Will you be hosting a Student Teacher?

Every qualified teacher was once a student teacher on placement. A huge part of the experience involves the host teacher – whomever that is, it is generally out of the control of the student. It is important for the host teacher to have the correct frame of mind if she decides to offer her class to a student on placement.

Here are a number of suggestions for teachers who will host a student or who will at some point consider it:

  1. You were once where the student is now. Try to remember the huge effort that the student will most likely put in every day in order to prepare for placement. It can be a stressful experience, so make sure to offer some advice or guidance whenever you deem it appropriate. It might seem like a small gesture but it can make a massive difference for a student.
  2. Offer your classroom resources for use by the student. These are for the children anyway – tell your student not to buy anything that you already have access to in your school. Remember how expensive it can be for a student who most likely won’t be earning any money during the weeks of school placement.
  3. You should want to have a student in your classroom. If this is the case, that’s great. If this is not the case and you have been told by your principal that you’ll be getting a student regardless of your view on the matter, please make the most of the situation. The student will pick up very quickly the feeling of not being welcome if you don’t engage in any real or meaningful way with them, and this will add difficulty to her time in your classroom, as well as being a stressful experience.
  4. You, as the host teacher, are ultimately responsible for the teaching and learning in the classroom. If you observe something that you consider worthy of note (good or bad practice), discuss this with the student. You are the qualified, experienced professional and you should share your wisdom with the student if you observe bad practice, but remember to deal with this tactfully. Equally, affirm the student on her good practice. Your feedback is more important to the student than you might think.
  5. When their supervisor/tutor comes to assess them, please be honest with them when they ask how the student is doing. Praise their strengths and suggest areas for improvement. Although School Placement is an examination, it is also a learning experience for the student.
  6. You should always feel free to have a look at the student’s planning folder, but mention it to the student first as a matter of courtesy if you intend on doing this. You may have suggestions for improvement and these may make a difference to the student’s planning grade.

This is not an exhaustive list and they are my own views on how to help students on placement. If you can add to the above suggestions or would like to suggest amendments, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Professionalism and Planning

I’m currently reading a very insightful book called “Become the Primary Teacher Everyone Wants to Have” (a new book by Seán Delaney) and although I’ve only read eighteen pages so far, something he wrote caught my attention. Delaney refers to a culture in our teaching profession of using the internet to source schemes of work.

He writes

“… sharing schemes of work can lead to producing or reproducing notes you have little ownership of and that are geared towards children in a different setting. Acquired schemes may be a solution to someone else’s teaching problems but not to yours.” (2017, p. 10)

I thought about what he had written and it reinforced my existing opinion. While teachers can find inspiration in lesson ideas, I believe that they should use their professional ability to construct their own lessons suited to their pupils’ situation. Sharing, buying or selling schemes of work or lesson plans for the sole purpose of implementing without change or without casting a critical eye over takes away from the professionalism of teachers. It can lead to a view that once you have your step-by-step instructions, anybody can do it. The reality of teaching is that the one-size-fits-all approach does not work.

During my first year as a teacher, I would have taught a certain way. I’m now in my eighth year in the profession and I’m happy enough to say that I’ve improved as an educator. That’s not to suggest that I was a bad teacher during Year One, rather I was a beginner teacher with limited experience, a teacher prepared to take chances, make mistakes, reflect and learn. I’m still prepared to do all of those things but what’s most important is that I learn from my own actions and experiences first and foremost. This would be very difficult to do if I was following someone else’s instructions. My own development as a teacher depends on how I look at my own practice.

Getting back to the creation of schemes of work or lesson plans for the purposes of dissemination to others, this is something that can tempt the newer teacher or the trainee teacher. A person in that situation won’t have the benefit of post-qualification, professional experience and may be inclined to look for a quick-fix. For the purposes of improvement and professional development, reflecting on another person’s lesson can’t compare to reflecting on your own lesson. Create your own plans, improve upon your own errors and be better off for it.

Failure, Articulation and Learning

I recently read a blog post on another primary teacher’s website about how to teach a Mathematics lesson while on Teaching Practice. While full of good intent no doubt, I found the advice to be incomplete and therefore unhelpful to the impressionable student teacher. To summarise, the advice consisted of the following:

  • Play a game;
  • Demonstrate the problem in front of the class, step by step;
  • Get some children to try it;
  • Set an active task and include group work if possible;
  • Ask some children what they have learned.

On first glance, this might look okay. Many teachers may have started out in their careers teaching Mathematics this way. However, experience; reflection; and professional development have taught me differently. I don’t claim to be the ultimate authority on teaching, but at this stage of my career I can identify a flawed process.

The main issue I have with this lesson is its lack of discussion at the beginning of the lesson – the discussion, limited as it is, is tucked away at the end of the suggested lesson. Mathematics is ultimately a mental activity where the goal is to be able to think automatically about what skill needs to be used to solve a problem. The beginning of a Mathematics lesson should be an opportunity for children to talk about what they already know and to incorporate a new problem into the discussion. At this stage the children should be encouraged to think. The quickest and most effective way to make sure that this is happening is to encourage the children to articulate their thinking.

This is where failure comes in. The children should be encouraged to say what they think, without fear of failure. Where mistakes are made, lessons are learned. This can be done in a comfortable way for children, not by saying “that’s right” or “that’s wrong” but rather by asking them how they worked out their answer, what skills they chose and why, regardless of the answer they give. Teaching is about a lot more than ‘chalk and talk’ – it is about encouraging children to be problem-solvers. Finally, instead of just asking the children what they have learned, ask them how they learned it and why they think it will be useful. The quality of learning suffers when it is confined to the ‘repeat after me’ approach.

Spanish Language Challenge – Six Weeks Later

Six weeks ago, I wrote about my desire to learn a new language. I chose to learn Spanish and I discussed how I planned to do this. I initially planned on using a combination of Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, SpanishPod101.com podcasts, the HelloTalk app and conversation groups in my local library. I have whittled this down to Rosetta Stone, sporadic use of HelloTalk and a weekly Spanish conversation group in Raheny Library every Monday night from 6:30pm to 8:00pm.

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My Annual Language Challenge

It has been an ambition of mine for many years to learn a new language. I currently speak Gaeilge and English fluently, and I learned some very basic French during my time in secondary school. I can just about hold a very simple, practical conversation in French. After 6 years of learning French, this disappoints me. It would be very easy for me to lay blame everywhere and anywhere other than at myself, but that wouldn’t be productive. Anyway, that’s not what this blog post is about. After much reading online about learning languages, I have decided to learn a new language every year (for the next few years anyway).

I have decided to begin by learning Spanish because I love how it sounds. My goal is to spend at least 30 minutes a day engaging with a language learning activity and to be able to hold a normal conversation in Spanish at the end of 3 months. I have made a few attempts in the past with Spanish, but due to lack of engagement or lack of motivation, I have never progressed beyond some basics.

My plan is to use what is currently available to me. About 5 years ago, I purchased all 5 levels of the Rosetta Stone language learning programme (for a considerable price) and as mentioned previously, I started with the basics of it but didn’t take it any further. I will return to this programme and I will commit to sticking with it and seeing it through. I’m also using the Duolingo app as well as listening to podcasts from SpanishPod101.com in an effort to learn the language on the go, or while just relaxing on the couch. Finally, but most importantly, I plan to engage in a language exchange with a native speaker. In today’s connected world, this will be relatively easy to do, and I will be availing of the HelloTalk app to assist me with this. I’ll also seek out conversation groups in my local libraries. This element of langauge learning should never be overlooked due to the fact that a language is useless in isolation! I can study it all I want, but if I never use it for a real purpose, my goal will be doomed to failure.

The only real issue I have with Duolingo and SpanishPod101 is that they are translation-based. This is more of a failing for Duolingo as it is an audio-visual app and could have easily avoided it during the design process, but is less avoidable for SpanishPod101 as it is purely audio-based and meaning must be made somehow.

The reason I think that Rosetta Stone will be my best language-learning experience (outside of actual real conversation) is that there is no translation – it is all done in the target language with visual and audio aids. It also comes with a handy USB headset which can be used to input your own speech so that pronunciation is analysed and either accepted or rejected from the point of view of being allowed to progress.

Based on the advice of Benny Lewis, I have decided to be as public as I can be about my language learning – it’ll be a lot more difficult to make excuses to give up on it if I tell everyone about it!

As a positive side-effect to learning a new language, I will be firmly in the shoes of the learner, which will give me a richer insight into what it can be like for children to learn a language – specifically the difficulties, frustrations and challenges they face. As a primary school teacher, this sort of insight will be of great benefit to my approach to children as they learn Irish, as well as to children whose first language is not English.

I will revisit this topic in one month with an update on my progress! If anyone knows of any useful (and free) Spanish language-learning aids, please share by leaving a comment and let me know.

Teaching Council Elections 2016

For those of you who know me well or who worked with me around four years ago, you’ll know that I took a chance and unsuccessfully ran in the Teaching Council elections for the Dublin constituency back in early 2012. I can categorically state that I will not be running in the 2016 elections. However, the experience taught me something. Apathy among teachers towards the Teaching Council was massive.

Last time around, between 7% and 8% of all registered teachers in Ireland voted in the elections. I can’t say I blame the 92% of teachers who decided not to vote. Apathy was a huge issue 4 years ago and I don’t believe that much has changed since then. The difference this year is that TC registration is now compulsory for all teachers and voting will be online for the first time, instead of a postal ballot which was the case previously. It will be interesting to see how this affects apathy and subsequent engagement with the voting process.

Some prospective candidates have already made their intentions clear via social media, which is to be commended. Although registering as a candidate won’t officially commence until early January, there’s no harm in preparing early and getting word out there. My hope for this round of candidates is that there will be a significant difference between those that have gone before them and what they will be able to offer us for the next 4 years. The only reason I know the names of some elected members of the Teaching Council is because I was heavily involved in the process 4 years ago. To the average teacher, they may not know the names of their elected members, that there even was an election 4 years ago, or that there is one coming up in February. Lack of communication between the TC and teachers was a talking point for many when candidates put themselves forward previously. If the next group of elected members are to even hope to change that, they must focus on putting that sort of talk into action.

I plan on revisiting this topic in the New Year, when candidates have been confirmed. I have something interesting in mind so watch this space!


Do University Lecturers Teach?

My undergraduate education began in 2002 when I enrolled in University College Dublin to study Gaeilge and Music (Information Studies during my first year). I only wish I had written this blog post or jotted down my thoughts on the topic of ‘Do University Lecturers Teach?’ back then as certain things get lost from memory to time.

What I do remember quite clearly though is bad teaching. This is not to suggest that every lecturer was bad at teaching, there were some inspirational ones, but the bad ones stood out then and still do now. How do I define a bad lecturer? I’ll confine this to my undergraduate experience as my postgraduate experiences were quite different.

A bad lecturer reads from the €70 book that is on the required reading list for the module. This can last for the full ‘lecture’ and offers no opportunity for engagement from the students, as well as no audio/visual aids or examples to enhance instruction.

A bad lecturer in a small group setting will make no effort to discuss the topic. To me a discussion is a conversation between two or more people. A bad lecturer’s view of teaching is talking from the top of his intellect with an expectation that students will learn something from this.

A good lecturer interacts. He asks relevant questions. He answers questions thoughtfully. He invites opinions. He invites disagreement. He invites debate. He invites correction! Fortunately, I got to see this in action on a few occasions.

I’m a firm believer that every third-level employee who has lecturing hours should be required to undertake a mandatory course in teaching/lecturing skills. Some universities offer such a course (UCDMaynooth; and there are probably more), however it is not a mandatory requirement for the lecturing staff.

I believe the outcomes of such a course for lecturers would be of most benefit to students in their first year of study. The transition from school to third level can be a tricky one for some, and if such people experienced good quality lecturing in the initial stages, the potential for dropping out could be lowered. There’s always the argument that the student in university is in charge of his own learning, and I agree to a point. But when there’s a job to be done by lecturers, it should be done properly, and not merely as an afterthought.

Mathematics in MIE – A Summer Course Review

Every year I make an effort to return to Marino Institute of Education to do one of their summer courses and I’ve always been impressed. Two of the courses I’ve been most impressed with have been Brendan Culligan’s ‘Learning Difficulties – Literacy’ and David Ruddy’s online ‘Teacher and the Law’.

This year I decided to do ‘Observing Teaching, Children and Mathematics’, with Dr. Seán Delaney as course tutor. I originally tried to enrol in this course 3 years ago but that particular course ended up not going ahead that year. This year I was delighted that it did. If you ever consider booking this course in the future, here are a few reasons why you should do it:

  1. Participants get to observe real teaching for 2 hours per day. For 1 hour before and 1 hour after, course participants discuss what’s to come and what has been observed. This is not a 20-hour course on the theory of teaching mathematics. It is theory in practice.
  2. There is as much focus on the teaching as there is on how each pupil learns. The fact that primary school pupils attend these sessions means that course participants can immediately take note of anything interesting to discuss or make comments on later in the day when the pupils have left.
  3. Course participants can contribute to what shape the following session may take by raising this during the final hour’s feedback session.

Our course tutor was quick to point out this was not to be seen as ‘model’ teaching, rather it was ‘public’ teaching. This is an important point in that this summer course is a teaching ‘lab’ of sorts, and that participants are free to question why the course tutor did what he did, in fact this was encouraged by our course tutor at the beginning of our first day. We also had opportunities to discuss the pupils’ reactions to Seán’s various approaches to the topics taught throughout the week and how we thought they learned best.

What I noticed most from this course was that the tutor strongly encouraged ‘mathematical thinking’ amongst the primary school pupils present. There was very little ‘instructing’ them how to do something and the majority of the pupils’ learning came from their own discovery through collaboration, discussion and investigation. It would be safe to say that the course tutor allowed the pupils to do most of the talking. The massive benefit of this was that through the development of mathematical thinking skills, they could use this way of thinking to apply to future mathematical problems, as opposed to memorising something that they were being ‘taught’ by the simplest (and worst) of methodologies – explanation. Memorising something is very unreliable and does not encourage real mathematical thinking and problem-solving skills.

I would highly recommend this summer course to absolutely any primary school teacher. It is not something that could be done online, the benefits of this course can only be realised through an onsite environment. You’ll learn the foundations of mathematics knowledge and methodologies during your initial teacher training, but you’ll learn a great deal more about how children learn mathematics if you sign up to this course. It’s definitely worth it.

CPD in Marino Institute of Education

PME vs HDipEd: Should Postgraduate Teacher Training be at Level 9 – A Primary Perspective

From September 2014, any postgraduate trainee teacher just starting their course would have enrolled on a 2-year Professional Master of Education (Level 9 degree on the NFQ). Prior to this, the 18-month Higher/Graduate Diploma in Education (NFQ Level 8) was sufficient. The change for undergraduate trainee teachers was that all B.Ed. courses must increase from 3 years to 4 years (remains at NFQ Level 8). Overall, there is no difference to what each course trains you to do.

The change from Level 8 to Level 9 for the postgraduate courses raises some issues.

  1. From June 2016, the first cohort of PMEs will qualify. They will battle it out with other PMEs and many B.Ed.s for any bit of teaching work they can get their hands on. Will PMEs be deemed to be ‘higher qualified’ than B.Ed.s based on having their training set at a higher level on the NFQ? Will there be a visible divide on this basis? Interestingly, the PMEs’ teacher training will be of a shorter duration.
  2. Will PMEs, during the course of their training, be expected to pitch their work for assessment at a higher level than their B.Ed. equivalents, due to being one step higher on the NFQ? Will this result in making it more difficult to pass the PME or to achieve a good result?
  3. Will a PME be deemed to be equivalent to an M.Ed., M.A., M.Sc. etc. in terms of academic progression? For teachers considering doctoral studies, will the PME fulfil the requirement to hold a master’s degree?

This creates two-tier teacher training. Teachers qualified at both levels will be trained to do the same job but there will not be equivalence of experience, achievement or outcome. A master’s degree should have a strong research element and while the PME (and now the B.Ed.) will have a minor dissertation element, I do not believe that it is comparable. An M.Ed. requires a number of years of teaching experience as a pre-requisite to entry into the course so that students will have a solid grounding in educational practice, therefore they will be deemed capable of presenting their work at a higher level. This will be missing for PME students.

Whatever the arguments are for or against lengthening these training courses, the big issue here is the reclassification to master’s level. All these issues could have been avoided if the new two-year course was still classified as a Higher/Graduate Diploma in Education at NFQ Level 8. There is no reason why this could not have been the case. Next year we will begin to see the implications of this decision.