Writing your PME Dissertation

It is around this time of year that students in their second year of the various Professional Master of Education courses launch properly into the writing and supervision processes of their 10,000-word dissertations. With many competing workload demands, it may seem difficult to dedicate the proper amount of time to this responsibility. I have given some thought to this element of the PME course and have compiled some tips in order to assist students. Continue reading

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.

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

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.

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.