What, exactly, do they teach young teachers in teacher training colleges? That isn’t a rhetorical question, however Victor Meldrewish it may sound: I’d really like to know. Because I don’t know about other subjects, I’ll stick to my own – English – because it’s in English teaching that I’ve become aware of some of the horrors.
I’ll come clean right away and admit that my own recollections of my PGSE course (not that we called it that – I can’t recall that we had a name for it) are hazy. I remember some apparently despair-crushed lecturer telling us that it was a good idea when confronted with a wildly unruly class to “exhaust the response”. I also remember that at the time we found that hilarious. The reality, of course, is far from hilarious, and with hindsight I know what he meant. But I want to talk today about the actual subject-teaching content of these courses.
This is the scenario: a new teacher (male, youngish); a supposedly Credit S4 class. Many of the people in the class have already had two such teachers in their school career to date; both have moved on. They are still doing Standard Grade, so five months from now they will have to submit a folio of their best work, according to tightly specified guidelines. Ideally at this stage they would already be in possession of such a folio, requiring only to upgrade and/or replace pieces that they can improve upon. But this is not the case – for it takes someone who really knows what they are doing to ensure that they have accomplished this in S3.
They need to know exactly what they are doing, and why. At this stage, it is not ideal to dabble in randomly-chosen pieces of literature, doing a vaguely-targeted critical appraisal of this and that, not really having it assessed, not really being told how to improve it, not actually knowing if this could be a folio piece or not – and if not, why not. And yet I know for a fact that I am describing a real situation, one which will affect the future paths of many bright students.
So what should be happening? The teacher needs to be very clear in his own mind at this stage what exactly he is trying to do. He has two tasks: (1) to prepare his pupils for an exam and (2) to encourage them to widen their horizons while at the same time equipping them to deal with any text they will come across. This will, in time, include tax returns and passport applications, financial documents and their wills – we’re not just talking Shakespeare here.
I realise I could go on about this – and may well, in a later post - but I want to come back to my original point. Are student teachers told clearly what they must do at different stages in a school? How specific are the lectures they attend? I know from my own recent experience that students are encouraged to be innovative (at least in some quarters) – but what about the clear vision of what a teacher of English is actually trying to do? And then how to do it? And what to avoid? Perhaps then we wouldn’t have the pitiful spectacle of bright kids with a pathetic bundle of inadequate work and no sense of direction – and by that I mean not actually knowing if they have to finish a piece of work or if it will ever be assessed.
From what I have seen on the blogs of student teachers, there is a tendency to high-flown academic language about texts and teaching. I think there is a real need for telling it like it is – and equipping young teachers with the tools they will need when the future of 100 or so kids will depend on their abilities. We don’t expect our young doctors to mess up for the first year or so of solo work – we expect them not to kill us as they learn. Is teaching less important?
After all, you may have an aspiring brain surgeon in your class ….