Week 7: Expecting them to run before they can walk

The title of this week’s blog comes from a sentiment I’ve used multiple times over the past week, though in this case I am referring to how we often approach teacher training/preparation.

At this point, my thoughts are somewhat rambling, and I fully admit I’ve been guilty of many of the practices I’m calling out in this blog. That said, we have a lot of work to do if we are going to get the training of teachers right.

Back in February, I attended the Deans for Impact Building Blocks Workshop with a team from our USF Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program (UTRPP). You can read more about the Building Blocks on the link I’ve provided, but in short, Deans for Impact identified Modeling, Practice, Feedback, and Alignment as the four Building Blocks discussed at the workshop. The experience gave us time as a team to discuss where our program is in offering these four building blocks to our pre-service teachers. We chose to focus our next steps on Alignment, since being aligned with our school partners is the first step in ensuring our pre-service teachers have opportunities for the other three building blocks based on a shared vision. It takes a village, and that village is as much the university as it is the schools and school districts with whom we partner.

What the program also did was make me think more about the theory to practice divide that is so often an argument against teacher preparation programs. I am a firm believer that our students need to understand the ‘why‘ behind the practices we are teaching them. However, this is not the same thing as needing to develop a philosophy of education, particularly when they are often not exposed to competing theories. It is incredibly difficult to articulate your philosophy of education before you’ve had ample opportunity to practice teaching from multiple perspectives. Just ask any academic how challenging it can be to identify the theoretical framework from which they approach their latest research project…

This of course leads me to think about the way we arrange coursework, and what we expect of pre-service teachers in terms of scope and sequence. As course lead for our reading classes, I have attempted to focus on the ways in which children develop as readers and match appropriate teaching strategies to that development. Without ample time to test these approaches in the field, however, the chasm between theory and practice grows wider. We make a lot of concessions in our curriculum based on the fact many pre-service teachers spend only one day in the field during the semesters they take the reading courses. For those in UTRPP, they spend considerably more time in the field, but due to our issues of alignment, they don’t often see in practice the approaches to teaching reading that we are teaching (this, by no means, is meant to place blame on either party. It is, however, a call for conversations relating to alignment). This makes practice of those approaches difficult. It also highlights the need for modelling by course instructors and opportunities for pre-service teachers to rehearse their teaching practices with a knowledgeable other (McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanaugh, 2013; Vygotsky, 1978).

This makes me think about the book Practice Makes Practice, and how important it is for us to offer quality opportunities for pre-service teachers to practice what they are taught. It isn’t enough for them to try out a new approach. They must do so multiple times, receive feedback from a knowledgeable other, and refine their practice. Otherwise, they are practicing only for the sake of practice. Graham Nuthall argued that our current approach to supervision only perpetuates this idea of practice making practice, rather than practice leading to quality teaching. When you consider the amount of money teacher preparation programs put into traditional supervision, taking a closer look at the purpose and role of supervision is essential to our future.

And that leads me to planning, and what we expect of our most novice educators in terms of planning for lessons. At the university, we often ask them to plan lessons from scratch. I think we do this because we often disagree with the scripted approaches to teaching sometimes observed in schools. However, we do no-one any favours when we take this approach. Novice teachers need access to high-quality resources in order to revise effective lessons for their context. Asking them to plan from scratch is not only a waste of their time, but it is also likely to lead to less impactful teaching (because novices don’t yet have the professional knowledge to sequence lessons based on learners and standards).

High-quality resources are much, much different from scripted curricula. If you know me, you know I will never support the use of scripted curricula because context matters too much. That said, teachers scripting their own lessons in order to think through next steps and possible misconceptions is a better use of novice time (and I’d argue most teachers’ time) than planning lessons from scratch.

Along those lines, teacher educators quite often infuse their courses with their own research projects. I’ve certainly done this in the past. But, what I now realise is that we often do this without considering the pre-service teachers’ readiness and development. To be clear, I want teachers to be thinking deeply about critical and digital literacies, for example. I think they must first have deep and facile knowledge of how children learn to read and the teaching practices that match children’s development. Thus, it may not be in the best interest of either novice teachers or children to overlay these ideas in teacher preparation. (Which is why CPD and advanced degrees are so important to the teaching profession, though that’s a blog for another day.)

Speaking of research, I question the heavy focus on inquiry in teacher preparation programs. Having returned to the classroom this term, I recognise the challenges involved in studying your own teaching practices. And I have both considerable knowledge of teaching and learning and experience with varied research methodologies. What, exactly, are we asking novice teachers to study? Why not have them study the practices of expert teachers and learn ways to notice and name the approaches those teachers take in ensuring every child receives a quality education? At what point are we addressing the misconceptions pre-service teachers build when studying their own practice, given that the practice has the flaws noted above? This is not to say I don’t value teacher inquiry broadly. However, I think we would be better served using the time spent on inquiry with novices focused on expert teaching and providing them opportunities to engage in high-quality teaching practices.

I recognise this post might feel controversial to some of my teacher education colleagues. I am okay with that so long as we begin having conversations around these topics and start questioning whether the pedagogies we employ are best suited for our most novice educators.

References:

McDonald, M., Kazemi, E., & Kavanaugh, S. S. (2013). Core practices and pedagogies of teacher education: A call for a common language and collective activity. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(5), 378-386.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

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Weeks 5 & 6: Encouraging professionalism

I’ve needed two weeks to formulate this blog post in my mind. Tongue in cheek, I nearly named it “I don’t know everything,” but thought I risked putting people off before they even clicked the link. I believe that one of my strengths is recognising my expertise whilst acknowledging I have much to learn. It’s not always an easy, nor a perfect balance, but I strive to continue learning and growing in all of my endeavours.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve noted my thoughts about the teaching of maths. It’s not a discipline I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, much less teaching to young children. Though I have a great deal of knowledge about maths, am very competent in advanced mathematics and beyond that, advanced statistics, I feel least comfortable teaching in that domain than any other.

Let me be clear in saying that I do not believe my teaching of maths is in any way detrimental to the children in my classroom. Rather, I don’t believe it’s the best teaching I can do, and that may actually bother me more (likely because I don’t think I c/would ever teach in a detrimental manner).

This has me thinking about how we continue developing as professionals in the teaching profession.

In an earlier blog, I noted our school’s focus on building a ‘Culture of Error’ for children. I am thinking even more about the importance of a ‘Culture of Error’ and a ‘Culture of Growth’ for teachers. I am willing to demonstrate my professional vulnerability with my colleagues, because I believe they can help me be better. But, this requires a culture shift across the school (across most schools, I would say), because we need to recognise where our strengths lie, where we can offer support to our colleagues, and how we can do so without judgement. It’s a shift in thinking from the expectation that teachers must enter the classroom as experts in all domains, to a recognition that we will have strengths in some areas, whilst requiring development in others.

Berliner (2004) discusses the need to codify knowledge in a domain in order to develop our expertise in that area. Primary teachers, then, must do this across all domains they are expected to teach. When I think about my two days in the classroom each week, that means the domains of: Maths, English, Reading, Phonics, Science, and Music/ICT/PSHE. If I were a primary teacher that taught 5 days per week, I’d add History, Geography, RE, DT, and PE to those already listed (and likely others I am forgetting).

When you think about it in that way, we shouldn’t expect all primary teachers to enter the classroom fully prepared to teach all subjects. Rather, we should consider how to best support one another in developing our expertise so we can demonstrate continued growth in competence across all domains. To do this, we need to consider how to best engage in peer-to-peer coaching in a manner that is low stakes and high return.

Given current budgets, we’d likely need to get creative on how to make this work. Let’s say I reach out to my colleague and ask her to observe my teaching and offer feedback. Most likely, there’s little room in the budget for her to get supply to do this. But, I could record my teaching (which, as my own research indicates, is a more powerful approach to offering considered feedback [Gelfuso & Dennis, 2014]), and then offer to take my colleague’s playground duty that same week so she can watch the video (you rarely need more than a 20-minute clip to get a sense of what’s happening in a lesson).

We can then have a conversation around my teaching that allows her to cue in to specific points in the lesson, using the video, to help me understand more effective practices. Because of the video, I will likely be better able to recognise the nuance between what I am doing and what she recommends than I would be if I were asked to rely on my memory of the teaching experience. This can happen as frequently as need be to strengthen my teaching practices in maths.

That said, I also have strengths that I can offer to colleagues. If I have a colleague less confident in their teaching of reading, or in the implementation of vocabulary teaching across the domains, then my expertise will serve them well. Likewise, I have a strong background in the teaching of science and can offer support in that domain also. What this does is allows me to acknowledge where I need support, whilst also offering my support to others. In the primary world, where we are expected to codify our knowledge of up to 15 domains, this give and take is essential to developing expertise within our school and the profession.

As I continue code switching between my role as a Year 1/2 teacher and my role as a teacher educator, I’ve become more firm in my conviction that we must change the culture of primary schools from one where observations are largely seen as evaluative to one where observations serve as a corollary to in-house professional development that relies on both the expertise and the vulnerability of staff to support and develop each other’s practice.

References

Berliner, D. C. (2004). Describing the behavior and documenting the accomplishments of expert teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society, 24(3), 200-212.

Gelfuso, A. & Dennis, D. V. (2014). Getting Reflection Off the Page: The Challenges of Developing Support Structures for Pre-service Teacher Reflection. Teaching and Teacher Education, 38, pp. 1-11.

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Week 4: Balancing Lessons

Over the past week I’ve had several conversations with colleagues about the outcomes we expect from our lessons and why we consider those representative of children’s learning. For example, this past week our team taught a science lesson on why we have seasons. This is a complex conversation to have with 5-6 year olds, though through discussion it was clear the children understood the concepts presented through the lesson.

It was less clear to see their learning through the task we asked them to complete following the lesson, which is what got us talking about the WHY of what we selected as an appropriate task.

We’ve been focused on the lesson input – the how of our lessons – and I will say that the consistency with which lessons are delivered at the school is impressive. We’ve spent less time thinking through ways to end our lessons and the outcomes we expect from children.

Heavy emphasis has been placed on the teaching taking place across the school. We are now, necessarily, beginning to shift toward how we assess the impact of teaching within this curriculum on children. Based on the conversations this past week, it seems that may help us better balance our lessons, so we keep our sights on how we are teaching and also consider the ways in which we want children to represent their learning and why those ways are the best option given the intended outcomes of the lessons.

 

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Week 3: The case of the missing voice

Yes, I lost my voice this week. And I don’t mean I had a bit of a frog in my throat, I mean full on lost my voice. A friend of mine said I sounded like Marge Simpson…so there’s that.

In reality, it didn’t have a massive impact on the day. Though, I can’t be certain whether my feeling that Friday’s lessons were the most consistent I’ve taught had to do with me feeling more confident and prepared, or if the children felt so badly about my voice that they got on with it without me having to ask multiple times (well, most of them!). Big thanks to the school staff for being so supportive, making sure I was well taken care of, and that I had plenty of tea!

Along those lines, I thought a lot this week about collegiality. This was due largely to the members of the Year 1/2 team: the way we plan together, the way we feel comfortable working with one another, and the way we’re able to find the humor in most things. The team makes it easy to ask questions and admit mistakes — both of which I’ve done fairly regularly these past few weeks.

One of the teachers on my team is someone I’ve worked with extensively. We’ve examined his teaching practices, we’ve engaged in coaching, we’ve presented at conferences, and we’ve written publications together, all related to research we were doing. This week I observed him teaching for another reason: I wanted to watch his maths teaching in order to get a better sense of the appropriate pitch and pace for teaching maths to young children. Being focused on literacy for so long, I think it’s fair to say I haven’t thought deeply about teaching maths since many of the parents of children in my class were in primary school (why, yes, that does make me feel old, thank you very much).

This got me thinking about the importance of professional vulnerability. To engage in all of that research over the past two and a half years, my colleague had to allow himself to be vulnerable. This week, I had to do the same.

I wonder if we think about that enough as academics, or anyone in teacher training for that matter?

Do we think about it enough when we work with teachers in the field, at all stages of their career, and for the variety of reasons we do?

Do we think about it when we are building school-university partnerships and supporting mentors to work with novice teachers, or even beyond that, when working with school leaders in supporting their teachers?

Do we do enough to foster comfort with the uncomfortable and encourage professional vulnerability?

At our school we talk about building a ‘culture of error‘, one in which children recognize making errors as an opportunity to learn, rather than as a sign of failure. These past few weeks have me wondering whether we build that ‘culture of error’ for the professionals in schools so they more easily accept feeling vulnerable as a way to develop.

How do we juxtapose our high expectations for educators with their need for opportunities to learn and grow from their experiences as well as their mistakes?

There’s a massive continuum in education from beginner to mid-career to experienced, and many layers including team leaders, subject leads, and leadership teams. A deep look at how we best support the continued development across these layers, with something more than generic, one-size-fits-all professional development, is essential to the field moving forward as a profession.

I wish we had a glass bottom car. I can’t help but wonder what we’re missing.” –Marge Simpson

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Image credit: Simpson Crazy

 

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Week 2: I did *that* thing

Over my career as a teacher educator, I’ve observed thousands of lessons, both in person and on video. One practice that has always made me crazy is when a teacher spends time preparing the children to be quiet for a lesson or a stroll through the corridor, and then asks the children to chorally share what it is they are supposed to do. Why do we ask children to tell us that we want them to be quiet(er)? Shouldn’t we want them to show us instead?

To all of the teachers I have silently questioned about this act: I am sorry. I apologize because I did just that whilst teaching young children this past week. As I finished explaining (brilliantly, of course!) why it’s important to keep noise levels low during guided reading (so I can hear those with whom I am reading), a small group of children quickly raised their voices to a level that made it so I could not hear my own thoughts. Before I could take it back, I said, “[Child], what did I just say?”

Why did I do that? Why on earth would I ask a child that should be speaking quietly (but wasn’t) to tell me, in front of the entire class, what I just explained.

I silently chided myself for that decision, and realized that despite studying the decisions teachers make in the moment of teaching, I have failed to recognize that some of those decisions are impulsive, rather than informed. This is what happens when we theorize humanity.

Did I mention it is only week 2?

There was a point this last week when I began thinking about just how young and small the children I am teaching are, and how much we ask them to do in day and a week of school. They are very capable of what we ask them to do, and it is amazing to watch them rise to the high expectations we have for their thinking and their presentation. It also shouldn’t be surprising when they fail to meet some of those expectations, particularly around behaviour, and particularly when we, as teachers, aren’t holding up our end of the bargain.

For example, my pacing must get better. Every second of uncertainty in my teaching is a second more they spend on the carpet getting restless. I thought I did a better job of scripting my plans this week than last, though I still have room to grow in thinking through the language and the resources needed to make lessons successful.

Someone on Twitter recently posted something along the lines of: “Unpopular opinion: Teachers make enough money.” No, darling. No, they do not. In my role in the professoriate, I work extremely hard. I put in long hours and rarely take a full day off from the job. These past two weeks (only teaching children two days per week, mind you) has reminded me of the long hours teachers put in to the job, and the fact we could easily work 15 hour days and still not get everything done. In fact, I received a congratulatory notice from my FitBit on Friday that read, “Congratulations! 9 hours active!” That was based solely on a day at work, as I did not have time to visit the gym.

As a teacher you can’t leave most things for another time because there are living, breathing, learning children expecting you to educate them, and the work you do prepares you for that. The biggest difference between these two jobs I work extremely hard to do well? Salary. Well, that and the fact I can use the toilet anytime I deem necessary when working as a professor, not so much when in the role of classroom teacher.

I’m making a point of observing some of my teammates this next week. I am doing this because I want to feel more comfortable teaching maths (as a literacy teacher educator, I am not sure the last time I have really thought about teaching math to young children, but it’s quite possible that some of my children’s parents were in primary school when that happened), and I want to better understand my own expectations for children’s behaviour in the classroom based on whether what I am seeing is typical for children of their age or not.

This is not a practice that is standardized in schools, but should be. There is not time (read: finances) built in to support teachers to leave their classroom to observe their peers. Sure, there are some school leaders that will do this, though it’s often reserved for new teachers or those deemed as ‘struggling,’ rather than seen as a necessary practice for all teachers in order to gauge their pitch and pace.

In terms of the code-switching between primary teacher and academia that I mentioned last week, this week was successful on the academic end. Two conference presentations and a paper published is not a bad week in that world.

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Teaching young children: Week 1

This past week was my first as a teacher returning to the classroom. My class includes 30 5-7 year old children in Years 1 and 2. I teach two days per week and share the job with an experienced teacher that works the other three.

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We started our week on Tuesday with an inset (PD) that provided an overview of the year to come, the Literature Spine (children’s minimal entitlement to high quality fiction books) and vocabulary pathway (a guide to planning for teaching Tier 2 vocabulary). On Wednesday, the children arrived. The teacher I share the classroom with was on a training the first morning, so I welcomed the children to the classroom. There was so much I hadn’t considered, despite my years of experience as both a teacher and a teacher of teachers. We underestimate the need to support new teachers in a building, regardless of their expertise (which is not to say I had no support — I have a lot — it’s to say I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and we need to consider what those things might be ahead of time).

I then spent all day Thursday and Friday with the children. The Year 2 children clearly knew the expectations of the classroom, while the Year 1 children were less confident. The differences between the two year groups are more apparent than the similarities at this point. I spent much more time reminding and correcting the behaviors of the Year 1 children, and much more time thinking on my feet about how to pitch the lessons more appropriately the the Year 2s.

Despite my background in literacy, I was rubbish at teaching the children the meaning of the word ‘democracy’. The vocabulary pathway recommendations will certainly help me be more considered in my planning. Along those literacy expertise lines, at one point I could not help but laugh (as in, I actually started laughing in front of the children) at the fact my independent reading time was complete chaos. In fairness to me, I doubt it would have looked like complete chaos to most, and I know it takes time to develop the norms of a classroom, but wow.

Further, I am pretty sure I completely misunderstood the maths plans and asked children to provide evidence that is not aligned with the other Year 1/2 classrooms. I’m not sure the practice was any less valuable, but I didn’t know enough to ask ahead of time.

We did, however, elect our new school council members (hence the reason we were teaching the word ‘democracy’), and I was successful at helping those who were not elected to graciously accept their defeat and congratulate the peers that will represent our class. We talked about it being okay for those who did not earn the slot to be disappointed in that fact, and that they should recognize the accomplishments of their friends for doing so. It was cool to see that unfold as we discussed.

There are some things I am thinking about following my experiences this first week. The first is whether we do our novice teachers a disservice by asking them to create their management plans before entering their school environment. I am experienced. I know what I believe about teaching and learning. I still have to fit those experiences and beliefs into the school context, because consistency is as (perhaps more?) important than what I think I will do based on ideas from outside the school/classroom. We expect our novices to enter their classrooms with a plan and then to voice that plan, almost in protest, because they built their understandings through relatively limited experiences. In other words, we operate through a deficit model, insinuating that what the schools expect will not mesh with the individuals we teach. I need to think about this more.

Also, I cannot understate the importance of planning out what one will say before teaching a lesson. This is not the same as a script for teaching. This is a considered plan for getting the most out of children based on the high expectations of each learning objective. We seem to muddle these things in education.

Perhaps the difference between me and a novice is our confidence. Mine is borne of a deep understanding of theory, intimate knowledge of the school, and years of teaching experience. I recognize I don’t know everything I need to in order to be successful in this school, and I ask questions that allow me to gain the knowledge I need to support children’s learning. Novices often have an inflated confidence that can burst at the first foray with failure. Further, asking questions can often be seen as highlighting their failures.

Outside of the classroom, I am feeling the challenges of ‘code-switching’ between my role as teacher and academic. I genuinely embrace these challenges, because they are highlighting the need for me to be here. But, I must find a way to address them efficiently and effectively so I can contribute to both parts of my professional world.

In the words of one of my Year 1 children following the last of our Topic lessons this week, “My brain is doing my head in!” You and me both, girl. You and me both.

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A teacher educator goes back to school

I can remember several conversations with my roommate in grad school about the need for teacher educators to return to the classroom every few years. I was only removed from the classroom for two to three years at that point, but even then it was apparent how quickly my memory of working directly with children changed. In my 12 years at USF, I’ve made working with schools and in classrooms a priority, though I’ve not had the chance to consistently teach a group of children since entering the professoriate.

Until now.

For the past year and a half I’ve been working as the Professor-In-Residence at a primary school in the UK, and beginning next week I will spend two days per week teaching Year 1/2 (Kindergarten/First Grade), in conjunction with my responsibilities at the university. I am fortunate to not only have a school that is willing to offer me this opportunity, but a university administration that supports me working remotely in order to fulfill it.

I joke that I am doing this in order to determine whether I have any idea what I am talking about when preparing new teachers and working with experienced ones. In reality, I know the rust will work its way out rather quickly and I’ll be able to use this experience to better inform my teaching at the university.

My plan is to blog regularly about the experience, what I am learning, and how what I am learning changes my thinking about my role as a teacher educator. I encourage you to follow along, ask questions, and challenge my thinking. My hunch is there will also be a bit of entertainment on these pages as I share stories from this experience!

 

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