Thursday, November 15, 2012

Teacher training - some questions

I keep getting into conversations about education these days. What's the matter with me? I've obviously fallen into lassitude to be so easily dragged back to my former self. Today's was about the people who teach the teachers - those aspirants who've gone through the selection process and made it to training college. Now, I'm basing some of what I'm about to say on the assumption that the government don't think the current selection process is sufficiently rigorous, and the rest on my own memory of my year at college. And that, best beloved, was not yesterday, nor even last year. I actually know nothing at all about the people who teach the teachers these days, and nothing at all about how they got their jobs in the first place. But I'm going to toss a few thoughts around nonetheless - and perhaps some gentle reader will be able to lighten my darkness.

I'm going to start with a few questions:
What makes someone go for a job in a College of Education? Presumably they start off in schools. Are college staff significantly better paid? Or do they prefer to work in a less challenging environment?

How are they selected? Are they required to demonstrate mastery of their academic subject? To show how well they teach a class? To talk a storm at an interview? Is there any written examination or practical test (maybe like preaching to a congregation who are looking for a new minister?)

Having got the job, what is their primary aim? To demonstrate how to do the same job as the teachers the students experienced perhaps 4 years ago? To show how to put a lesson across? To discuss new techniques and new media? (I know of at least one lecturer who might well answer in the affirmative to that). To ensure that their students actually like children before they start?

Do they spend much time teaching in classrooms as a CPD exercise?

And I'm going to reflect:
When I was at college, I loathed it. After a 3 year MA course I found it at once restrictive and vague. Quite apart from having to be there from 9-4 and wear a skirt (both, presumably, easing us back into required behaviour for the job) I actually had no idea what I was learning about. This was especially true in my two subject areas. In English, I learned nothing at all. Nothing. In Latin, the nice little man who taught us (a class of 4 students) had such a boring delivery that I routinely fell asleep. It's embarrassing when your head actually hits the desk, in a class of 4.

There were classes in Educational Psychology - which is where I think I heard the instruction that when confronted by an unruly class we were to "exhaust the response". And classes in Drama, which I loathed - I can't remember why, but the lecturer kept coming to look for us in the cafeteria at the start of the afternoon, so we were obviously not keen. And were there discrete classes in Methods, or was that in the subject classes?

In all that time, no-one ever told us that it was essential not to be boring. Mind you, if they had, we might have laughed in their faces; I have never been so bored so consistently for so long. And no-one ever suggested that we had to be passionate about our subject and about communicating that passion. Naturally, no-one ever gave us practical work in demonstrating how we might do that.

Yes, I learned something in that year at college. But I learned it in the three schools where I was sent on teaching practice - by watching some excellent teaching, by talking to the people I'd been watching, by making mistakes and suffering the slow death of the period when you've run out of material and don't have anything to put in its place.

And 30 years later, I'd say I was still learning. But I always knew that there were still people out there living behind a barrier of worksheets, boring their pupils to death, sending them to sleep in the period after lunch.

So, if you're out there, the person who knows the answers to the above, gonnae put me out of my misery?


  1. Christine, as another ex- (ie retired) teacher - so it's rather a long time since I was at College - we had a saying: 'Those who can, teach; those who can't, teach teachers'! And, with one or two exceptions, I'm afraid that was true. Fortunately my head of subject (Maths)was brilliant, but in general I would have guessed that many of our lecturers had speedily exited the classroom for the more rarefied atmosphere of Training College, where they at least had an audience who started off wanting to absorb the pearls of wisdom (!?)that fell from their lips (alas too soon to be disillusioned and bored out of their minds). I also suspect that a lot of them hadn't set foot in a classroom for many years, and their ideas of, for example, how to keep order in a modern school were singularly out of date (this, mind you, was in the mid-60s - fortunately they'll all have retired years ago, and have probably gone to their eternal rest by now!) But I did actually enjoy my year in some ways, as I was a mature student and had been actually teaching unqualified for a year before going to College, so I had at least some idea of what life was like in the real teaching world (more than some of the lecturers, I might say! How they persuade aspiring teachers nowadays to stick with the courses, and prepare them even partially adequately for the jungle warfare that they'll meet in today's schools I really don't know - I wouldn't want to be responsible for sending them into such a mega-stressful and confrontational job like teaching. I'm SO glad I finished when I did - I know I couldn't cope with it now, even though I did enjoy it while I was doing it (mostly). Sorry - this all sounds a bit cynical, but my experience of College (and previously University) teaching was not good on the whole. When did teaching cease to be a vocation and become just another job to be got through as easily as possible for the most money possible? My father, who was teaching from about 1901 (first as an unpaid monitor, then a 'pupil teacher') would be appalled if he were still alive (but he'd be 120+ now!!) I'm afraid I can't answer your questions, though, so forgive my bit of a rant - but your blog brought back so many memories that I just wanted to share my thoughts & experiences, for what they're worth. Maybe I'll get round to setting up my own blog soon (it's been on the list 'to do' for a while), and can muse further on the subject therein. Watch for a space.

    1. Gosh - you must be even older than I am! ;) They stopped having unqualified teachers just before I went to college. Since retiring, I've met some really inspiring teachers online and at TeachMeets, but too many people still in the job just seem to be ploughing the same miserable furrow that's been theirs since they left college. I started this blog the first year of retirement to keep my hand in with writing; give's a heads-up if you start one!

  2. Dearest

    I went through the same college in a sort of dwam, aided by the fact that I chose to try to do a Dip Ed at the Yooni instead of hearing the college lecturers reading verbatim from their books, which, coincidentally, were the prescribed ones.

    In Dr K's class there were about nine of us, and when we realised that the same lectures were delivered once in each of the three terms, we passed the time translating Glasgow Corporation bus destinations into Latin (Oppidum Scotorum, Collis Oppidi Scotorum, Collis Mariae... et cetera similia. Auchenshuggle probably foxed us, since none of us had the Gaelic.). However, we did learn (thrice, of course) that you press the button marked PRESS to start a tape recorder, and press STOP to stop it. Cutting edge stuff.

    Things enjoyed also were the doughnuts in the refectory - that is when the guys with their IQs on their backs left any - and, in contrast to your good self, the Drama class. Three of us had immense fun pretending to be a milk-bottling plant, complete with mechanical noises. There was a dear lady - Mrs Grieve, I think - who had me, Helen McArthur and a Catholic priest enunciating "What a to-do to die today at a minute or two to two...."

    In retrospect, I think we survived because we decided to let them ring bells for period changes and talk slowly to us, provided they didn't interfere with our right to learn practical skills in the schools we were sent to.

    As to what goes on in training institutions today, I sadly suspect that it is akin to what happened in the Roslyn Institute a few years ago with respect to sheep....

  3. I can't speak for every teacher educator but I'm happy to offer my tuppence worth...

    Why did I apply for a job in teacher education? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. My immediate response is, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." I was doing a lot of curriculum development stuff, Computing was a new subject, and teacher education seemed a good place to continue curriculum development. It was a step away from teaching children though, and since working with children was one of the reasons I got into teaching in the first place, I wasn't sure how long I'd stay there... but there I stayed for twenty years! And in answer to your next question, yes it was better paid. I was working at APT level and moving to Jordanhill took me to the top of the PT scale. Pay differentials were falling though. My colleagues at Jordanhill who had started some years earlier than me had come in at AHT level. To be honest, I'm not sure where lecturers sit now compared to teachers but I know that going to an unpromoted classroom post has resulted in a significant drop in income for me.

    Why was I selected for Jordanhill. I assume it was in part my curriculum development work; my subject knowledge and expertise; and (I hope) my teaching ability. I think there is a worry at the moment though that the universities are more interested in a candidate's research record than any of the above. I suspect if I ever reapply to teacher education, I would not get in... but perhaps that's me being a grumpy old cynic.

    {More to follow in next comment :-)}

  4. {Comment continued}

    As for your next question, about the primary aims of teacher educators, this time I think you are the grumpy (I wont say "old") cynic. "To demonstrate how to do the same job as the teachers the students experienced perhaps 4 years ago?" Really? A stated aim of the PGDE programme was to develop "reflective practitioners" and that's something I thought was worth trying to do. So in response to abf, I'd say no to clones. As far as ensuring "...their students actually like children before they start?" I'd say that I tried. I always found it odd when people applied for teacher education and yet showed no evidence of working with children or even an interest in education in their application. Even though I was struggling to meet my target last year, I didn't even interview the person who said they wanted to teach because teachers' holidays were so good.

    Your last question before you go off down memory lane was about classroom based CPD for teacher educators. I think there are two answers to that. The first is, I never stopped spending time in classrooms. Clearly, it's different sitting at the back of a class watching someone else teach than it is standing at the front doing the teaching but I learned a huge amount about teaching from watching others. I don't remember learning much from observed lessons as a student - I don't think I knew enough about teaching to know what to look for. But as an experienced teacher, working as a teacher educator, I know that it was hugely valuable to see a range of schools, different classroom layouts, pupil ability levels, teaching styles, ... What I suspect lies behind your question though, is the suspicion that teacher educators can't practice what they preach. (Although, I would point out to Helva that the standard construction is: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach, teach teachers.") I would have welcomed the chance to spend time in schools teaching while working as a teacher educator and I think most of the people I worked with would have too, but there are various obstacles that make this tricky. I think the ideal would be to have some sort of pairing system where a teacher and a teacher educator spend time working with each other but that would be prohibitively expensive. Perhaps some sort of regular teacher exchange programme could be arranged - it would be good for teachers, schools, teacher educators and teacher education institutions to swap staff on a semi-regular basis.

    Grief... I had more to say but this is already a ridiculously long reply... it should have been a blog post (and maybe it still will be!). In finishing though, I'd like to say that even as a student teacher, I thought it odd that people who had just spent four years studying at university suddenly went all, "It's life not books that taught me all I know." Of course I was told all sorts of nonsense by Jordanhill (I think I got the same how to press the play button lesson as abf) but I was also told all sorts of nonsense on school placements (including the classic, "Don't smile at them for the first year."). I experienced some poor teaching at Jordanhill but I also saw some poor teachers while on placement.

    So in conclusion, I have no conclusions. Just wanted to say that it's easy to knock teacher education but I believe there are good people in teacher education and there are good things that happen on teacher education programmes.

  5. David, I'm so glad you joined this party - and thank you for being the mixture of thoughtful and combative that I would have expected! I didn't know you had returned to the classroom, but I was hoping I might hear something from the only college teacher I actually know. I think the "prohibitively expensive" option would be splendid; if only some way could be found of making it happen without breaking the bank, I think it would benefit everyone in terms of shaking up mindsets that might well get stuck in one rut or another.