine and yet, something quite remarkable has emerged in the process. The online meeting space has created a new way of collaborating that is potentially more democratic, less formal and perhaps more inclusive. This has given our group reps the opportunity to play a vital role as partners in the strategic decision-making process and they have witnessed first-hand their impact on the shape and structure of the student journey.

 For staff, it has been a humbling experience; the reps have afforded us a nuanced understanding of the student experience and enabled us to respond quickly and appropriately. Relationships have been strengthened as staff and student-teachers move into a professional collaborative space.

One of our PGCE reps Gabriella Blenkinsop reflects that the reality of her ITE programme was completely different to what she had imagined.

She says: ‘The open day I attended was when we could all sit in a room, breathe the same air and meet face-to-face. I walked around the building getting a feel as to whether I could  learn there – a building that I’ve barely set foot in since beginning the course.

‘I hadn’t initially envisioned being a course rep, but when the opportunity was presented, I was excited at the chance to work with the university staff. Being involved in the meetings and providing feedback not only gave me an insight into how the course was run, but I also learned to represent a team and discuss issues and solutions in both informal and formal settings.’

‘I’ve been able to see first-hand how the university staff have adapted to Covid and continued to provide the best course possible to students. Being a course rep during a pandemic has given me invaluable experience that I will carry with me beyond university.’ 

So in conclusion, our student reps have led us to decisions that may not have been arrived at in their absence; they have anticipated potential problems that lay ahead and allowed us to avoid or mitigate for them.  Their growing appreciation of concerns at a strategic level has allowed them to manage the flow of discussion back and forth, between staff and students, and more importantly with each other.

This outplaying of professionalism and diplomacy has all taken place in the online meeting room and has been nothing short of inspirational. Going forward, we will continue using this new collaborative space knowing that it has improved so many aspects of our work with the group reps, and we will, without doubt, continue to embrace the merging of the verbal and written dialogue complete with its smiley and sad faces, thumbs-up voting and small red hearts.

  • This blog was co-authored by three people involved in the group rep meetings: Gabriella Blenkinsop is a group representative on the Primary PGCE programme, Julia Holloway and Elaine Sharpling are staff from the Centre of Teacher Education