Does School Placement in Primary Teacher Training serve its purpose?

Every serving qualified teacher in Ireland will have undertaken School Placement (previously called Teaching Practice) as a partial requirement for their teaching qualification. Experiences during this placement will vary. If there is one prominent trait that I have noticed from my own previous experience as well as from having spoken to others in the same boat, it is inconsistency.

A School Placement Tutor assesses the student teacher, after all, the placement is technically an examination. When correcting or assessing an examination, a marking rubric or an assessment checklist should be used to ensure fairness and consistency. I have no doubt that such a checklist or rubric is supposed to be used when assessing a student teacher on placement, however what strikes me is how the tutor’s own subjectivity and personal preferences can play a part in the overall feedback or grade. Continue reading “Does School Placement in Primary Teacher Training serve its purpose?”

Interviews for Undergraduate Primary Teacher Training

Student teachers (primary) in Ireland who train at Bachelor’s degree level traditionally begin their courses following the Leaving Certificate. At the age of 17 or 18, they transition from secondary school directly into one of Ireland’s teacher training colleges – (Marino Institute of Education;  DCU Institute of Education; the Froebel Department at Maynooth University; and Mary Immaculate College in Limerick). Entry is based on achieving a minimum standard across certain subjects and achieving a minimum amount of CAO points. Points for entry into these training courses range from the mid-400s upwards and are therefore competitive.

This raises the question – is doing well enough in the Leaving Certificate sufficient to determine the suitability of a teacher training candidate? I will examine this question.

It is firstly necessary to look at the system for entry into teacher training programmes at postgraduate level. The main difference is that it doesn’t depend on minimum points in the Leaving Certificate, although it does require a minimum standard across certain subjects. Instead, it is based on the outcome of an interview through English and an interview through Irish (to determine language competency). This gives the Initial Teacher Education (ITE) centres a glimpse into the mindset and suitability of each applicant, giving a clearer understanding as to whether they would be suited to a course of teacher training or not.

The interview is by no means a perfect system for assessing suitability, however in the absence of an alternative, I would recommend it for entry into an ITE centre. This raises the next question – why is it necessary?

The answer is straightforward – not everybody at the age of 17 or 18 is sure about what they would like to do for the rest of their working lives (although some are). Some may enter an undergraduate course having experienced little else other than formal schooling and maybe some sports or musical experience. These experiences in themselves are quite valuable and can give some indicators as to where a future career might lie, but might not be completely telling of suitability to a chosen path. Instead of gaining entry into an ITE centre with just the required Leaving Certificate outcome, an interview system could help both ITE centres and prospective students alike to ensure that the correct choice has been made; that the candidate is serious about what lies ahead and is ready to embark on a career in teaching; and to accept the responsibilities which go hand in hand with that choice.

This, of course, would require interviewers to be completely objective in their determinations. That is an article for another day.

Let down by the INTO

The INTO-led Pay Equality Rally on the 7th March was a failure.

This is not the fault of the dedicated members of the three teacher unions that turned up for 4pm, many having to rush from their jobs.

This is not the fault of the regular employees in Head Office that keep the union running on a day-to-day basis.

The blame lies completely with the INTO leadership. Here’s the rundown of what happened.

Teachers scrambled to turn up on time to a 4pm rally outside Dáil Éireann in Dublin city centre. Out of the small numbers that did manage to make it in, some donned flags, orange hi-vis vests and yellow t-shirts. Just after 4 o’clock, the INTO president addressed the small crowd, followed by his TUI and ASTI counterparts. This all lasted for 25 minutes.

Then it was over.

No teacher affected by the lower pay scale was invited to address the crowd. The only speakers were the union presidents. At 4:25pm, the ordinary teachers who had turned up for what they hoped would be an inspiring rally were left wondering if that was it, feeling disappointed and ultimately they left Kildare Street feeling let down.

Ordinary members cannot be blamed for wondering if their union leadership is out of touch with regular teachers. A good rally would have been filled with the voices of the membership, led by a president passionate about the cause. Unfortunately the presidents of the INTO, TUI and ASTI failed to include the regular union members in what could potentially have been an amazing, inclusive experience. Instead, the presidents got their own soundbites and that was it.

As rallies go, this was the worst I’ve ever attended. Do better next time, please.

Literacy – don’t do too much, too soon

It has been my experience that any of my pupils’ parents with whom I have interacted have always had the best intentions for their children’s education. The importance of supporting a child’s education and development outside of, and in addition to formal schooling can’t be overstated. There are many ways that parents and guardians can support their child’s learning. A quick chat with your child’s teacher should shed some light on this.

However, there is one particular issue that I think needs attention. Some children are being exposed to letter formation activities and phonics activities before they begin their primary schooling. This could be at home, or in a preschool setting. The idea behind this may be that a parent would like to give their child a head-start for when they begin school, and in some cases this may be what happens. In many cases it is not what happens due to a number of reasons.

  1. Keeping in mind that all children develop at slightly different paces and will reach their milestones at different intervals, it is often (but not always) the case that the child is not developmentally ready for these sort of activities. At the preschool age, a child should be engaging in play-based and socio-dramatic activities, they should be exposed to stories and they should develop their social skills (this is not an exhaustive list, rather it is a list of three areas which have come to mind as I type). There are always going to be children who will be ready at an earlier stage/age for expanding further with literacy development activities. What’s important is that these activities are carefully planned and delivered by someone with the skill-set to do it properly.
  2. Some children are being shown how to write with capital letters before they begin primary school. As well-meaning as this may be, it can prove to be unhelpful for a child’s writing as these letters may often present themselves in the middle of words and take away from the overall presentation. Capital letters are taught in the infant classes at a particular stage, a time when it makes sense to introduce them and with the appropriate teaching in place to remind the children when or when not to use them. Using capital letters instead of using lower-case letters during writing will slow down the process.
  3. It is the case that in some (not all) preschool settings, children are being “taught their sounds” (phonics). This is not a good idea and further, this should be left to a qualified primary school teacher. The preschool experience for a child should not include lessons on phonics (or writing letters), there is time enough for that in the infant classes. What’s important in a preschool setting is that children have the opportunity to explore through play and to develop by building on these experiences and interactions.

It may sound like a cliché, but the best advice I can give to parents is to make reading a regular activity outside of school, whether they haven’t started in school yet, whether they’re in school or whether they’re coming to the end of their formal education. During the early years, model reading for the child by reading a variety of stories out loud to them. Stop at appropriate intervals and ask a range of higher-order and lower-order questions. Ask the child about the words they hear you read – are there other words that mean something similar? Do they know a word that rhymes with the one you’re talking about? Ask the child to summarise what you have read. Ask if the child can predict what might happen next.

As the child gets older, these reading activities will develop. Gradually, as the child undergoes early years schooling, the child will work towards becoming an independent reader.

Reading should feel like a normal activity and should not feel like hard work if it is encouraged in the appropriate way. Children will work hard enough in school (believe me, learning is hard work and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise!) so it is best to let them enjoy reading and literacy activities without it becoming a task.

Parents are constitutionally the primary educators of their children. I think this is a great thing. The next big question linked to this – how can teachers support parents?

Teachers as Researchers

The thought occurred to me recently that, in some manner, every teacher is a researcher. When one thinks of researchers, one may conjure up an image of an academic working for a third-level institution. Teachers, as we traditionally know them, do not fit this description. The research that we do, however informally we do it, is based in practice and has real-world and immediate applications.

Whether we critically reflect on how a lesson went, or whether we take a more formal research approach to our practice, both are equally as valuable. The only difference is that one may go unnoticed and unrecognised while the other reaps rewards through the form of accredited certification.

Researching through the more formal and traditional means generally allows the researcher a medium through which findings can be presented and discussed. The same cannot presently be said about the informal types of research that take place daily in classrooms. Other than something along the lines of a discussion with a colleague or a brief mention at a staff meeting, this sort of informal research most likely ends up being lost to everyone but the initial individual, with its practical benefits remaining unseen and unrealised by a wider audience.

Let me make it clear that I do not see School Self-Evaluation as the answer. That approach is too narrowly focused (standardised testing results) and restrictive, as its structures are designed by people not involved in the process on the ground. The process is also forced, however at the time of writing, a union directive instructs teachers at primary level not to engage with it.

There is a solution. It involves a change of culture, where teachers at primary and at secondary level are encouraged to share their professional and informal research experiences with a wider audience, through a medium that is always accessible. Blogging is one such medium but it is often up to an individual to set up their own blog and to maintain it, in order to reach a significant number of readers. What’s needed is a well-maintained medium where registered teachers are free to make submissions about their formal and informal research and their research in practice, and where other registered teachers can access it and discuss it with a view to further professional learning.

I think the Teaching Council has a role to play here. It is, after all, charged with the promotion of the profession. I would challenge them to enable teachers to share their formal and informal research experiences through a medium that lasts.

The Critical Incident Questionnaire in the Infant Classroom

I had an hour to spare the other day so I decided I’d search YouTube for any videos of my favourite writer in education – Stephen D. Brookfield. I found this video, in which he makes a presentation on critical and creative thinking. The one-hour video does not do justice to the contents of his book “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” (1995) but rather it provides a solid basis for wanting to read it, and in my case, re-read it.

This is a wonderful video in which Brookfield recounts his experiences with his own failures in education and how he managed to overcome these. He also uses the highly personal example of his own clinical depression to illustrate his point about assumptions. It’s well worth watching if you can spare an hour.

Stephen Brookfield’s teaching experience is rooted in Adult Education. As a primary school teacher, I find myself wondering whether his approaches to promoting critically reflective teaching are transferrable to the primary school context, particularly at infant level. I particularly note what he terms the Critical Incident Questionnaire. The three questions in the CIQ are as follows:

  1. At what moment in class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  2. At what moment in class this week were you most distanced from what was happening?
  3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?

I like the idea of it but I know that it would not be viable in its current form in a Junior or Senior Infant classroom. The CIQ is voluntary and is supposed to be anonymous, so oral feedback in place of the standard, written CIQ would defeat the purpose of anonymous feedback. The language in its current form would have to be altered if the pupils were to engage with it properly. It would most likely have to be read aloud and explained by me in order to eliminate confusion. I would have to be mindful of pupils whose first language is not English. In order to collect feedback, I would have to rely to some extent on the children’s ability to write for the purposes of transmitting real meaning. This raises the ethical issue surrounding the guarantee of anonymity – many teachers can identify a pupil by their handwriting.

The other alternative is to send the CIQ home with them at the weekend and to get them to dictate their responses to their parents, who will in turn fill in these dictated responses, possibly by typing them up to preserve anonymity (a teacher can become accustomed to a parent’s handwriting as well!) and for return the following day. This isn’t a perfect solution either, as it relies on participation that one cannot and should not force. It also allows for the child’s answer to be influenced by the parent, which would render the feedback useless.

In less than a fortnight as I begin my ninth year in teaching, I will be embarking on my first experience teaching a Senior Infants class. I would like to use the CIQ in some form to improve their educational experiences, therefore I would welcome any suggestions or feedback from readers of this blog as to how I can best do this.

The Value Teachers Place in Things

If you could avail of a service and pay for the privilege of it; or avail of a similar service and be offered it for free, what would you choose? If I was going to benefit in some way from the free service, I would choose that one, after having given it some proper thought. If I was considering availing of the paid service, I’d do my research to see what was on offer and I’d check the reputation of the person offering it, as I would be parting with hard-earned money.

If you were pondering what product to buy from a range of choices, do you believe what the reviewer says if he/she receives free samples of merchandise from time to time from the supplier? I can’t place much faith in a review if it’s too positive – nothing is perfect. I’d rather give it some real thought and make my own mind up.

This blog post came about as a result of what I’ve seen on various teacher Facebook pages over the last number of weeks. “Like, tag and share to enter a draw for a free planner!” and the likes. It has also come about as a result of what I’ve seen over the last few years – relatively new teachers hosting paid seminars or writing books where they tell NQTs and student teachers how they think they should do things. There is a lot wrong with this.

It is unethical. The whole “Like, tag and share” gimmick is a shameless way of accruing an increasing amount of likes for a Facebook page. The page with thousands of likes therefore has to be questioned as to its value. Can we really believe that ten thousand or more people really have an interest in what a particular teacher is saying/selling on Facebook if those likes were gained through a questionable marketing trick? Is it really a genuine following? Do ten thousand likes place a value in the product being sold or the reputation of the person selling it?

Teachers should question everything and should encourage their learners to do so too. There is an unfortunate trend occurring where some teachers are looking for the quick fix, or the “how-to” manual. This does a disservice to the profession and bypasses what all teachers should be doing – thinking critically. It shows a negligible amount of questioning  or judgment – skills that are important to us as teachers and important to impart to our learners.

I don’t think we can improve our practice by being passive. We can improve our practice by being active participants in our own improvement. This means thinking for yourself, questioning new initiatives before implementing them, talking to your colleagues and sharing problems, solutions and ideas. It’s also important to question the value of what you read (this blog is not immune from criticism, rather it is welcomed) or what is for sale on the internet . We really can’t follow a check-list and expect to be the best we can be. It’s not all in a book and no one individual can give you answers to all of your questions or solutions to all of your problems. Collaboration, where everyone is respected as an equal and where everyone has something to contribute, is a good start.