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.

If the student teacher is prepared and delivers a lesson where she can correctly claim that the children learned something new – that is success.

If the student teacher is prepared and makes a few mistakes during the lesson but identifies them during feedback and suggests remedies for these mistakes – that is success.

If the student teacher is assessed on a 40-minute lesson which didn’t go to plan for any number of reasons, despite the rest of the day’s lessons going well – the student teacher should be given an opportunity to make her case in a professional and respectful two-way discussion with her tutor.

If the student teacher’s experience is that her tutor is allowing their own personality to influence the type of feedback given to such an extent that is unhelpful for future performance – that is a failure, although not the student teacher’s. It is a failure on the part of the Initial Teacher Education (ITE) provider.

When assessing, one must be impartial and objective. It is difficult for this to fully be the case in a School Placement setting due to the very nature of it. The student is performing right in front of the tutor’s eyes. The assessment is taking place then and there, regardless of the moods and conditions of the student or the tutor. Personalities will be on display from both sides and may influence the overall outcome.

It is different to correcting an essay – the student will be given time to prepare this essay and will ideally do so at times best suited to her. The person correcting the essay will correct it at a suitable time. Personality doesn’t play much of a part.

An additional problem is something I heard about regularly during my own teacher training days – lecturer personnel who are not qualified as teachers (the academic staff) being sent out to assess student teachers on placement. I’m not sure if this is still the case but I would be worried if it were. I would equate this to those same personnel being sent out to assess a surgeon performing an appendectomy. They are not qualified to do so.

Is there an alternative approach to the current School Placement model? Well, yes. It’s not a major change but I would encourage all ITE providers to ensure that the people they send out to assess student teachers are capable of doing so fairly and objectively. Just being a member of the lecturing staff at an ITE centre is not reason enough to be considered competent in terms of assessing a student on placement. Equally, being a retired teacher with the time available to commit to being a School Placement tutor is not enough of a reason to be considered for the position.

There needs to be a rigorous training programme for those responsible for assessing and grading students on placement. Not all applicants to this programme will be suitable. At least those who are, will be better able to assess, assist and advise Ireland’s future teachers.

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